Reprinted from Alternet (July 20, 2012)
Boys and men in America inherit a popular culture of indiscriminate vigilante rage.
Early morning July 20, we cheered the new Batman movie as a thousand miles away a crowd watching the same film screamed as a gunman, barged in, flung a smoke bomb and began shooting. In San Francisco, we left the cinema laughing at the stupid politics of The Dark Knight Rises. In Aurora, Colorado, 12 were killed and 59 wounded as the shock spread to the nation in the morning news. Already one truth stands out; the shooting is not isolated but like a mirror reflects the dark logic of the film, itself a reflection of America’s romance with violence.
One thing we know about gunman James Holmes is that he wanted a stage. Like the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre gunman Seiung-Hui Cho, who mailed videos of himself; or the 1999 Columbine gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who meticulously recorded themselves prepping for the massacre; the Dark Knight gunman wanted to be seen. In killing others, he tried to secure for himself the image of a strong powerful man who could wreck havoc on the world. And this is exactly the role that Bane (acted by Tom Hardy), the anarchist villain in The Dark Knight Rises, plays as he bombs Gotham City and unleashes enraged prisoners on the rich. He and Wayne Enterprise executive Miranda Tate (played by Marion Cotillard) avenge those trapped in The Pit and forgotten by society. Already the Herald Sun reports that the Dark Knight gunman was dressed in armor and gas mask, like Bane.
What are we to make of this? Only someone whose self-identity is collapsing is driven to recreate themselves as a new character. It is the dark logic of the Batman films, whose title character begins as a boy who helplessly watches his parents murdered and transforms himself into a terrifying hero who punishes criminals. Is this not the archetypal plot in nearly every American superhero film and tragically, perversely the self-narrative of many gun-wielding mass murderers?
At a deeper, historical level, the superhero narratives are part of our national ideology in which self-creation through violence has always been celebrated. When immigrant Europeans chased the American dream, they did so with guns in their hands. Seizing the Frontier from Natives, they became citizens of a new nation built on stolen land by shooting enemies. Long after the Frontier was paved over, we kept the mythology. Whether it’s the nomadic gunslinger of the Hollywood Western, the renegade cops going rogue or pretty much every action hero, Americans have been raised on the archetypal plot of men recreating themselves through violence.
And this celebrated mythology, replayed every day in every cinema, every TV, in books and music is seductive and dangerous to what German professor Ines Geipel called the “Wounded Outsiders.” In her book The Amok Complex, she analyzed five mass shootings in Europe and distilled from the gunmen a common character. They live in pricey towns, come from well-heeled families but are labeled outsiders due to their failure to achieve in the high pressure of class paranoia. In an interview on the German news site DW, she said that after being isolated they retreat into a fictional world. “Most of them have a strong affinity to theater and film,” Geipel said. “It is the desperate search for their own skin, for their own role in life.”
In the British paper the Independent, Dr. Keith Ashcroft wrote how the path from low self-esteem is layered with resentment which becomes paranoia. The retreat from others into a shrinking world of rage and self-pity creates the conditions for more social isolation. A fast and powerful downward spiral begins that pulls the young men into fantasies of revenge. And finally there is some triggering event, loss of a lover or a job or a home that snaps him. “Their paranoia heightens the sense that the whole world is against them, which increases their anger,” he wrote “It is very immature to want a gun in order to have a sense of power and fulfillment. But it is a way of regaining control.”
Add to this social isolation the possibility of chemical neural imbalance, a history of abuse or trauma and it is a toxic slush mixing in the mind of enraged young men. Finally, they stagger inside a blacklit life and see other wounded men on the movie screen, wearing masks and striking at the world. Virginia Tech gunman, Cho aptly detailed the arc of a disintegrating self image and its resurrection through violence. In his videos he declared, “You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. You just loved to crucify me. You loved inducing cancer in my head, terror in my heart and ripping my soul all this time.”
Anyone who watched the recent Batman movies will hear an echo of his lament in the villains. Ra’s al Ghul of the League of Shadows wants to cure civilization of rot by burning it down. The Joker’s nihilism drives his war on Gotham City. And now Bane and Miranda Tate again want to destroy a world that already destroyed them.
In repeating this mythology of regenerative masculine violence, we are creating stages where troubled lonely men take their stand and act out our fantasy. It’s not that we have sick young men among us. It’s that we have inherited and actively recreate a culture that gives them a vocabulary of indiscriminate vigilante rage. And then we allow guns to flow freely in the name of the Second Amendment. No wonder when they speak they speak in bullets.
Nicholas Powers is an assistant professor of literature at SUNY Old Westbury. His book of poetry, “Theater of War” was published by Upset Press in 2004. He has written for the Village Voice and the Indypendent.