Sunday, July 22, 2012

What to Blame for the Colorado Shooting?

So, this past Friday at least 12 people were killed, with 58 others wounded, 70 victims in total, in a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  The fact that it was a midnight premiere showing of the new Batman movie, The Dark Night Rises, meant that the theater was filled to capacity.  The result was the largest mass shooting in American history.

I know we all share in our sympathy for the victims and their families, and our sense of horror and outrage over this tragedy.  The natural response, then, is to ask why?  Why did this happen?  We look for reasons, explanations.  Senseless killing creates what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance, and we look to relieve that dissonance, to create psychological balance, by search for a rational explanation.  Here are some thoughts on the matter:

1.  Blame Batman.  A film full of violence, depicting vigilante justice outside of the law as entirely legitimate, seems like too strong of a connection to ignore.  Of course, it is not so much this film that is to blame, as the killer's actions were clearly premeditated, involving a great deal of planning and preparation, and this film was just opening.  But The Dark Night Rises can be seen as typical of the blockbuster motion picture that features scenes of massive destruction, explosions, acts of extreme brutality, and of course gun fire—the Shakespearean quote, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, comes to mind.   In a more general sense, there is the much studied phenomenon of the relationship between depictions of violence on the media, and acts of violence in real life.  The results of extensive research are fairly ambiguous, that for some individuals, under certain circumstances, in some situations, after being exposed to some types of violent media content, there can be an increase in aggressive and violent behavior.  It's ambiguous, but not entirely insignificant, so let's not entirely dismiss the glorified portrayal of justified and celebrated violent behavior as a factor.  But any attempt to blame the caped crusader ought to be qualified by noting that the dark knight, at least in the way that he came to be depicted in comics since the 60s, never used guns himself, and had an extreme personal abhorrence of firearms.  The story of Batman's origin, as you may recall, goes back to his childhood, when his parents are gunned down and killed by a mugger, an act of gun violence he witnessed and was helpless to prevent.  This colors Bruce Wayne for his entire life, and gives him focus for his mission, to the point of obsession, leading him to adopt the identity of Batman.  Still, this is a detail about the character that, while well known to comic book fans, can easily be lost on the mass audience of casual movie goers, and it certainly is not emphasized in the current Batman film trilogy.  I wonder if the filmmakers are rethinking that error of omission right about now?  Here is the director's statement on the shooting. taken from the official movie website:

"Speaking on behalf of the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to express our profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community. I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families."
-Christopher Nolan

If I may make a suggestion to Christopher, and Warner Bros., without suggesting that either is to blame for the tragedy, given what has happened, how about making a new film that clearly and unequivocally depicts Batman as refusing to carry a gun, despising the use of firearms to threaten and bully, commit crimes and cause harm, and indeed, as being disgusted by their very existence?  Hollywood has a reputation for embracing liberal causes, so how about it?  Or is the great media conglomerate, TimeWarner, too timid to risk angering the NRA and its supporters?

2.  Blame Theaters.  Does this sound at all absurd to you?  If it does, let me remind you, if you are of a certain age, and if not let me inform you, that movie theaters used to employ ushers who would show people to seats, help people to find the exit, assist people in other ways, and warn or remove anyone who was unruly. 

The irony today is that while we have more theaters (in the sense that the motion picture palace has been replaced by the multiplex), we have less people working in them.  Movie projection is automated, ticket sales are done by machine or online more and more, concession stands are fast food operations that appear to be more or less independent of the actual theater, and you're lucky if anyone comes in to clean up after each showing (patrons being encouraged to clean up after themselves).

 While ushers would not have been able to prevent the massacre, if there had been more personnel present in the theater, there would have been a better chance of one of them spotting that something was amiss with this particular patron.  It's not just the number of people working in the theater, it's where they're deployed, it's how they're trained (or whether they have any training to speak of), and it's how motivated they are.

 So in the aftermath of the shooting, not just in Aurora, but locally here in New Jersey and New York, and I imagine all over the country, there is police presence at or outside of movie theaters.  There is just cause for this, as copycat crimes are not unknown, but I suspect the main reason is psychological reassurance.  After all, if there had been police presence outside of the theater in Aurora, could they have responded in time to prevent much or any of the shooting?  Should movie theaters provide a marshal for each showing, or randomly distributed, like our Federal Air Marshals?

The bottom line being the bottom line, the question is, will the shooting has a significant effect on ticket sales?  Movie attendance reached its peak in the 50s, and then went into decline due to television.  Home video and cable further eroded the attraction of going to the movies, forcing cinemas to rely on the blockbuster experience created by larger screens, dynamic sound systems, and more recently 3D visuals.  But the home theater set-up duplicates many of these features, and convenience often trumps quality.  There is the immediate gratification of seeing the film now, rather than wait for its release onto video on demand and DVD formats, but the gap between the two is shrinking, in some instances disappearing.

