Shock. Horror. Fear. Incredulity. Switching channels back and forth, CNN to MSNBC and back again. The images: kids queuing up to see a midnight show of a popular movie. An awesome movie, a movie we’ve all been waiting to see. A normal thing, a happy thing, a teenaged fun thing, hang out with your friends, wait in line, chattering with anticipation. My daughter and her friends did it just the other night, went to a midnight showing of Katy Perry’s concert movie. We teased her about it: ‘ooo, Katy Perry, well!’ She stood up for herself. They went, they had a great time. It’s what kids do.
Yesterday morning, I woke up, and my daughter told me and we spent the morning watching. CNN. MSNBC. Looking for some bewilderment slightly more enlightening than what we felt.
From now on, when we think of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises, that film, that massive artistic achievement, will carry with it an unwanted association with actual mass murder, not artistically rendered violence, but actual murder, like the Beatles’ Helter Skelter does for those of us who remember Charles Manson.
It’s incomprehensible. Theologically–God clearly does allow this, this is clearly something God could prevent and doesn’t. This is in His plan, like earthquakes and tsunamis. And Dr. King and Gandhi and the letter from Birmingham. Psychological–lots of people with serious mental illness do not go on shooting sprees. Political–we want to make sense of it, and so we fall back on old hardened positions. ‘Gun control!’ ‘No, no, don’t you dare: Second Amendment!’
Holmes purchased his weapons legally, he quite possibly seemed sane enough to pass a background check, had one been required. He purchased two handguns, a semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun within a few weeks, purchases that would have been illegal in states other than Colorado, but which would have been legal, say, in Utah, where I live. But the idea of exploiting this event for political purposes seems sickeningly cynical right now, and the pressure to change gun laws will dissipate each day that passes, and be gone in a week. We want to talk about gun control so we don’t have to talk about far more unanswerable questions. We want to cling to the illusion that we’re Doing Something.
Right now, we don’t know anything, we don’t know why a med student with good grades and no criminal record would go nuts like this. If he went nuts. The language we use is the language of mental illness. He ‘went nuts.’ He’s a ‘nutbag.’ He would have to be crazy, we think. That’s the language of our day, our way of distancing ourselves from the unfathomable depths of evil. It’s an aberration, a guy flipping out, a guy losing it.
But we know how carefully he plotted it. He calls himself ‘The Joker,’ and he seems to have planned the event around a lethal punch line to a murderous joke–the booby-trapped apartment. He intended to take cops with him. As though he wanted to make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud.
In Downfall, Bruno Ganz plays Hitler in his last days, and in one scene talks about the human cost of ordering the Holocaust. It’s difficult, he says, to set aside one’s human feelings. It’s hard. It’s certainly necessary, or you wouldn’t be able to bring yourself to do it. But it’s never easy. You have to decide to do it. When I was in high school, I went to New York with some friends, and we climbed to the top of our hotel room, and stood on the 74th floor ledge. Stood there, looking down. And I remember how it felt. Part of me wanting to jump. Feeling sick at my stomach, because part of me wanted to jump.
At the grocery store yesterday, I saw a family shopping, Mom, Dad, four little boys. The two oldest boys were running around, hiding behind food displays, shooting at each other with finger-pistols. “Pyooo pyooo,” they’d go. “Pyooo pyooo pyooo!” And then one of them died dramatically, flinging back his arms and sprawling on the floor, his brother giggling, him giggling, his poor exhausted Mom looking up: “Jeremy, come on. Cut it out.” Jeremy laughing on the floor. “But I’m dead,” he said. Mom looked exasperated. “If you guys will cool it, I’ll buy some ice cream.” Kids, kidding around. “Pyooo pyooo pyooo.”
And the movie industry is about the creation of fantasies, primarily fantasies for audiences of young men, fantasies of consequence-less violence, endlessly exciting athletic prowess at violence, followed by the promise of astonishing sexuality. Awesome fight scenes, hot girls. And they’ve been constructing such fantasies, filling summers with them, since the phenomenal success of the first ‘summer action movie,’ Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Thirty years ago.
And, fact, instances of violence in our society has been on a long and steady decline, our society measurably less violent today than ever before in our history, and that decline can be said to have begun more or less thirty years ago.
And Dark Knight Rises has a scene in which the crowd at a football game is randomly and viciously slaughtered.
Kids went to a movie, and terrible things happened, and we saw the best in human nature, first responders putting their lives at risk, people shielding other people as the shooter mowed ’em down, and we saw the worst in human nature. And its an event that elides judgment, too horrific for answers, an event too awful for facile moralizing right or left.
So we pray. Why? What do we do? Where can we be safe? We do not know. We search for love, even here. We find it; it simultaneously escapes us. This helps. I wish I could offer you something. Comfort food: banana bread with cream cheese. Tea, maybe, or French hot chocolate. Strawberries and cream and a slice of cake.
I wish I had cake for multitudes.