Many will theorize about the motives of the lone gunman who, wearing a bulletproof vest, carried two handguns and a rifle into a suburban Denver movie cinema and opened fire at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises.
At least 12 people are dead and as many as 50 injured.
Some will, no doubt, claim that late-night showings of movies involving masked avengers and incorporating violence are to blame. Some will bemoan the playing out on screen of hyperbolic themes related to good and evil, claiming that these tides of meaning can sweep some people away and turn them into killers.
I don’t agree. Batman didn’t cause this shooting. The very real man who opened fire on moviegoers did. And while it is true that a darkened movie theater at midnight, showing a much-anticipated film to a packed audience, can attract someone intent on violence, football stadiums can, too. Restaurants can. Political events can. (Case in point: Gabby Giffords).
Having worked for a few decades as a forensic psychiatrist, evaluating many murderers, I have found that the roots of their violence always reach back to early chapters in their life histories and involve themes of feeling unloved or unwanted, or being overtly exposed to psychological or physical abuse, including bullying. These factors, along with the psychiatric disorders they spawn (including substance dependence), can crush a person’s empathy—“freeing” him or her to commit horrific acts.
Just think about recent shootings that have plagued our nation. They have occurred on college campuses, in the workplace, at a grocery store and, now, at a movie theater. The places change. The core psychological dynamics fueling the carnage do not.
While media can indeed accelerate and accentuate the chasm between emotion and behavior, short-circuiting empathy, the Dark Knight trilogy is, I believe, far less toxic than local television news, which demands that viewers focus first on death or destruction, then shifts instantly to sports and the weather. The same is true for newspapers that carry news of economic calamity, along with comic strips and horoscopes. That sort of emotional whiplash, which suggests that nothing tragic is really a tragedy, that the funnies or a spectacular catch are just a moment away, and just as important as a child being kidnapped by a predator, truly has a better chance of further eroding the emotional stability of a psychologically unstable person.
Censorship would do exactly nothing to prevent violence. It might, in fact, increase violence as people feel more controlled and less free to speak their minds and manifest their imaginations.
No, this is a new story that will remind us of old agendas. We must be more vigilant to notice those among us who are descending into darkness—not because they say they like Batman, but because they tell us or show us that they are contemplating turning the darkness inside them inside out, transmuting their sense of having been destroyed, into the destruction of others.
Whoever killed and wounded dozens of people just after midnight on July 20, 2012, will be someone who has hinted more than once at his potential for violence and who has known emotional or physical violence very well, for a very long time.