Darkness in Aurora

Friday, July 20, 2012 – it was to be another day of Obama standing up for the middle class and fairness and all that is right and good, and pointing out that Romney says that he was a brilliant businessman and that makes him just the right guy to run the country, but was he really? Let’s see how he did that. You’d think he’d be proud of it all, but he won’t release those tax returns, and he won’t say much of anything about what he’d do for you. And it was to be another day of Romney saying Obama is attacking success, and that Obama has no idea what America is all about.

And then it wasn’t about any of that at all:

A gunman in a gas mask and body armor opened fire at a packed midnight showing of the new “Batman” film in a Denver suburb on Friday, killing 12 people after hurling a gas canister into the crowded multiplex theater.

Armed with an assault rifle, a shotgun and a pistol, he wounded 58 others in the shooting rampage at a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” at a mall in Aurora, which turned into a chaotic scene of dead or bleeding victims, horrified screams and pleas for help, witnesses said.

Police, who initially said 59 people were hurt, said 30 people remained hospitalized on Friday evening, 11 of them in critical condition.

Officers who arrived on scene within 90 seconds of the first emergency calls quickly took suspect James Eagan Holmes, 24, into custody in a parking lot behind the cinema, where he surrendered without a fight, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said.

Holmes, a graduate student who authorities said had his hair dyed red and called himself “the Joker” in a reference to Batman’s comic-book nemesis, was due to make his first court appearance on Monday.

Police said Holmes had also booby-trapped his Aurora apartment with what appeared to be sophisticated explosives, creating a potential hazard for law enforcement and bomb squad officers who swarmed to the scene.

That’s the Reuters summary, as good as any other. Obama was in Florida, with two days of campaigning carefully scheduled. He cancelled it all and flew back to Washington. Romney cancelled his events. Both sides pulled their ads from Colorado, and from most media markets. Each SuperPAC on each side did the same. But that’s okay – it was all more of the same, with rococo variations, anyway. Each side’s base was already fired up, and had been for months, and those not politically inclined didn’t give a damn – they’ll worry about such things in early November, if they worry at all. Those who vote on pure whim – maybe most Americans – weren’t listening to the back-and-forth anyway. It could wait. And now the problem for both campaigns is when to resume the lively back-and-forth, which they somehow think makes a difference. Is Monday too soon? How do you ease back into hyped-up politics? The first to jump back in will be seen as crass and heartless, but if you don’t jump back in the other guy can, and he’ll run the table. It’s a delicate business.

That’s just one thing. Hollywood is reeling. The Paris premiere of this third Batman movie was cancelled. The studios are full of condolences and carefulness:

Among the many challenges facing Warner Bros. in the aftermath of Friday’s deadly shooting at a Colorado screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” is what to do about a key scene – involving a bloodbath at a movie theater – in its next big film, “Gangster Squad.”

The noir film starring Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling centers on the Los Angeles Police Department’s secret 1940s anti-mob gangster squad.

One of the film’s signature scenes is set at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, when mobsters go backstage and open fire through the screen at the audience. Automatic gunfire rips through the screen as horrified filmgoers rush for the exits and the cops try to stop the mayhem.

The studio that gave us the new Batman movies may have to pull the film and start all over – the whole thing will have to be restructured. Also AMC bans masks, ‘offensive’ costumes in theaters and theater owners step up security after Colorado theater shooting and USA Network pulls ‘Law & Order’ episode in wake of Colorado shooting – and so on and do forth.

Those four items are from the Los Angeles Times. This is a company town. The impact out here is economic, and devastating – and oddly parochial and amoral. The rest of the country is outraged and of course the talk turned once again to gun control – the first thing folks think of when these things happen. That Giffords woman was shot in the head and there was lots of such talk, but the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza in this careful analysis of such reactions points out that gun control laws are not ever likely to change:

That the numbers on gun control remain steady even in the aftermath of such high profile events like Columbine, Virginia Tech and the Giffords shooting suggests that people simply don’t equate these incidents of violence with the broader debate over the right role for guns in our society. They view them as entirely separate conversations – and that’s why the tragedy in Aurora isn’t likely to change the political conversation over guns either.

Time’s Jay Newton-Small in this item sees only one possible policy change:

Will the consequence of these killings be a metal detector in every theater in America? Unlike Israel, where police cordon off most large gatherings, the U.S. has historically resisted such restrictive security measures. If the Aurora shooting changes that, Holmes, like Harris and Klebold, will have accomplished something Islamist jihadists have not since 9/11: changed the way we live and how we think about our freedoms.