So, it is not at all inconceivable for movie theaters to install metal detectors, and even engage in airport like security measures.  As an added bonus for them, a pat down might reveal that the patron is bringing in food not purchased at the theater, which they then might confiscate.  This may seem extreme, but security in entertainment venues is not at all unheard of in other parts of the world.  Or at sports stadiums, for that matter.  Look for it in a theater near you, coming sooner or later.

3.  Blame guns.  This is the obvious point of contention for our culture, between advocates and opponents of gun control.  As a native New Yorker, American gun culture is foreign to me.  Growing up in Queens, the only guns I ever saw were with police and security guards. When I was an undergraduate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (home of Ithaca Gun Company), a few of my fraternity brothers had shotguns in the house, and went hunting on occasion.  As you might imagine, I was a bit uneasy about that.  One time, one of them made a mistake and a shotgun accidentally went off in the house.  No one was seriously injured, the shot hit the floor, but a few pellets that ricocheted off of the tile found their way into the foot of another fellow, who had to go to the emergency room. 

When I got married and moved to New Jersey, I knew that firearms were being sold, and that there are people around who go hunting, but I have never seen or heard about any gun use in our area of northern New Jersey. We lived in an apartment building for several years, and there was a young unmarried couple living next door, and I did hear that the woman had previously been engaged, and her fiance was accidentally killed in a hunting accident, by his own father.

So, when I heard about the shooting, my immediate response was, another shooting in Colorado.  After all, Aurora is not that far from Littleton, the site of the Columbine High School shooting, with which this incident seems to have something in common.  And of course there's the whole wild west thing they have going there, but I'm not going to add "Blame Colorado" to the list because I happen to like that state a great deal (and not only because of South Park), there are many very progressive people over there, and anyway, this kind of shooting is not limited to the American southwest.  The Virginia Tech shootings also come to mind, and that's over on the eastern side of the country.  Now, it is absolutely clear that New York is unique, but I believe that the entire northeast has a different, less extreme relationship with firearms than the west and the south.

I recently was defending Neil Postman's criticism of online eduction, and new media in general, and one of the arguments raised against him was that he didn't use personal computers, for example didn't care for email, and therefore was not qualified to speak on the topic.  Of course, I disagreed, as you can learn a great deal by observing others using the technology, you can talk to other people about their experiences, you can evaluate their remarks and arguments concerning the medium, and you can generalize from other, similar types of media.  Similar arguments were made, I should add, regarding television, that you can't really criticize it unless you've actually produced a television program, a much weaker argument clearly, in that the critic still can observe what's been produced. 

But the point I'm getting at is, I admit that I do not own a gun, have never fired a gun, have never even held one.  I don't pretend to understand them, find them foreign and frightening, and am in favor of gun control legislation.  So, you can say that I am not qualified to weigh in on the subject, and maybe you're right.  I also have opinions about nuclear weapons, by the way, although I have never experienced one going off, set one off, or been near one.

So, for me, this one comes down to a simple, basic, media ecology principle.  A medium or technology has a bias, and the bias of firearms is violence.  When you have a gun in hand, everything else looks like a target. That should be obvious enough. Pick up a gun (and I have played with toy guns of course), and you inevitably aim at something, and quite often that something is another human being, even if it's just in jest or practice.  Any given medium or technology, once adopted, tends to be used. It is made to be used.  So when you have guns, they will be used.  And it is impossible to separate the positive from the negative, so they will be used in good ways and bad ways, legal and illegal, appropriate and inappropriate.

I will say that I have enough respect for the United States (admittedly being biased as an American) and the Constitution of the United States that I am willing to grant that the Second Amendment has a rationale, and there are solid arguments for respecting it. In contrast to the First Amendment, I think the Second Amendment hasn't been studied enough.  Sure, there has been a lot of discussion and debate over its interpretation and its legal ramifications, it is an amazingly ambiguous verbal construction, and of course there's much that's been said about its relation to American gun culture.  But there is even broader significance, as it relates to the dominant values of individual freedom in American culture, our traditional suspicion of government, our celebration of the vigilante hero, and our love of technology.

Are automobiles a type of arms?  Internal combustion engines do fire, after all.  So, perhaps we need to treat guns like automobiles, meaning that you need a license to own and operate them, and that they all need to be registered.  This might not prevent another tragedy, but it could trigger red flags when someone is suddenly stocking up on guns and ammunition, and that might not be a bad thing.

Blame mental illness.  That someone who commits such horrific acts is not normal goes without saying. The Batman comics are noteworthy in their evolution towards depicting villains that are criminally insane, giving the series an intense psychological emphasis.  This shift reflected the changing view on criminal behavior in American culture that can be traced back to the sixties, from the moral concept of evil to the medical notion of sick, or simply put, from bad to mad.

