The Dawning of a Blood-Red Day: Violence and Heroism in Colorado
by NORMAN SIMMS
July 27, 2012
Here is another variation on the great Festival of Blood that more and more people take part in, many against their wills, and often enough not knowing what they are supposed to be celebrating. This time it was performed at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. As the police investigate and the records of the shooter's past emerge, it would be precipitous to venture specific explanations based on his motivations conscious and unconscious. All we can do at the moment, in this instant before the picture becomes clear-or perhaps it would be better to say, before the picture is constructed that fits with the needs of the local judicial and political system.
First, then, the time and the place, the occasion and the setting for the performance. People gathered for a midnight opening of the new film The Dark Knight Rising, the third and perhaps the last in a trilogy of Batman films. It was a festive occasion, for some doubly and triply so. The midnight debut in Aurora was out of the ordinary and the new cinematic entertainment anticipated by months of Hollywood hype. Those who went to the movie theatre were excited and happy. Many dressed up in costumes as one or other of the characters in the Batman saga. They went individually, but more often in small groups of friends, lovers, families. For the very young it was an exciting time to stay up late, go into the darkness of the night, and then join the happy throng also eager to watch the new film, to mingle with the crowd. Some were also celebrating a birthday or a return home after a period away, some who had been away at war. It was a long hot, dry and frightening summer with huge forest fires not too far away in Colorado Springs. For ordinary people the great recession was still a threat, so that one could all too easily lose one's job, one's house, one's sense of stability in the world, and for the young one's hopes in the future. So what a great time to lose oneself in fantasy and carnival at least for a single night!
The fantasy of the cinematic show would celebrate the triumph of good over evil after playing on their emotions, all by now quite formulaic, of villains seeming to get the upper hand and normal security arrangements not up to meeting the challenge, and the hence the need for a quasi-supernatural rescue by an idealized hero, this time expected to come out of retirement. This was not the kind of adventure movie to look at home alone watching television in one's own familiar living-room, but one everyone wanted to see on a big screen in a crowd at a special time set apart from the ordinary. It was a time to dress up, eat special foods (big cups of popcorn and sodas), to hiss at the baddies and cheer on the good guys.
There are thus three stages here in the formation of the festival of blood. In the first, the young shooter dressed in Joker hair-do and military gear emerges into the film: the audience exclaim as the gas canisters are thrown and the shooting starts that they thought it was part of the show. Then the mad villain merges back into the film, the audience realizing the difference between the fantasy on the screen and the horror in their midst, with real heroes appearing to protect their friends and loved ones. In the third, the process of police capture, legal indictment and judicial inquiry begin. In a sense, this turns the unbelievable event back into believable conditions, the all too familiar formula of mass shooting, the arguments over the need for or rejection of gun controls in America, the question of what charges to bring and how to defend the serial killer or internal terrorist (and sanity or insanity defence, and shades of Anders Brevers' Norwegian nightmares). There is also the epilogue of public mourning and political handwringing.
If all this happened centuries ago in a faraway place with only must manuscripts to scrutinize we would be struck by the words and images: Aurora, the dawn, matching the name of the Batman film; the red colour of the Colorado state and river and the blood spilled in the movie theatre; the conflation of costumed-masked hero and the depersonalized well-armed warrior villain (whom SWAT team members first thought was one of their own). There would also be the midnight meeting of masqueraders to watch in darkness as the film is projected on the screen, the rescue teams in various uniforms of police, firemen, ambulance drivers, and reporters and television crews race to stop the massacre and tend to the wounded, the relatives and friends who gather to light candles, offer flowers of remembrance and support one another in their grief.
After the fact, in the cold light of day, in the neutralized space of the courtroom, the perpetrator looks like a bewildered child, a fool with hair dyed orange and red, eyes popping from his head, wild stare and sleepy lack of attention. But no one laughs, except perhaps out of the nervousness of seeing such a monster stripped to powerlessness. The cunning, mad scientist who was writing his PhD on brain development is now dumb, unresponsive, befuddled. His own parents already mourn for his wasted life, out of their shame and humiliation, as though he were already a ghost, a zombie, and the walking dead.
But we do not live a thousand or more years ago. We live in the here and now and in parlous times. There is no luxury of time for mythical and iconographical speculations, except insofar as they offer us insight into what is happening and how we may protect ourselves and those we care about, because, truth to tell, normal pragmatic means do not seem to provide the understanding we crave. As unfashionable as it may sound, we face forces of evil ranged against us.
