He dressed up in full battle gear, painted his hair red, chose a name of an enemy in keeping with the theme of the night and carried four weapons and some tear gas canisters. All of this in preparation to assault a theater full of patrons waiting to be entertained by the third part of a violent and dark trilogy which has made billions for its producers.
It is impossible to ignore the similarities, even if just in color scheme, between the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and those at Columbine High School. Young white males, dressed in black, randomly targeting victims, described as loners or quiet and unassuming who had never been in trouble before, choosing a setting where the victims are sitting ducks. It is impossible to ignore the similarities, it is also impossible to avoid the questions this new shooting, and the one many years ago, raise about us and the nature of American culture.
Batman: The Dark Night Rises, will make hundreds of millions of dollars as a big summer blockbuster. It follows on the heels of Spiderman and the Avengers, which also have been rewarded with huge box office receipts. These come just after the end of the Twilight Saga and the huge success of the first part of the Hunger Games. Oh, and don't forget the success and excitement generated by the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Is there a central theme which runs through all of these cultural benchmarks? Besides being huge vehicles for entertainment, what else do they have in common?
Michael Moore asked some of these questions after Columbine. He went a step further and observed something disquieting. We share a common border, language and culture with our Canadian neighbors. We are more similar than dissimilar in our two populations. Yet, the level of gun violence in Canada isn't one-tenth what it is in the United States. He added Britain, Scotland and Ireland...France, Germany and Belgium...Norway and Sweden and again the statistics are stark. None of these nations experience violence on the day-to-day level we do in this country. Why?
Back to the question about common themes...in every one of the tent-pole movies I sighted, violence, in some cases extreme violence, is a key component. It is taken to new heights in the Hunger Games where human sacrifice is used to entertain the masses and is the key to victory and freedom. Even the supposed love story of the Twilight series is wrapped in a cloak of violence. In all of these hugely successful entertainment vehicles, the message is sent and reinforced that victory over evil can only come from the use of violence.
Moore opined it is more than just our movies. He concluded we are bombarded with violent images and stories daily. The very news we watch or listen to is structured so whatever bleeds...leads. The nightly news is a daily body count on a city, county, state and national scale. We are a nation saturated and inundated with violence and with the notion it is the way to solve our problems. Even our games, the most popular being violent war-making devices, signal an acceptance of human carnage as part of living in this environment.
Violence, by one human to another, as a means of problem solving has been raised to the level of a sacrament in this country. How else do you explain the proliferation of laws making it legal to carry a concealed weapon? There are states where proponents of such laws want them to apply on college campuses and in church. Our national past time is no longer the bucolic and pastoral sport of baseball. This sport, where the goal is to get "home", has been supplanted in revenue and interest by a sport where terms of war are commonplace. Football is so popular, and its players lifted to heroic status, that even though they know it can carry an early death sentence, they still play and we watch at unprecedented levels. (Just recently, Pittsburg Steelers safety Troy Palimalu admitted he lied about concussions he received in order to stay in the game and he is called courageous. Would Junior Seau agree?)
The "good guys" of American culture may resist violence at first (think of Alan Ladd in Shane, Bruce Banner who so desperately tries to stay calm and avoid violence, America, until we just had to invade Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of peace). However, eventually they turn to violent means to achieve victory. Even the Zen-like Karate Kid, you know wax on, wax off, culminated in a sea of violence to bring about a satisfying ending for the audience.
Whoever this person is in Aurora, Colorado, he has grown up in a society which is culturally schizophrenic. On the one hand we speak of God and Christianity and religion and religious values as the foundation of this nation, while at the same time worshipping at the altar of violence and conflict...inviting it into our homes on a daily basis...having parties around it on Sunday afternoons...losing sleep to be entertained by it at midnight showings and weaving it into the very fabric of our connection to each other. It's as if we are all standing in a room up to our necks in gasoline and someone keeps handing out matches, which we gladly accept. When things finally explode in flames, we shake our head and wonder how such a thing could happen?
Why we are this way is for psychologists, philosophers and clergy to divine. Why we accept this violent cultural blanket, embrace it, revel in it, even take pride in proposing violent solutions to problems, is something for social scientists to probe. (Think of those who want to arm the Syrians and want us to go to war with Iran...one wants to be president of the United States and his opponent, the current occupant, thinks unmanned drone strikes, and the collateral damage they cause in human terms, will bring peace or at least stop violence against us.)
One thing is certain. Incidents like the one in Colorado recently, and Columbine years ago, will continue to occur and we will continue to wring our hands and gnash our teeth trying to understand the senselessness of it all without addressing the elephant in the room. What is Einstein's definition of insanity?