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After the Dark Knight killings

26 July 2012

There is a simple response to the cinema shooting, argues Paul Vallely

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 frightening.

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 another."

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 gun-control laws.


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