On the other hand, Slate’s Dave Weigel sees other arguments bubbling up – and he recommends ignoring what inevitably happened – “early stories about the shooter’s politics” – and recommends thinking this through:

The universe of people who can actually help after a shooting spree is fairly small. Family members. Law enforcement. Reporters. Paramedics. Everybody else is basically talking to make themselves feel better. And so, thirty minutes or so after the news of a shooting spree breaks, we get into the debate about “politicizing” it.

He recommends the following:

Don’t worry about new gun laws. If any shooting was going to inspire new regulations, it would have been the January 2011 massacre in Tucson that severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed a federal judge. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, quickly proposed legislation that would have banned the extended magazines allegedly used by Jared Loughner. It went nowhere in the Republican-led House. “I maintain, as Americans have believed since the American founding, that firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens make communities safer, not less safe,” Rep. Mike Pence, told me then. “I think, particularly in Washington, D.C., the desire is to move immediately off and find something else to blame, and find some public policy that’s wanting.” Crying “politicization,” in that case, helped tamp down talk of a gun bill that was never going to pass anyway.

Did any gun legislation actually pass in the wake of the Giffords shooting? Yes. Arizona made the Colt revolver the official “state gun.” But legislators failed to pass a bill allowing community college professors to carry guns on campus.

That’s going nowhere. And it’s probably best to ignore early stories about the shooter’s politics. ABC News’ Brian Ross speculated, on air, that the “James Holmes” in this new massacre might be the “Jim Holmes” who has a profile on the Tea Party Patriots website. The story was totally bogus and ABC walked it back, as best they could. Breitbart.com was outraged and then ran a story that James Holmes, the shooter, was a stinking Democrat, and then they had to walk that back. So Weigel offers this:

What would it mean if he was a Democrat? What would it have meant if he was a Tea Partier? Probably nothing. Some killers put out manifestos explaining why they did it. Some are psychopaths who go through some of the motions of ordinary life – showing up at events, voting – before snapping and committing a non-ideological crime. Jared Loughner shot a congresswoman because he believed that money wasn’t real.

So calm down folks, even about gun control:

I see Chris Cillizza’s getting criticized for writing a well-researched story about whether gun tragedies affect public opinion of guns. (Short version: There are vastly different KINDS of tragedies, but, no.) Lay off! The only time Americans ever talk about gun laws or the effects of gun laws is after tragedies. We learn whether Concealed Carry Laws would have prevented various crimes, like in April, when an off-duty security guard stopped a killer cold with his CCW in an Aurora church. We learn their limitations – like in this case, where an armed citizen in a dark, smoke-filled theater might have ended up shooting the wrong people by accident.

Weigel also offers a full discussion of the Concealed Carry argument – he speaks with an expert on such things, and carefully examines the idea that a theater audience all with concealed weapons – deadly small arms – would have stopped this Holmes fellow cold and nothing would have happened. It’s an interesting theory. It has its limitations. The expert is not convincing. But maybe if all the students at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech had been packing, carrying semiautomatics with hollow-point Teflon-coated rounds, not so many would have died. There’s no point in being a sitting duck and all that.

You can argue such things endlessly. You can also argue what the word would be like had Napoleon been a bit taller. It’s all hypothetical. And Colorado had a Concealed Carry Law anyway – the audience could have been armed, save that the theaters forbid that. What law should be changed?

It’s confusing, and Brian Doherty argues here that making law in response to tragedy is just not how we do things:

Turning the (still) very rare criminal and evil uses of guns to indiscriminately harm innocents into a reason for policy change doesn’t work that well in America any more, and it shouldn’t, and it likely won’t now.

There’s a reason for that. Heather Parton (Digby) argues that we’re now just too used to this sort of event:

We aren’t shocked anymore when children are killed. It’s become a normal part of American life. The taboo has shifted from horror at the shootings to horror at talking about shooting. This is called “politicizing tragedy” – as if these mass murders are an act of nature rather than an act of human evil or madness (or both) enabled by easy access to the tools of mass murder.

But let’s not go there. We will mourn the casualties the way we mourn the deaths of those in hurricanes and tornadoes. Gun violence is now a “natural” event in America, as unpredictable as the weather, and there’s nothing we can do about it except gather together in the aftermath to help the victims. Indeed, the only enduring threat these events foretell is from those who would question a culture that deifies the gun as if it were a religious symbol rather than a lethal weapon.

