Whenever acts of terror and violence occur in ordinary settings, Israel floods to mind. It is a country that knows well the terrible confluence of routine behavior and devastation. Like the innocent setting of a cafe, nightclub or high school, where the Colombine Massacre occurred in the U.S. in 1999, the latest shooting inside the familiar setting of a movie theater serves to elevate an act of violence into a feat of terrorism.
Drawing a parallel between the Colombine library and Aurora Colorado’s Century 16 movie theater, where 24-year-old James Holmes sprayed a packed movie house with bullets, killing 12 people and wounding 58, the New York Times observed, “Both were ordinary settings that became death traps.”
As a nation, we have become used to airplanes feeling unsafe, but not yet the local mall, or bar, or movieplex.
What is so bothersome about the combination of ordinariness and terror is that its occurring cannot be anticipated. It is antithetical that horrors should happen where one is used to hospitality. Death is for battlefields and dark alleys and hideouts; it does not belong in shopping malls or movie theaters or any other public place of recreation. But things do not always happen as they should.
Amidst the rush of news reports and messages of condolence for the victims and their families, Hollywood scrambled over how to react. A trailer for the upcoming “Gangster Squad” which contained images of a shoot-out in a movie theater was removed from screenings of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Red-carpet premieres with the film’s stars—Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway and Morgan Freeman—scheduled in Paris, Mexico and Japan were cancelled. There were reports Warner Bros. might also cancel ‘Dark Knight’ screenings altogether, but they did not. The studio did release a statement that it would not report box office numbers for one of the most anticipated opening weekends in movie history, though Deadline.com and The Wrap.com can always be counted upon. Director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian both released statements of sympathy and elsewhere in the industry, Showtime and USA pulled violent programs from their weekend lineup, though TNT still aired “The Dark Knight,” according to Deadline.com.
On the campaign trail, both President Obama and Mitt Romney paused from their mudslinging to acknowledge the tragedy and send their condolences to victims and their families. And both candidates pulled their political ads from the air in Colorado. The move was commended, but inevitably, politicizing followed.
“We do need a pause for reflection, and to wait for more information,” New York Times op-ed editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote. “But at some point very soon, we’ll need to do more than reflect—we’ll need to have a conversation about gun violence.”
Judaism teaches that mourning is essential before the normal rhythms of life can resume. It is also teaches that mourning has limits, and that the ensuing response to tragedy or a challenge of any kind is what ultimately imbues a painful experience with meaning.
Which is why a renewed debate about gun control in America has reached fever pitch in the past 24 hours, with countless voices chiming in with their two cents.
On his weekly radio program, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said most starkly, “Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it.”
New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik complained that while the candidates’ consoling messages were nice, they “managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place.” “Of course,” he added, “we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly ‘made [the killer]’ do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again.”
Even with Holmes in police custody, comfort is elusive. Blame continues to bleed. Something of this scale and significance demands large-scale moral response. Who or what else is responsible? There has much speculation: Movie violence, the Second Amendment, bad parenting, mental instability, even boredom. All of which give rise to questions with uneasy answers: Is gun violence an affliction of a nation or an individual? Has a decade of obsessing over terrorism infiltrated the psyche of America’s youth? Will movie theaters become the next airports? Are we safe anywhere if we can’t be safe everywhere?
In trying to understand what motivated the perpetrator of the massacre, an apparently bright former Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado in Denver, and an honors graduate in neuroscience from UC Riverside, two movie critics speculated about Holmes’ relationship to the movie itself.
In a New York Times op-ed, Roger Ebert was careful not to blame movie violence for real violence. Holmes, he wrote, “could not have seen the movie.” “Like many whose misery is reflected in violence, he may simply have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd,” adding that Holmes “was seeking a publicity tie-in.”
“I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence,” Ebert continued. “I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. Those like James Holmes, who feel the need to arm themselves, may also feel a deep, inchoate insecurity and a need for validation… I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news.”
Similarly, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane defended against the violent influences of Hollywood films and instead inferred that Holmes may have sought attention by staging his crime at a movie “event”. Though he didn’t acknowledge that fame-seeking is still another Hollywood value. Lane writes: “The film… presented him with an opportunity; it did not urge him on, or trigger him into homicide, but it was, nonetheless, the occasion that he sought. He would have known that people had been talking of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ for months; that the excitement was mounting; that they would flock, in a good communal mood, to the first available showing. They wanted to be among the first to give their verdicts, before breakfast, and to talk about their triumph at work today. That is one of the social thrills that cinema, unlike TV, can still deliver, and long may it endure. It is the most hideous of ironies that an unstable individual saw that coming-together as his chance… The screen gave him a stage.”
But what drives a person to such an act for attention? Is it fame Holmes was after? An immortal legacy? Or was it, perhaps, parental approval? Strangest of all was the report that when an ABC News reporter called Holmes’ mother to ask if her son was the one responsible for the Hollywood horror, she readily replied, “You have the right person.”
And yet, as Gopnik pointed out, a person needs a weapon. Gun advocates have even argued that another weapon in the theater might have challenged or stopped the shooter. It’s a little bit ironic that gun proponents are arguing in favor of the same kind of vigilante justice propounded by “The Dark Knight Rises” and other stories with their provenance in comic books, which tell of ordinary citizens with superhuman powers who become the ultimate enforcers of societal justice. If only someone like Batman, who uses violence for good, had been there, the deranged and evil Joker would have been stopped.
If that sounds like a crazy idea, it’s because any kind of violence wreaks some madness. Gopnik explains: “Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it… In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers. The argument has gotten dully repetitive: How does one argue with someone convinced that the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns, or rather to have guns that make us feel free?”
The massacre last week has made us all less free. But it has been a binding event, a tragedy that has united all Americans because it could have happened to any American, in any city, in any movie theater. Will we let this moment pass, or will we exercise the Jewish value called heshbon ha’nefesh—an accounting of the soul—and account for the soul of our communities and our country? Will we dare to model our beloved superheroes and adequately protect the innocent among us?