Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Very Dark Night

The influence of Batman in American popular culture is pervasive. Small children wear Batman and Robin costumes  and engage in make-believe role-playing.  They carry lunch boxes and wear tee shirts embossed with the Batman logo. They play with action figures….

And adults take part too, wearing those tees and even masks and costume gear, as they pack movie theatres to see Batman action movies, such as “A Dark Knight Rises,'” the third in a popular series, where the hero battles with evil villains, known for the mass murder and mayhem they cause.

So, it is perhaps not surprising that the audience in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, did not initially consider it alarming when a shadowy figure, James Eagan Holmes, walked in, his hair dyed red and wearing combat gear, dressed up as a Batman nemesis – The Joker. Many audience members at first saw him as some sort of special effect -- a part of the suspense and entertainment of the movie.

That is, until he released a fog-like cloud .… and started shooting, becoming a real-life incarnation of the movie series' maniacal fiend, who plunged the streets of Gotham City (or in this case, the movie theatre) into complete chaos. The fantasy violence in the highly touted film that was supposed to entertain became horrific reality. A “fictional character” in the series disturbingly came “to life,” armed with 4 guns, killing 12 people, and leaving about 60 wounded.

Public reaction to the mass killing was the expected shock at its senselessness. How often, one must ask, does this type of mass killing, yes murder, have to keep happening in our “civilized” nation, before we finally pay attention?  We have yet to get over the tragic killing of six and wounding of others, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, in Tucson Arizona. And what about the shooting spree at Columbine High School, which is just 20 miles away from Aurora? Since 1982, we have had 27 events resulting in mass killings by crazed gunmen.  Sadly, unlike democracies, such as Britain, Canada, France, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan, Americans continue to be the exception, insisting on their right to carry guns above other considerations like public safety.

Yet it seems to me that there is an even larger problem. It is in our values. We are a culture that glorifies guns and violence. We see it in the movies, on television, in video games. This particular movie was only rated PG-13, yet viewers were cautioned about “intense sequences of violence and some menace.” The movie was banned in Sweden. Clearly, unlike other countries, our nation views violence as entertainment. The same goes for the very toys American children play with that are mostly license-driven, that is, based on characters from action films or television series. Unlike European toys, they favor even violent entertainment, over education.  It follows that our innocent kids grow up infatuated with Batman gear and get-up.

As for the obviously deluded Holmes, it was just one step for him from fictional role-playing to killing in real life. Having guns readily available made all the difference. I do not believe it is possible for a "civilized" world to see him as anything other than a very deranged product of  a particularly American brand of popular culture that celebrates guns and violence.

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