08/01/2012 02:51 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Empathy for a Killer?

As the bizarre courtroom faces of James Holmes start appearing in newspapers alongside the beautiful lost faces of the twelve people he allegedly killed, I wonder: is it possible for feel empathy for a person capable of such senseless violence?

I think the answer is that it depends, and what it depends on is the larger story of James Holmes, and what that story tells us about this 24-year-old suspected killer, and, by extension, ourselves.

To be clear, there is no excuse for what people like the Aurora shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did. We all deserve to be judged by our actions, and there is nothing more damning than the decision to casually extinguish the lives of complete strangers. That fact is beyond debate.

Yet it is also true that too often, we reduce the most violent among us to two-dimensional caricatures, and allow ourselves to create a safe distance between what they did and what their actions say about who we are as a people, and what we allow to endure.

Take the killers at Columbine. Dave Cullen was among the first wave of reporters to cover that story. He spent the next ten years investigating the event, and the teenage boys that caused it. As he wrote in the New York Times:

Perpetrators of mass murder are usually nothing like our conceptions of them. They are nothing like a vision of pure evil. They are complicated.

Mr. Harris kept a sort of journal for an entire year, focused largely on his plan to blow up his school and mow down survivors with high-powered rifles. Mr. Klebold kept a more traditional journal for two years, spewing a wild array of contradictory teen angst and deep depression, grappling seriously with suicide from the very first page.

"Audiences are never surprised by the journal of Mr. Harris," Cullen points out. "It's hate-hate-hate all the way through. He was a coldblooded psychopath, in the clinical use of that term. He had no empathy, no regard for human suffering or even human life."

But Mr. Klebold's journal tells another, more complicated story. He was tormented, confused, and ferociously angry -- not at jocks, as the traditional reporting of the event suggested, but himself. "What a loathsome creature he found himself. No friends, no love, not a soul who cared about him or what became of his miserable life. None of that is objectively true. But that's what he saw."

It's still unclear if James Holmes entered that theater in Colorado because he was mentally ill, like Seung-Hui Cho, because he was psychopathic, like Eric Harris, or because he was consumed with anger and self-loathing, like Dylan Klebold. Yet one thing is painfully clear: while we mourn the dead in Colorado and wonder how such evil can exist in our midst, this tragedy must spark more in us than mere anger at the killer. It must remind us that we as a society are the ones who made it possible for an individual to acquire 6,000 rounds of ammunition without notice or concern. It must remind us that there are many whose illnesses, left untreated and untended, could lead them down the most destructive of paths. And it must remind us how explosively hopeless and isolating the feelings of invisibility and voicelessness can be.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, violence is the language of the unheard. I say it's time we accepted the responsibility of listening with a more empathetic ear.