You have probably heard by now that the midnight premiere of the new Batman movie at a Colorado cineplex turned into a massacre early Friday morning. And you have probably heard about the fear now surrounding other showings of the movie. Cinemas throughout the nation have increased armed security, particularly at screenings of The Dark Knight Rises, and many cinemagoers have stated that, at the very least, they are having second thoughts about going out to see the movie, future midnight premieres of other films, or movies in general. This saddens me. No, actually, it frightens me.
I am thankful that there has already been a response to this reactionary, if well-meant, fearmongering. It is especially at times like these that we cannot afford to let fear rule our lives and decide our fates. Does it make sense to stay alert and aware of what is going on around us? Yes. I’ve worked in public safety long enough to know that can go a long way to heading off disaster. Does it make sense to stop and reflect on what we might do if faced with a disaster? Of course. Planning, training, and preparedness are the things that help first responders remain calm and effective when the unthinkable occurs. Adopting a similar attitude can save precious seconds even for those of us who are not professional heroes. But focusing on the fear itself gives it power. It can paralyze us. It can demoralize us. It can kill us.
It’s early days yet in this particular incident’s investigation, but certain items that have come to light really make me question the fearful fallout we are experiencing and even promoting in the name of “caution.” We don’t know much about the gunman’s motivations or his apparent descent into madness, but it seems fairly clear that he acted alone and was not part of some larger organization or plot. So why are we giving this one man’s deranged outburst the full TSA treatment? Not that I think the TSA approach is particularly effective in the “war on terror,” whatever that may be, and not to downplay the horror of the attack or the impact of the enormous losses incurred in this tragedy, but what exactly do we think we are protecting ourselves from by putting so much energy into defending Batman audiences? Copycat shooters? Honestly? That may be the official line, but what we are really scared of is our own shadow.
Why else does so much of the commentary this weekend revolve around the darkness of the film’s themes? Why are media outlets rushing to pull the movie ads from the airwaves? Do we really feel ourselves so weak-minded a population that we think any reminder of the dark, dank corners in humanity’s soul will topple us from the precarious perch we have named Sanity? I am constantly having to remind myself that my day job gives me a particularly skewed perception of the human condition. My days are filled with narratives peopled by felons, drunkards, paranoid schizophrenics, junkies, liars, run-of-the-mill jerks, and corpses — and the poor cops who have to translate their stories into something fit to put before the DA. Some days it is downright depressing. Yet here I am, exhorting my fellow humans, be they goodhearted sweethearts or good-for-nothing scoundrels, to acknowledge our dark side but not flee from it. This fear of the unknown will feed on itself if we let it. Ignoring it will not make it go away, but that seems to be a common theme in the wake of this incident.
I do understand the pulling of movie trailers (for a different film) that show a scene in which someone enters a theatre and starts shooting. That’s not a matter of fear; that’s just demonstrating a little tact. What is frightening me is the finger-pointing, this idea that blame can be assigned to artistic depictions of the darkness of humanity and that those who create or consume such works are somehow more dangerous and/or endangered than “normal” folks. What I have come to realize, though, is that there is no “normal.” Normalcy is a bedtime story we tell ourselves so we can get some sleep despite all the monsters lurking in our closets. As humans, we have been harboring the dark within ourselves since we came into being. We simply differ, on an individual basis, as to the degree and the manifestation. When we encounter such an extreme exhibition, such as that of James Holmes, it would behoove us to, instead of running from the dark, drag it out into the light of day, get a good look at it, poke and prod it, and figure out what makes it tick. And this is precisely what many artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians devote their lives to. They create mirror worlds for us to examine, and when their monsters seem — or become — too real for us to shove under the bed, we plead with our gods to save us. And it seems that one of our favorite gods is Censorship.
I’m not necessarily talking about official panels who pass down decisions on what can be created and distributed through legal channels. I mean trying to pretend that showing evil is itself an evil thing. Even without laws or regulations, this means that the creatives we should be relying on to reveal the contents of the dark are instead learning to self-censor in order to avoid being vilified by the “normals.” And it means that the teachers we should be relying on to show our youth how to recognize the dangers of the dark are instead expurgating their most valuable tools in the name of keeping children “safe.” Ah, safety — another fairy tale we tell ourselves. This world is not safe, and we are not safe creatures. Bad things will happen, and humans will do bad things. Some worse than others. But only if we seek to understand the darkness — in ourselves as well as in others — will we truly be able to defend ourselves from it taking over our world.