Colo. massacre: Where were the superheroes?

Let’s look at a number of factors that may have put this particular attacker at such an advantage that almost no spontaneous resistance could be effective


The endless analysis begins before the blood-stained theatre seats have grown cold. I am long past being tempted to explain an insane or evil killer and from first glance it is unlikely that police and emergency response will yield much valid criticism since by all appearances first responders were amazing.

But what about the audience of hapless sheep submitting to the slaughter? Where were the heroes among those watching a story about a fictional savior from crime and corruption? I suspect that there were many. We know of at least three — Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves — who died while shielding their girlfriends from the hail of gunfire in the theatre.

Despite the images of screaming stampedes of humans driven by pure fear, accounts from past public disasters assure us that people behave a lot more normally and rationally that we might at first believe. Let’s look at a number of factors that may have put this particular attacker at such an advantage that almost no spontaneous resistance could be effective.

Expectations and Mental State
A recreational setting is perfect for a dulled and lulled victim set. Who could expect anything other than a fun a relaxed atmosphere at a movie, at midnight, with a surrealistic futuristic comically bizarre set of characters? A subtle expectation of some new twist at this particular show may have opened the mind of those attending to accept any weird occurrence — almost like walking through a Halloween spook house.

Everything that was within the realm of a possible normal entertainment value would be accepted by the mind as a non-threat. We cannot blame anyone for being unprepared for a multi-phased lethal attack that bore the surreal marks of the Batman movie itself.

Protectors of Our Own First
The police mindset is one of heroic intervention for a grand cause. In addition to the three young men we already know about, there were almost certainly others at the theatre with guardian roles who undoubtedly shielded and protected girlfriends, children, siblings, and strangers.

From the many untold stories, there are already those of quick acting persons pushing others to safety and behaving courageously.

Self-preservation is not irrational — nor is it necessarily cowardly. Seeking cover to avoid being a victim makes a world of sense. We call it taking cover and protecting in place.

Overwhelming Sensory Input
Tear gas. Dark. Loud. Flickering movie. Exploding gunshots. A fast-growing crescendo of moans and screams.

Who even among our own elite has been conditioned to operate as an aggressor against a threat in that environment?

The Element of Time
The greatest misunderstanding of civilians and police alike is the element of time.

The cry of “why didn’t you...?” is an effort for the rest of us to make sense of it. But this attack will be measured in seconds, even as we hear reports of the criminal walking calmly up the aisles picking his targets. The brain can process information and formulate a response only within the limits of time. Deaths happen with each trigger pull at a rate measurable in deaths per second in active killing scenarios. Reaction time to formulate even those must primitive of counterattacks were beyond possibility.

Those seated in the audience, as anyone who has a craving for popcorn midway through a show can recall, are in a confined space of obstacles. Distances to target from victim to criminal would turn any single person to rush the killer into a pop-up target for the formidable weaponry in the killer’s hand. There was no time to coordinate a group effort to rush the madman. Recruiting an able bodied team of persons accepting probable death was impossible.

Lessons Learned
I sigh as I think of the fresh paranoia and second guessing that will spray across the country in the months to come. As civilians look to us for answers and insight, let’s be careful to acknowledge not only the outstanding heroism of our brothers and sisters in uniform, but also the survivors in theatre nine.

Overwhelmed by a calculated tangle of evil in a vicious senseless attack, survivors will point to moments of courage and compassion marking the event and its aftermath. We mourn the dead and rage against the slaughter.

But let us not forget to salute the heroic human spirit — not the one on the screen in a cheesy costume — but the real ones around us. 

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults

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  3. Terrorism Prevention and Response
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