THESE are questions to which
there are no answers, said the Mayor of Aurora, Steve Hogan, after
a 24-year-old neuroscience Ph.D. student set off a smoke bomb
inside a showing of the new Batman film, and shot customers as they
fled from the cinema.
In one sense, there are plenty of
answers to the questions that such a horror prompts. It is just
that many people prefer not to ask them. Wouldn't gun-control laws
be a partial solution? Deranged individuals will always be with us,
but a madman with a gun can - and in the United States repeatedly
does - do much more damage than a madman without one. The idea
that, in a guns-for-all polity, cinemagoers could have started
firing back in a darkened smoke-filled room is even more
Yet, in an election year, neither
Barack Obama nor his rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney, dare
say so, despite the fact that the mass killer used a rifle,
shotgun, two pistols, and gas device, all of which he purchased
legally within the past two months.
There could be questions about the
culture in which such things happen. The fight against crime by
that most innocent of heroes, Batman, is rooted in the revenge he
swore on criminals after witnessing the murder of his parents as a
child. Over the years, cinematic portrayals have grown more Gothic
and weird. Some critics say that The Dark Knight Rises
glorifies vigilante justice, and wallows in sadism. The alleged
killer supposedly dressed himself like the Batman villain the Joker
for his grim deeds.
Questions abound about that, about the
alleged killer's family life, his lack of social skills, his
immersion in computer role-play games, his increasing failure in
his studies, even - as one more fanciful critic inquired - the
"mind-altering" nature of his neuroscience research.
It is not that there are no answers,
only that they are more complicated, interlocking, and unpalatable
than an easy mad-or-bad dismissal implies.
The Mayor, of course, may have had in
mind more metaphysical questions. President Obama acknowledged this
when he stated: "If there's anything to take away from this
tragedy, it's the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here
is limited and precious. What matters at the end of the day is . .
. how we choose to treat one another, and how we love one
Politicians mix the physical and the
metaphysical at times of crisis. It has been in evidence in the UK,
more trivially, over the Government's indignation about the use of
perfectly legal but socially unfair "aggressive" tax-avoidance
schemes by the rich and famous, on which the Treasury last week
announced a clampdown. Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are clearly
operating on a double calculus here; their free-market Hobbesian
ideology conflicts with an Aristotelian instinct for what is
socially fair (and politically advantageous).
The truth is that you cannot have it
both ways, although the essence of Conservatism since Margaret
Thatcher has been to try. Holding those tensions in balance is a
vital part of what social democracy is about.
What is important is to be aware of
that, and not to muddle arguments about efficiency and ethics,
physics and metaphysics, politics and transcendence. If we do, we
will fall prey to wishful thinking, as President Obama did when he
said that "the perpetrator of this evil act" will fade from memory,
and "what will be remembered are the good people who were impacted
by this tragedy." That is a hope, not a judgement.
To be truly radical, the philosopher
Raymond Williams once said, "is to make hope possible rather than
despair convincing". True, but that is no substitute for effective