My heart goes out to those victims of the Colorado shooting massacre at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.
In the aftermath of this tragic event the public is going to be immersed in a national conservation about the relationship between popular culture and violence (as opposed to a necessary (re)evaluation of our country's gun laws). Alternatively, the media and our political elites could engage in a frank discussion about how America is a violent society and what this tells us about our culture, history, and relationships to one another.
Or if they were truly brave and responsible, our leaders could point out an obvious fact: in violent societies where there is ready access to firearms (and apparently military grade tear gas and incendiary devices) there will be moments when mentally unhinged people kill lots of people. We choose to either accept that bargain--and its moments where the banality of evil makes itself apparent and clear--or to reject it and subsequently to modify our laws and social compact.
Instead, James Holmes' apparent killing of a dozen people, and wounding 59 others as he was channeling the Batman character The Joker, who is not coincidentally "The Clown Prince of Chaos," will prompt a moral panic about popular culture, comic books, movies, and violence. This is an old and tired script.
Rock and Roll leads to teen promiscuity! Jazz makes the children of the respectable classes act badly! Heavy metal is Satanic and tempts our teens to commit suicide! Hip hop encourages youth violence! Elvis Presley's shaking and gyrating hips must not be shown on TV lest young women faint in orgasmic hysterics! Superman is dangerous because kids watch him on TV and are made to think that they too can jump off of roofs and fly!
Comic books have also been the targets of moral panics as well. During the 1950s do gooder moral majority types (most notably Fredrik Wertham who wrote the infamous book Seduction of the Innocents) argued that graphic novels were a corrupting influence on America's young people, and as such, should be heavily regulated and censored by the State.
As the media tries to make sense of the Colorado shooting, we will likely hear echoes of "the ten cent plague" once again.
The twenty-four hour news cycle demands that every angle of a "breaking news event" is explored and exaggerated--regardless of how specious and weak the resulting narrative and "analysis" actually is.
For example, geek and nerd culture was/is taking over the world. Now, it will be subject to scrutiny by folks who will want to draw tenuous connections between a comic book, and an act of wanton violence committed by an unhinged lone wolf. It comes full circle: with the geek renaissance comes inevitable scrutiny and blowback.
Was Holmes a deranged nerd and typecast loner? Do comic books and their movie adaptations encourage violence? Did the Batman comic books inspire Holmes murder spree? Are there other ticking time bombs like him, waiting to go off at any moment when given the right cue by popular culture? What can we do to protect ourselves from these madmen in waiting?
Comic books and graphic novels are firmly planted in the American zeitgeist ("the spirit of the age" as it is more commonly referred to). America is a society that is sick with violence. The talking heads and professional bloviators will carelessly draw connections between those two facts.
As we watch the spectacle unfold, we can never forget that moral panics have never been about the pursuit of truth, or real, actual threats, to society. Rather, they are grand stages upon which deeper cultural and social anxieties are played out. The Colorado shooting is a canvas upon which our country's political, social, generational, and economic anxieties will be projected upon.
Ultimately, the media's coverage of this tragic happening will have little to do with the substance of The Dark Knight Rises specifically, or popular culture, more generally.
I am off to see The Dark Knight Rises. What examples of the moral panic meme have you seen in the coverage so far? How many misunderstandings of Batman, comic books, and the relationship between popular culture and violence have you witnessed so far as this story develops? Will this tragic event keep your from seeing The Dark Knight Rises?