David Atkins runs with that:

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, nobody said that we should just pray for the victims and do nothing about it. When terrorists used planes full of people as missiles and killed thousands of Americans, few suggested that it was an inevitable tragedy that shouldn’t be politicized. The country took action to prevent those things from happening again. In fact, the nation went far beyond the bounds of decency and reason to do so, locking up entire races of Americans, starting needless wars and ramping up an expensive and unnecessary police surveillance state. But very few went out of their way to suggest that the only reaction to these tragedies should be solemn mourning. These incidents involving heartbreaking loss of innocent life were intensely political, and appropriately so. In fact, to have done nothing in the wake of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor would have seemed to most Americans to have shown callous disregard for the victims, and disdain for the lives of victims of similar attacks to come.

He argues this should be no different:

There is no reason that these almost routine gun massacres in America should be viewed any differently. Those who wish to take steps to ensure that the next massacre be prevented – and they are entirely preventable – are showing the greatest respect for the lives of the victims. They’re the ones who are trying to make sure that they didn’t perish in vain, and that similar future massacres don’t claim any more innocents. It is intervention of the most necessary kind.

Prayers and sympathy are nice. But they accomplish nothing, and show no greater respect. Prayers won’t help the victims or stop the next massacre. Call it politics or any other term that seems fitting, but it’s long past time we started making sure this sort of thing cannot happen again. It’s the right thing to do.

Eliot Spitzer is onboard with that. The Aurora Shooting Wasn’t “Shocking” – It Was Inevitable, Given Our Lax Gun Laws – it’s short and to the point, and predicable. After Shooting, Mayor Bloomberg Calls for Gun Control Stance from President Obama, Romney – Bloomberg makes a better argument, but of course gun control makes more sense in New York City. Those in Montana or Idaho might say he’s got a special case back there.

But maybe guns aren’t the problem. Maybe it’s the damned movie. There are posts like this – Don’t Blame the Movie – and at the New Yorker website, Anthony Lane argues here that while it might be tempting to draw parallels between the actions of the shooter and the murderous villains of the last two Batman movies, who prefer anarchy, particularly that Joker guy James Holmes fancied, “no film makes you kill” after all. And no innocent girl was ever ruined by a book. You know the argument.

Slate’s Dana Stevens considers that:

They’re right, of course. Remember all those infuriating, sententious op-eds about the pernicious power of video games in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, as if prying the joysticks out of American teenagers’ hands was more urgent than prying away their guns? Positing a direct causal relationship between the representation of violence and its real-life manifestation is reductive and, ultimately, lazy – it gives us an excuse to wring our hands about moral decay and cultural decadence while ignoring the practical policy decisions that enabled the horrors of Columbine and now Aurora (two Colorado towns whose pretty names – the flower, the dawn – will now ring permanently hollow).

Actually, Stevens wonders why this happened there of all places:

I can’t get away from the fact that this act of violence took place – with, from the look of it, considerable advance planning – at an opening-night midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that (like the rest of the trilogy it concludes) envisions modernity as a lawless dystopia where just such a thing might happen. In Christopher Nolan’s pitch-black vision, no communal cultural event is safe from potential invasion by marauders: The movie’s most spectacular action scene involves a packed stadium of football fans watching in horror as Bane and his army blow up the field and everyone on it sky-high.

It’s anarchy everywhere now, for everyone. Maybe gun laws really would help. There’s nowhere to hide.

Alyssa Rosenberg sees that too – but in another way. She says it’s appalling to imagine the space of the movie theater turning, in an instant, into a place of terror and death – “We are vulnerable when we go to the movies, open to fear, and love, and disgust, and rapture, surrendering our brains and hearts to someone else’s vision of the world.”

The awful thing is this:

But what about when the vision we choose to surrender ourselves to is, precisely, one of a world ruled by vigilante violence and random acts of terror? Nolan’s Batman trilogy has proceeded on the assumption that what happens on the screen in some way reflects what’s happening in the world – that fantasy and reality are mutually permeable – this is what makes his movies function as political allegories, if at times muddled ones. Why shouldn’t we assume the reverse is true as well – that the grim, violent fantasies we gather to consume as a culture have some power to bleed over from the screen into real life?

Maybe it was the movie:

I’m not suggesting that the young men of America are being brainwashed by Christopher Nolan into going on Bane-style killing sprees. Nor am I arguing for censorship or bowdlerization or any increased degree of interference with the content of entertainment. But James Holmes didn’t burst into a screening of Happy Feet Two. To discuss the meaning and motives of his crime, of course we have to at least talk about why he might choose The Dark Knight Rises as a backdrop (and possibly a template) for whatever private fantasy he was enacting.

