Thursday, July 26, 2012


An all too familiar brand of American horror unveiled its ugly face at a cinema theater in Colorado. This time it was not on the screen. A young man unloaded his gun into an engrossed crowd who were taking in a fictional shoot out from the latest Batman movie. By the time it was over twelve people were dead, fifty eight were wounded of which nine clung to life as the nation came to grips with yet another senseless orgy of violence. Much like those who came before him, this murderer's psycho-graphic profile was familiar and predictable. An intelligent man, a PhD student in this case, a social recluse, with an ideology that is not yet clear, snapped at a place and time where he could get the maximum attention. The opening night of the most anticipated block buster movie of the summer. And attention he did get. Instantly the news-media went into over drive, speculation was rampant and Warner Brothers' ongoing promotions for Batman were suspended. Even the presidential campaign was halted and the world turned to America and wondered in dismay and disdain, thinking "Only in America!".

The irony behind the choice of location for the massacre is hard to ignore. The gunman did not chose the movie "Ice Age" to unleash his terror, he chose "The Dark Night Rises". A violent and dark movie that is rated PG13, in which the villain commits mass murder at least a few times spreading panic and peril. This is certainly not a case of life imitating art. This is a blatant example of a culture making a crime easy to take place. Both by providing the means to do so and creating a climate to do it within.

Here in America to say that we live in a climate of constant violence is an understatement. From wars that are orchestrated by the mammoth military industrial complex, a pop culture that peddles violence for a profit, to the violent words that are constantly hurled at each other in the name of freedom, America has become accustomed to violence like never before. It was appalling to hear on the airwaves from some people in power that this was not the moment in time to discuss "gun control". Thirty people die every day in this nation from guns, a million have died since Kennedy and King were shot. This murderer bought six thousand rounds of ammunition and other accessories using the internet and FEDEX, while most people are humiliated at airports for carrying a nail clipper. Even if you were a rabid advocate of gun ownership, you could not ignore the ludicrousness of this situation. In America to watch Batman with a bucket of popcorn and a giant soda on your lap and not be phased by the violence is called entertainment, and to own a deadly weapon with ease is called living in freedom.

Acts of violence in movies or video games do not drive the consumer to commit horrific acts of violence. This has been often proved by statistics and qualitative academic discourse. While in graduate school studying Mass Communication Theory, this was always a topic of discussion in my classes. But there is something to be said about a culture that celebrates acts of violence as pervasive pop consumption and rewards it with bigger and bigger box office collections. When I came to this country I took part in a campus ritual of Halloween by seeing a horror film at midnight, as that was the thing to do. I saw the horror "classic" from the 80s "Texas Chain Saw Massacre". This is definitely among the most violent movies every made and I was quite disturbed by the constant sense of peril embodied in its sheer rawness. I was even more disturbed by the interaction of the audience with the film. There were people laughing and relishing in the orgy of violence on screen while I was petrified. I was in shock, culturally and otherwise. I was later told that I had completely missed the cultural context of the moment since I was a foreigner and it was Halloween. Later I wrote an academic paper on the American obsession with the horror genre of cinema and realized that this is unique to the American experience. A "thrill ride" that has roots in Christian mythology and War. Only Japan and Korea seem to compete in this arena.

Among the twelve victims who were gunned down in Aurora, Colorado, there was a six year old. There is nothing more grim in this world than to witness the death of a child. While I was shaken by her death, I was also disturbed by the fact that she was an audience member at this movie. Batman is a comic book hero, but the movies in every sense of the word are adult. Being a father of a six year old, I am very cautious of what she is exposed to in a world that comes at her without filters. And I feel in America there is a rapid loss of innocence by a carefree attitude that anything goes. And there is a belief that children can adapt and learn anything when provided the right context. The television landscape is a great example of the changing standards and so are the toys that are manufactured for consumption and advertised to the impressionable while the adults are turned away. As a society there is a high degree of insensitivity, an attitude towards violence that is indifferent and it only becomes real for a brief moment when an act such as this one in Aurora occurs.

In a bizarre response to the tragedy, gun sales in Colorado jumped 43%. 2887 people were approved over the weekend to legally possess guns. Fear is a reason given for this absurdity and certain insanity.

The shooter when displayed to the world with orange hair and dazed eyes, conveyed a disturbed mind. He was not born like that. He apparently grew up in a stable middle class family among sprinklers and white picket fences in California. So what went wrong? What role did the people who made his world have to play? No matter what, there is no excuse for a crime of this nature. But these are important questions to ask. A killer is made by society. And then society gives him or her access to commit the crime. It is a proven fact, that nations that have strict gun control have less or no gun crime. In this country the constitution gives you the right to legally bear arms. Guns can be purchased at expos, internet and in some places at the local mall. The National Rifle Association's (NRA) sole purpose is to make sure that the second amendment stays alive in all its glory and criticize vehemently those who oppose it. President Obama is often lambasted by the right for having plans to take guns away from the people and deny them their second amendment. In reality he has not tabled a single policy aimed at curtailing gun violence during his term in office. And the Republican nominee for president Mitt Romney, could not form a single coherent idea in response to the tragedy in Colorado to save his life. Such is the bankruptcy of the American political system.

No matter what lens you look through, there is a perception that the world is in a grip of excessive violence. The media certainly makes that impression more present when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs. There is no doubt that popular culture around the world has come to embody more violence in its content. But even with the senseless killings in Syria, Afghanistan and Africa, terrorism and human rights abuses in other places, statistically more people on the planet are living in peace today than they have ever before. Humanity has always been plagued by a culture of violence. Religion to some extent has tried to tame it by promoting ideas of peace and harmony in scripture. But religion has also spawned some of the most horrific violence known to man. Peace through deterrence seems to be a norm as the Gandhi and King model is relegated to history books and commemorative postage stamps. In this age of surveillance, drones and excessive policing the bumper sticker "If Guns are Outlawed, only Outlaws will have Guns" sadly still rings true for many Americans who still like to believe they live in the "Wild West".

As this Colorado killer is brought to justice and many call for his head, and as the wounds of those who have lost everything begin to heal, there is very little hope that there will be a shift in the culture of violence. The last time something horrific like this happened in America, was when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and six others were shot mercilessly in Arizona. Not much has changed since that 2011 incident and the hopes that anything will now, are slim. Despite the glitch, as expected "The Dark Night Rises" broke all records at the box. Many of the movie makers expressed their grief publicly in response to this aberration. In light of this incident if the producers of the film could use some of the box office money to fund a campaign against gun violence in our culture it would be a much more poignant way of expressing grief than just words and photo ops.

Sometimes when my wife and I have a fervent disagreement and walk away feeling enraged, she always says, if things cannot be peaceful at the family level how can one expect harmony between nations and peoples. I always shrug it of as a very simplistic view, an analogy that has no bearing on the complex issues of nation state. But then again, there never can be real peace unless there is a "culture of peace". And culture is created by the sum of its individuals. It is what it is.