In our desire to reduce cognitive dissonance, we may say, he's crazy, and that explains it all away. Some might say, he's evil, and that could work too, if you are willing and able to work within a moral framework.  And we yet might find more specific reasons for why this happened, so that blame for the tragedy could also be ascribed to a need for revenge, or jealousy, or poverty, or perhaps even some highly rational motive, if it were discovered that he was paid to shoot-up the audience (highly unlikely, I know, I'm just noting that this would constitute an explanation).

What probably wouldn't work is to say, he's a criminal.  That might work if it were a matter of stealing, burglary, mugging, etc.  But of course, he is a criminal, it's doubtful that he'll be able to plea insanity, at least not successfully, given the degree of premeditation involved in the massacre, and he will quite probably be sentenced to capital punishment.  So you could certainly say that he's a criminal, but that does not reduce dissonance at all, given the lack of personal gain in the shooting.  What this ought to do, though, is call into question our use of criminality as an explanation for illegal behavior under any circumstances.  Being categorized as a criminal only tells us that the individual in question has been put on trial and found guilty. It's the judgment of the legal system, not a rationale or motivation.

Now, some have commented on what has not been said about the shooter:  that he's a terrorist.  And the fact that he was not branded as a terrorist has been connected to the fact that the shooter is white, Christian, and American.  And this is an entirely valid criticism.  Simply put, there is no clear dividing line between terrorism and criminality, and saying, he's a terrorist, is no explanation for anyone's behavior, just as saying, he's a Muslim or he's an Arab would not be an explanation.  Have some individuals who have been identified as terrorists also been found to be psychologically troubled and unstable?  Absolutely.

What we need to understand is, terrorism is not a motive.  It is a form of behavior.  Whether the motivation is political, religious, economic, or pure insanity or evil, hardly matters to the victims.  So what we need to do is to find ways to prevent this sort of behavior, as much as possible.  To keep citizens safe.  Security is the bottom line for any society.

Acts of violence can be categorized as military action, terrorism, or crime, but let's take a lesson from general semantics and not be mislead by these labels, and not become confused about the underlying reality that it is violence that is the problem, and maybe violence can never be fully eliminated, but minimizing violence is the goal.

Blame technology.  It's guns, but it's not just guns.  As we saw on 9/11, it's airplanes.  As we've seen over and over again, cars and trucks can be turned into bombs easily enough.  However much violence has always been with us, contemporary technology has increased the potential enormously.  Technology is inherently violent, as I've discussed in a philosophical vein, drawing on both Hannah Arendt and Marshall McLuhan (see my previous posts Violence and Technology, Violence and Power, Violence and Identity, and Violence and Unity), and this goes far beyond the capacity for destruction of specific technologies, and far beyond the violent effects of content and medium alike, although both are contributing factors.  But more fundamentally, this is about the generally disruptive consequences that accompany the adoption of innovations.  Moreover, technological progress has made society increasingly more complex, and therefore in certain ways more fragile, so that the effects of violent acts are greater than ever before.  

In sum, technology results in vulnerability.  

There may not be much we can do about technology, as individuals.  Certainly, there's nowhere we can run away to, as the whole earth is subject to the violence of technology, whether it's in the form of climate change, or radiation leakage.  Violence itself is a solution, in the sense that enough of it could knock us back into the stone age, but that's certainly not something a sane person would hope for. Jacques Ellul has noted that we typically seek technological solutions to technological problems, thereby exacerbating the problem, but in this case I am going to suggest a technological solution, however flawed that may be.  

It's a matter of design, and policy, together.  It's not enough to prescribe appropriate use of technology, or outlaw inappropriate use.  We need to design our technologies so as to minimize their use for violence, regardless of the motivation, and we need to design our technologies so as to minimize our vulnerability to violence.  We need to design safeguards for our guns, and vehicles, and buildings, and our media of communication too.  We need to design safeguards for our technologies, because there is no way to design safeguards for our fellow human beings.



Mike Plugh said...

Very interesting. The 2nd point is one that's been bouncing around in my head, but you put it very well here. One of the most important things about these situations, to me, is that they reflect a loss of community. Movie-going was one of many ways that people used to interact with their neighbors and extended community members. You met under the marquee, chatted for a few minutes before going in, and then had something in common to discuss later. The fact that we almost never know anyone at the theater (including the few employees that remain) is a reflection of our cultural distance. "I am my brother's keeper" rang true to people who actually knew their "brothers and sisters," but is mainly an empty cliche in a time when we're so disconnected with our geographic neighbors.

Blame is a tough game to play. It's always too simple. It's the same problem we find when we try to talk about cause. "It's the system, man." General semantics and media ecology are rooted in the desire to empower people to correct the imbalances that lead to unwanted destruction. For our community, these things ought to be fuel for our efforts.

Lance Strate said...

Thanks, Mike. I think the distinction between act and motive is key. A behavioral approach such as symbolic interaction, which media ecology incorporates, focuses on behavior. And in the end, what counts is what we do, not why we do it.