And maybe there should also be conversations about what it means that the economics of the film industry are driven almost entirely by the fantasies and desires of young men, and what effect that kind of over-representation in pop culture might have on … the fantasies and desires of young men. All I know is that, when I heard the news about the Aurora shootings, my first thought was very clear and very scary: “Of course this was going to happen sooner or later.”

There’s a reason it’s an oddly quiet Friday night out here in Hollywood. There are no big studio parties in the neighborhood tonight. Down the block the Sunset Strip is subdued. An industry built on the fantasies and desires of young men may be seeing where that might lead.

Roger Ebert, however, sees something else – We’ve Seen This Movie Before – “I don’t know if James Holmes cared about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news.”

With Holmes, the problem is bigger than 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. In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in. He was like one of those goofballs waving in the background when a TV reporter does a stand-up at a big story.

James Holmes must also have been insane, and his inner terror expressed itself, as it often does these days, in a link between pop culture and firearms. There was nothing bigger happening in his world right now than the new Batman movie, and in preparation for this day, or another like it, he was purchasing firearms and booby-trapping his apartment. When he was arrested after the shootings, he made no attempt at resistance. His mission was accomplished.

I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity.

It’s all about “inchoate insecurity” and a desperate need for validation:

Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night – among those watching – will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action. … I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news.

The movie isn’t to blame, you see, but Alyssa Rosenberg argues that movies may now be ruined:

Mostly what I feel is this: Midnight screenings are big, hyped, advertiser-driven events that have become a source of new information to feed the Hollywood data beast, but indicating how motivated audiences are to see a movie. But they’re also a product of genuine enthusiasm and an expression of collective joy. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has meant a lot to an enormous number of filmgoers. And as someone who writes about movies, and who cares about the big, flawed thing we call fandom, I’m saddened by someone turning that shared enthusiasm into a weapon. And even if this tragedy hadn’t happened at the premiere of one of a dwindling number of genuinely mass cultural events, I hate the idea of using an audience’s suspension of disbelief, their openness to and absorption in the spectacle unfolding before them, as cover – the gunman reportedly started shooting during a sequence involving gunfire, meaning the audience was slower to react.

We are vulnerable when we go to the movies – open to fear, and love, and disgust, and rapture, surrendering our brains and hearts to someone else’s vision of the world. We don’t expect to surrender our bodies, too.

And now things change. It’s going to be hard to go back to talking about Romney’s tax returns next week.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Darkness in Aurora

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    I’m interested in all of your posts. Thank you. This one struck closer to home than most, as I described in my own post yesterday: http://www.outsidethewalls.org/blog/?m=20120720. If nothing else, scroll down to the Crisis Sequence, and note the comments, and go to the Brady Campaign website and note in upper right hand corner how many gun deaths so far this year in America. Some day, some heinous thing will have ‘legs’ and make a difference in this debate in this country. Maybe Aurora/Dark Knights isn’t that thing, but we, the people can have something to say about that.

  2. Martha Sette says:

    Mr. Pavlik – I apologize for some of my vitriol, but I must respond… 1st – reporters are useless in these instances other than to read official statements. 2nd- Please in the name of all that is holy let us all get back to the presidential campaign. I would rather watch a thousand, million, bazillion hateful PAC sponsored ads than deal with the media massacre that is now playing out on TV. As a survivor of a psycho shooting spree (to be clear – I was no mere observer – I had blood on me…) I say – let the campaign run!! The sooner we return to normal the better. It’s like a scab – don’t pick it, leave it alone and it will heal. But no – the media has to obsess, and speculate, and literally masturbate the shit out of these things. 3rd – Heather Parton (Digby) is the biggest dumbass ever. As the number of massacres grows, so does the number of survivors and families/friends impacted, so then grows the number of people for whom this kind of violence will NEVER be perceived as normal. If she’s right I’m so moving to a foreign country. David Atkins misses the mark as well – truth is that we can’t prevent these events. The violence in America juggernaut isn’t just about stricter gun/ammo laws & enforcement. Righteous capitalism (ie – natural God-given law of survival of the fittest in pursuit of the mighty dollar) spiced with civil rights (aka – the bill of rights) makes for the perfect maelstrom. Sadly, Christopher Nolan’s pitch is perfect – no place is sacred, no place is safe – gun violence has stricken virtually every mundane sanctum… homes, daycare, schools, grocery stores, churches, laundromats, buses & subways, streets & sidewalks – you name it, somebody has shot on/in/at it. I think the understanding lies somewhere between the perspective’s of Roger Ebert & Alyssa Rosenberg – immersion in violent games & movies creates a hypnotic vision in insane individuals (war-weary vets also run their own experiential reels). When coupled with a desperate narcissism, and access to weapons – voila!!

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