Everyone’s right, and that’s what’s wrong
Time to let the chips fall where they may, and by ‘chips’ I mean ‘bodies.’
What asshole tweeted that on the morning of the Colorado “Dark Knight” shootings? I did. Auto-tweeted it from a few days before, actually, but that was still a nasty shock for me to come across on my own Twitter and Facebook five hours after the rampage which left 12 dead and 50 wounded. It took me the better part of a day to remember to take it down, too.
And yet, none of the 600+ people I know online complained. That’s probably mostly because they know me, and know, extreme crankiness and penchant for hyperbole aside, I don’t condone killing innocent people. (I’m not sure how cool I am with killing the guilty, either, but that’s for another day.)
But you, gentle reader, probably don’t know me, and at Times Like This, we all like to be reassured that there’s some agreed-upon moral compass, somewhere. Keeps society together, you know. So while it shouldn’t need to be said, I’m saying it, for the record: I’m just as horrified as anyone by what happened in Aurora, Colorado when James Eagan Holmes decided to ignore that most basic social contract and take the lives of other human beings, people who went to their death with nothing more on their minds than whether or not The Dark Knight Rises could possibly live up to its two prequels.
However, that hasn’t stopped me from making jokes At A Time Like This, though I’m always careful to make jokes around the tragedy – that is, my snark isn’t nudging you in the side and snickering because people died, but because we’ve all been here way too many times by now, and nothing is being done. This was not a unprecedented game changer like 9/11; Columbine happened 13 years and 13 miles away from Aurora. What we get instead is what we’ve come to expect – pundits scoring points and an awful lot of cheap sympathy from people with no memory, people who somehow perceive these deaths as different from the 15,000 other firearm homicides that occur in the US every year, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of other people dying young around the world every day. Did you hear? A movie theater! I was gonna go to one later today! I live near there! That could have happened to me!
Yes. Yes, it could have. So it behooves us, as they say, to understand what happened – not to have a group hug, not to beat each other’s heads in, not even to panic, but to do something we don’t place much of a premium on in today’s society, and to calm down, sit down, and think.
One of the things that happens At A Time Like This is an epidemic of what is called “politicizing the tragedy.” This is so named because it’s as ugly and self-serving as politics always is, but you don’t have to blame liberals or conservatives for these deaths. You can blame gay marriage; that’s a hot-button issue. Or maybe just blame the victims! Some folks even politicize politicizing, claiming it’s legitimate to ask questions in order to prevent further tragedies. I agree, as it turns out, but only when it comes to the verifiable causes of a reoccurring tragedy. Let’s confine ourselves to what was relevant at the scene itself.
1. There Were Guns. Holmes had a shotgun, two handguns, and a semiautomatic “assault rifle” on him that fateful night, not to mention a few smoke bombs and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. All of the above was sold to him, through the mail and in person, without any background checks, over a period of two months. The fact that Holmes had no record prompts the pro-gun crowd to claim there was no way to stop the massacre from happening, but this is actually the clearest argument against them: when pieced together, all these purchases point clearly towards someone who planned to kill massive amounts of people. It’s the only thing such a stockpile could possibly be used for.
The other “preventative” pro-gun argument goes like this: if theater patrons had been allowed to wear guns into the theater, the shooter would have been stopped. Assuming that the result wouldn’t have been a deadly crossfire in a combined space – and you can check the Army’s own history of “friendly fire” casualties to know that’s just what would have happened – Holmes couldn’t have been stopped by handguns at any rate, because he also happened to be outfitted in body armor, including a helmet and throat protector.
The pro-gun lobby in Washington (you know, the NRA) loves to balance the prospect of a society with no guns at all against one with as many guns as possible. Even if you believe, as they do, that the latter is safer, it’s a false choice: had everyone in the theater been allowed one handgun, and only one, and had Holmes been kept to that same legal limit, the outcome of that assault would have been very different. Yes, it would have been possible for a very dedicated killer to eventually purchase all of the same items he had, but it would have reduced the likelihood severely. One of the reasons the killer had an advantage is that he left the theater through the fire exit, propped it open slightly, then re-entered after gathering his armor and weapons. Would a tougher security system have notified theater workers? Again, probably. But no one would have argued, as the gun lobby does, that there’s no point in even trying.