But what is evil and how does it work? For one thing, evil is that deep, endemic power that emerges into the world when - for reasons that are legion - wishing to destroy all those demons inside them that they project into the people we love and the institutions, imperfect as they are, that we have established to work out our lives in.
For another, it is an insidious, subtle and cunning perversion of the language developed out of science, philosophy and aesthetics that once carried significance concerned with truth, justice and beauty, but has now being used to undermine our ideals, to set up smoke screens against both our own experience in the world and the vast richness of traditional knowledge we used to rely on being there in libraries, schools and communal memories: all now is denied by the post-modernistic notions that there is no truth, only a multitude of individualized and conflicting perceptions ("positionalities"), privileging the supposedly downtrodden, oppressed and colonized), and that justice is meant to redress past wrongs instead of balancing out and mending current crimes and misunderstandings. Responsibility has been replaced by entitlement therefore. Another variant has it that we are and all that we do is determined by our genes, and then history itself-the history we are living in right now, with all its potentialities and all its inequalities-is determined; and yet at the same time, we can make it all better-we can, we can, we can-if we only shout loud enough for help from those in power, a power that they don't deserve because we don't want them to have it. Out of this muddle of contradictions and assertions, spoken in a cloud of neologisms and jargon, where nothing means anything because everything equals everything else and each one's opinions are justified by wish it to be so-"and don't you diss me by saying it ain't so!"-we feel the pain, the grief and the despair of a world that is no longer subject to change through determination of the will, and all that seems possible is to hurt the other guy.
The Joker is in jail in Colorado now. He spits on his guards, he stares google-eyed and uncomprehending, not feeling the vast hurt he has caused others, and perhaps not even the shame to his own parents. Is he mad? For that, we would need to know what is normal in the world we inhabit in 2012. He planned out his actions over many months at least. If he were mad, has he always been so, or did he suddenly lose it-it being his rational coordination of thoughts to measure the inside of his mind with the outside of common sense reality? And if he did lose that it, why? Was it some genetic fault long festering in his brain or emotions and hormonal system or some sudden crack that opened up by an event in his adolescence or early manhood? Was it some experiment in his studies of brain development that made him his own Frankenstein's monster? Did he watch too many Batman movies, take too many drugs, and listen to the words of the popular songs most people just dance to? A thousand reasons, and then a thousand more, and yet at what point would that absolve him of personal responsibility-shift the responsibility on to some other individual or group or institution? Is this Joker the wild card who stands for so many other individuals' pains and humiliations, and he the chosen one to susceptible enough to all the millions of subtle demonic signals in the air that call upon us to take revenge for breaking up with a girl-friend, losing a house or a job to anonymous corporations and faceless bureaucracies? Would we have all been safer if one or a dozen theatre-goers that night had been able to take out their own weapons and shoot him at once? Is he the scapegoated victim or the black and serrated bat-cape hero swinging off the silver screen to avenge himself and all like him from the rest of us who have allowed the situation to persist?
The evil is there in our inability to find answers to what is good and evil, to how far each person is responsible for his or her own actions, in politicians who cringe before the idea of doing anything but handwringing and weeping because an election is in the offing. The evil is in the fact that, long after most of us have gone on to the next event, after the dead are buried and the wounded in body nursed back to more or less good conditions, the psychological damage will remain. The world grows more insensitive to horrors and terrorism. The newspapers and electronic media calculate the worth of a story by the numbers injured and the distance of the action from its readers' home base, not even its significance in world-historical importance. How many need to be blown up in a bus in Bulgaria, how many massacred in a Syrian village, how many killed in roadside bombs in Iraq? In the newspeak of the politically correct, there can be no just wars to rescue people from genocidal tyrants, no pre-emptive strikes against massive piles of chemical weapons, no protection of world heritage sites-any act of violence is a war crime. Reaction to persistent and intimidating missile attacks and defensive measures to prevent shoe-bombers and underpants terrorists becomes inconvenient and therefore worse than the destruction of tall buildings, subway lines and airport waiting rooms. But who is to decide? Who, indeed! That is real evil, that men and women of good will can no longer agree on the basics and fear those who take any decision.
Norman Simms is the author of Alfred Dreyfus: Man, Milieu, Mentality and Midrash (Academic Studies Press, 2011). The second volume in the series, Alfred Dreyfus: In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet and Jew (also by Academic Studies Press) was published in July 2013; and the third Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus in the Phantasmagoria (Cambridge Scholars Publisher, UK) in September 2013.