Published by the Women’s Media Center
It is tempting to view the recent string of violent massacres in our country as senseless, isolated incidents perpetrated by troubled individuals. When we view the shootings through this lens, we absolve ourselves of blame. In her thoughtful piece, “Not Senseless, Not Random: The Deadly Mix of Race, Guns & Madness,” Colorlines publisher Rinku Sen points to the toxic pervasiveness of Post-9/11 racism and Islamophobia as the backdrop of the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting.
Going a step further, I’d argue that the entertainment industry’s glorification of individuals employing militaristic violence provides the template for the kinds of massacres we have recently witnessed. The recent College Station, Texas, gunman was certainly drawn to such violence and the weapons of war, although he’d never actually been a soldier. According to evidence on his Facebook page, the killer perhaps borrowed his modus operandi from two actual wartime snipers—hailed as heroes in the context of the Vietnam and second world wars—whom he listed as “inspirational people.”
Ty Burr wrote a provocative article for the Boston Globe last month in the wake of the Aurora shooting, “Fantasy, masks, and James Holmes, the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ killer.” Shying away from explicitly calling out the entertainment industry for peddling a sexy version of mass violence, Burr focuses on the specific fan-boy frenzy surrounding the Dark Knight trilogy. He urges in his article, “Don’t blame the movie. Don’t blame director Christopher Nolan.” Yet he also admits, “Our entertainment culture’s dreams of power are a drug that keeps us rapt in a cloud of promises,” and “maybe it’s worth having a discussion about an entertainment culture that excels at selling violent power fantasies to people who feel powerless.” I think Burr has touched on something highly relevant here: that the U.S. gun culture (much like the U.S. rape culture) offers a way for individuals who may feel otherwise disempowered to assert control.
And those individuals need look no further than their TV screens for inspiration. When people see the type of gun used by the Aurora, Colorado, shooter—a military magazine capable of firing 50 to 60 rounds per minute—it is likely in the hands of an aggrieved individual “heroically” defending his idea of honor, justice, or revenge. Sound familiar?
In an op-ed calling for stricter gun regulation, Huffington Post writer Sanjay Sanghoee challenges contemporary interpretations of the Second Amendment that gun rights advocates continue to defend. He points out that when our founding fathers crafted the constitution, military-grade assault rifles were probably not on their mind.
Sanghoee is wise to question how the founding fathers would have felt about every citizen’s right to own high-capacity assault rifles, but his analysis of Dark Knight Rises is lacking. He concludes his piece with a summary of The Dark Knight Rises: “Batman is a heroic figure that battles the forces of anarchy and mindless violence to protect the people of Gotham.” The movie’s plot is far more complex than he gives it credit for. The movie features a wealthy elite who enjoy the toils of the bottom classes, the bottom classes that rise up and militaristically take control of the city, and the corrupt police forces that lack the resources to adequately control the situation. None of these three entities comes across as blameless in the film, which ultimately makes the movie more interesting (and allows for Batman to save the day). However, it also creates an artistic space in which high-capacity assault weapons are in the hands of individuals fighting to protect “their city,” thus conflating use of militaristic violence with individual freedom.
The Aurora, Colorado, shooting wasn’t random. (That the shooter dyed his hair red and asserted he “was the Joker,” the cold-blooded Dark Knight villain played by Heath Ledger, who overdosed while the film was still in editing stages, presents an entirely different but not unrelated level of art/life blurring.) Blockbuster action films routinely revolve around “heroic” individuals and small groups taking justice into their own hands through mass violence, intentionally blurring the lines between military and individual violence, state-sponsored versus vendetta-inspired massacres. (The Expendables 2, which just opened, can only be described as an orgy of weaponry.)
I am not claiming that it is the entertainment industry’s responsibility to curb gun violence in the United States. But I do believe that when violence is portrayed as a glamorous means of exerting power over others in a country that encourages the sale and possession of high-impact weapons, there are certain questions we must ask ourselves. For example: who has the right to impose their belief system on others? When we are presented with tales of heroic vengeance over and over again, when we live in a country where high-power assault weapons are readily available, and when we have grown accustomed to narratives that reward “heroes” for imposing their will on others through mass violence, should we really be surprised when citizens follow suit?