In the wake of the horrific news out of Aurora, it didn’t take long for the topic of gun control to take center stage. That’s fair, but if we’re looking for clues as to why this happened — and how to prevent future tragedies — the gun debate is just one conversation worthy of discussion. (If guns didn’t exist, the kind of person capable of massacring a theater full of strangers would still be incredibly dangerous.) Yet the gun debate dominates the political conversation, while other debates, such as mental health, for example, are barely mentioned.
There is another topic I want to bring up before someone else does. The minute Pat Robertson mentions violent movies as a possible cause is the minute that debate ends. So before that happens, I think it is worth asking if the entertainment industry and the media bear any responsibility in any way for the coarsening of our culture that contributes to such acts.
I don’t want to go too far with this. Movies like the “The Dark Knight Rises” are fictional fantasy. And in some cases, being able to escape into a fantasy world can probably serve an important psychological function. But when the shooter calls himself the The Joker, it becomes clear that someone — yes, most likely someone already disturbed — might have been influenced by the film. This wouldn’t be the first time a movie inspired a maniac. John Hinkley reportedly watched the violent film “Taxi Driver” at least 15 times before attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
I haven’t seen the new Dark Knight, but the 2008 film starring Heath Ledger was both incredibly well-made and disturbing. Some movies have gratuitous violence, but the Dark Knight films are also complex psychological thrillers. For whatever reason, we crave it. Despite the horrific news, the new film reportedly garnered $160 million opening weekend. I’m not arguing we should change our movies in order to pacify unbalanced people who cannot handle them, any more than I would argue we should ban guns for the same reason. But we should also not pretend as though this is an absurd debate.
If the entertainment industry deserves some scrutiny, I would argue journalists and the media do as well. The Atlantic’s J.J. Gould writes,
Anyone remember a fourth-century-BC Greek named Herostratus? He’s the guy whose name history has recorded solely on account of his having burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, in 356 BCE — so that history would record his name.
In a 1993 paper called “Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media, published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Clayton Cramer explored a variation on the question my colleague Robert Wright is rightly asking now, following Roger Ebert’s New York Times op-ed on Friday: Given that intense media coverage of mass killings (a) plays straight into the perpetrators’ tendency to want recognition for their crimes, and (b) encourages copycat iterations, can major media outlets police themselves not to play into these dynamics?
I wouldn’t discount the role that narcissism plays in this. Today’s films glamorize heroes and villains. In fact, one could argue that The Joker was a much more interesting and glamorous character than Batman.
The shooter is, in fact, now famous. His face has been splashed across every newspaper in the country.
Most narcissistic writers and actors toil away for years without getting a fraction of the publicity this man received for one heinous act. If one’s sole purpose in life is to get attention and be remembered, then this is perhaps a calculated move.
That says a lot about our culture and our society, and very little about guns.