The Moral: In order to live in a society where you’re free to easily acquire a ridiculous stockpile of weaponry, you give that society a right to randomly kill you with a ridiculous stockpile of weaponry. When we all get to the point where we go to the movies in full body armor, the insane will show up with rocket launchers. Or homemade bombs. The reason that doesn’t happen very often in America is because those items are restricted. Try not to feel less free from knowing that.
2. There Was a Movie. In the same way that the right loses its shit when post-tragedy commentators start ramping up the conversation about common-sense restrictions on guns, the left pees its collective panties when anyone suggests that entertainment plays any kind of part. According to police, Holmes told the arresting officers he was “the Joker,” and owned a Batman mask. Witnesses claimed he timed his assault to coincide with a similar one in the film. One of them declared that the tragedy “was like a movie.” You can’t absolve The Dark Knight Rises from its own complicity. Of course Christian Bale didn’t whisper to Holmes that he should kill a theater full of innocent people, but then, the guns didn’t do that, either.
The Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy (which, full disclosure, I love) is about urban warfare. And tragedy. It establishes Batman as a vigilante with a strict no-kill policy, then sets him up against a very intriguing series of villains who have decided, for their own personal reasons, to break that old social contract and start murdering. The first film’s body count was 12, the second film’s body count was 35, and I have reason to believe the Dark Knight Rises death toll rises exponentially in its climax. Evil is attractive, and Hollywood has, for the past few decades or so, done a bang-up job of making it more so, always with the caveat that good wins out in the end. We go to films partly to be assured of that, because we know that’s not usually how it works in reality. Random crazy shit happens all the time, and frankly, we’re fascinated with it. It all reminds me of the young girls drooling over Heath Ledger’s classic turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight, a conversation which usually went something like this:
“Ooh, the Joker is sexy. I’d fuck him.”
“The Joker is a psychotic madman. If he were real, he would kill you.”
“Ooh! That’s hot.”
The moral: In order to live in a society that glamorizes evil and makes death entertaining, you give that society the right to kill you through random evil that finds your death entertaining. When killers kill, they do so for a variety of reasons, but they’re mainly attempting to make an impact, to be noticed, to reassure themselves that they have power and control. Entertainment plays upon that need. Think about the number of people you’ve seen dressed as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and then think about how many Darth Vader and Stormtrooper costumes you’ve seen.
3. There Was Madness. Certain segments of the blogosphere were rightly appalled at the instant and total clairvoyance that our nation’s experts suddenly demonstrated on the mind of James Eagan Holmes while the bullets were still cooling on the ground. However, we should be able to agree that anyone who decides to off a room full of strangers for no real reason is, by definition, antisocial. It takes a troubled mind to pull that trigger, and a troubled mind to identify with that villain. The media was even more put out by the fact that Holmes had left behind no explanation, no record, nothing but a series of chemical booby traps in his rundown apartment. (Telling the police about those traps, even though he meticulously set them to kill even more innocents, probably proves that he wasn’t in his right mind.)
Holmes’ mind, assisted by mythology and easy access to death-dealing machines, was the deadliest weapon of all. The danger in a situation like this lies in ascribing motives to ordinary things, yet everyone who knew the killer was adamant about not knowing him – he lived with his mother, said nothing to anyone, rarely smiled, and received loads of packages in the mail. He’d derailed his professional life recently, dropping out of a PhD program in a science he absolutely excelled in. And in a twist that allows both the pro- and anti-gun crowd to claim moral high ground, he was barred from membership in a local gun club after leaving a “bizarre” answering machine message.
Clearly the signs were there, especially if added up. But we tend to do that only after the fact, like a patient who waits until it’s too late to find out what that lump is. No one who attempted conversation, not even his mother or the man at the gun club, attempted to alert other humans to the strange behavior. America thinks of itself, far too often, as a nation of individuals, not an interdependent community. After all, it’s his right to live how he wants, you know? I’m not my brother’s keeper. I’m way too busy to try and engage random people in opening up, or to talk to others about someone who appears troubled. It’s not my problem.
The moral: In order to live in a society that ignores other people, you give those people the opportunity to make sure you never forget them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to take away your guns or movies or privacy. I myself would prefer to live in a country where the most extreme of us are slightly, and I do mean slightly, less armed, less fascinated by destruction, and less isolated. But since we seem determined not to do that, I reserve the right to decline your group hug every few months when this shit happens, to mock your punditry and decline your ribbons, to ignore your pleas for more this and more that in the service of less thinking, less understanding, and ultimately less actual caring. So please don’t get upset if I tread on your sensibilities as I head for the door. Most of the people I know won’t.