If there’s anything that illustrates the term “kneejerk liberal,” it would be the immediate assumption, this weekend, that the Batman shootings required a national debate about gun control. As has been reported elsewhere, Friday’s “assailant” (I profoundly respect Steve Erickson’s refusal to do him the honor of using his name) used not just a semiautomatic rifle, gas canisters, a rifle, and a pistol in a theater, but also jury-rigged bombs to boobytrap his own apartment. (The Associated Press reports that he's refusing to talk to police, so he's at least minimally sane, realizing there is no way to explain what he's done.) Yes, banning assault weapons and all the rest would be useful. So would background checks, the end of gun-show loopholes, and so on. But it wouldn't have stopped this particular killer, who had nothing in his record to suggest he was troubled or troubling. It wouldn't have stopped others like him.
Anonymous shootings and public bombings for some obscure and unbalanced personal grievance or grudge are a communicable disease, an ugly meme passed on from one unsteady loner—almost always male—to another. Even though I believe that by writing about it I am helping to pass on the infection, I can’t stop thinking about the shootings. I don’t know if we have a culture of violence; as Jamelle Bouie writes, violent crimes of all kinds have been dropping steadily, for reasons no one understands. Yet we do have this particular sickness, this mass-murder sickness, that we can't stop. We know that suicides are contagious: If someone in a community kills himself or herself, others in that community are more likely to do so in the aftermath. So it is with these eruptions of public, grudging violence, from the University of Texas tower shootings to Virginia Tech. You could tie it to bullying (as with Columbine), or domestic violence (many spree killers start by stalking or killing girlfriends or wives), or veterans with PTSD, or any number of things (see Garance Franke-Ruta's chillingly accurate outline of the ordinarily choreographed public discussion). All those are real concerns, but they don't get at the core problem.
I imagined that the fear of copycat killings would keep people away from Batman this weekend, in tremendous numbers. But no: According to The New York Times, the movie took in about $162 million over the weekend, besting the previous and insanely popular Batman movie. As one fan site wrote, “as movie fans, we can’t let the act of one lunatic spoil enjoyment of our favorite art form. It’s now a shame that The Dark Knight Rises will always be associated with such a tragic event, but the film speaks for itself.” That shocked me. How could you go see a movie that had been baptized in violent death?
Because I think of these killings as so peculiarly American, I was surprised to learn that pointless spree or rampage killings do take place worldwide. The Norway killer, of course, was motivated by crazed hatred of immigrants. But Martin Bryant in Tasmania, Australia had no such motivation. Nor did William Unek in Africa. Brazil, Nepal, South Africa, China, Germany, Finland, India, Israel, Russia, Canada—they've all had them. For decades, men have randomly gone on rage-fueled killing sprees. We try to analyze them afterward to make some sense of them and protect ourselves. It doesn't work.
Americans do dominate the list of most lethal killing sprees, which we experience disproportionately to our numbers. How can we stop passing on this infection? We certainly can't presumptively incarcerate every man who fits the rather broad list of characteristics that we all know by now—the loner misfit who carries a closely nursed grudge against the boss, against a woman, against society at large. I do have a dear friend whose relative shot himself; in reading his private writings afterwards, my friend realized with sickened shock that he could, instead, easily have gone on a shooting spree. I knew him and agreed, equally sick to my stomach, as it hadn't occurred to me in advance either. This character disorder is only truly visible in hindsight.
I am not arrogant enough to suggest that I have answers for this peculiar illness. But I do have grief.
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