"Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying," the Joker tells the district attorney whose fiancée he just killed at a hospital he’s about to blow up in the film The Dark Knight. Last Friday, a gunman walked into a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire, killing at least 12 and shooting more than 50. Theaters in New York City and around the country quickly increased security for The Dark Knight Rises, though despite the tragedy, the film hit $165 million in its opening weekend, short of industry expectations of $190 million but still firmly in blockbuster territory.
Tragedies like these follow a familiar cycle. Because they are disruptive and out-of-the-ordinary, they receive an abundance of media coverage, which in turn gives life to stalled agendas while birthing new ones. The president addresses the nation, articulating feelings many people share. We mourn the victims, even though they are strangers to us. We ask why it happened, and what can we do to keep it from happening again.
We have been doing all of this for a very long time.
America’s first modern mass murderer was Howard Unruh, who killed 13 people in 12 minutes on the streets of Camden, New Jersey in 1949. He was 28. He served in World War II. Could it have been the war that drove him to kill? (Unruh documented the circumstances and details of every German he killed in battle). Could it have been movies? He saw a double feature, The Lady Gambles and I Cheated the Law, the day before the killings. (He thought one of the actresses, Barbara Stanwyck, was one of his neighbors.)
Unruh was eventually diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and ruled insane. At the time, it made him immune to criminal prosecution and he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. He died in 2009.
And what about the perpetrator of the Aurora shootings? There’s no easy answer, but free agency demands that the responsibility lay with the shooter. Some are asking how we can change public policy to prevent this from ever happening again. If access to guns did it, control them, if video games did it, censor them, if a certain kind of movie did it, stop making that kind of movie. They’re rousing suggestions, but insufficient. The mass murderer in Norway killed more than 70 people in a country with fairly strict controls on guns. Howard Unruh killed when many of the pioneers of video games were still in diapers.
Mass murder has been happening for millenia; a recently published research paper suggests a mass grave found at the archaeological site at Titris Hoyuk in present-day Tukey was the result of a mass killing—19 people, including three women, two children, and an infant—more than 4,000 years ago.
What's much more remarkable is that we live such safe, predictable lives. After all, if access to guns, video games, and violent movies regularly inspired mass murder, America would be a wasteland.
Society works because we trust each other to be sane. In the 24-hour media storm after the Aurora shootings, perhaps the sagest commentary (at least that I heard) came from TMZ’s Harvey Levin on Fox News’ America Live. He said: "[w]e have been seeing this increasingly, where everyone's kind of trying to understand this guy to figure him out. At a point, you're not going to be able to do that, because you gotta be crazy to do what he allegedly did... These weak links exist, it is just a part of living in this world, and the issue is do you become agoraphobic, do you shut yourself in hermetically or do you take the chance of living your life?"
If we base our attitudes, our policies, or our way of life in response to the actions of a few jokers, then the nuts will have won.
Ed Krayewski is an associate editor for 24/7 News at Reason.com.