Roving thoughts and provocations

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After Aurora: The Devil We Don’t Know

Nardo di Cione: Cappella Strozzi di Mantova (detail)

People have always had an appetite for horror and violence. In a fourteenth-century fresco by Nardo di Cione, in Florence’s basilica of Santa Maria Novella, the devil (bat wings, horns, cloven feet) arrogantly rules over his section of the chapel wall, slapping around naked sinners en route to hell. It is one of the liveliest images in the church; it must have been one of the congregation’s favorites. Today, though Satan continues to haunt the private and public cosmologies of the faithful, I—like many Americans, I would assume—can go for quite a long while without having a serious conversation about the devil.

Perhaps we no longer need a mythical being with horns and a tail now that the media is so eager to offer us the latest example of malignance made flesh. Mass killers become celebrities of evil, and like any media stars, lose some of their luster once someone more violent and photogenically mad comes along. For over a year, I kept, in my files, a copy of the January 11, 2011 New York Daily News headlined “Face of Evil” and featuring a photo of Jared Lee Loughner, whose Tucson shooting spree killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Recently I looked for it and couldn’t find it, but I can still easily visualize Loughner’s demented grin, his pointed ears and oddly shaped bald head. I’d been thinking of him as I watched the news footage of James Holmes, with his clown-orange hair, nodding off during the reading of the charges against him stemming from the murder of twelve people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater.

Despite their tonsorial differences, both men share the look of the deranged elf, the ventriloquist’s rogue dummy. Armed with a pitchfork instead of a gun, both could pass for a high-ranking devil, or Satan himself, in a Renaissance painting. Though perhaps I only think that because I’ve just returned from seeing Nardo di Cione’s frescoes in Florence: Satan is energized, proudly alone in the roiling hive of demons and sinners, thoroughly enjoying the agonies of the damned.

But if we no longer believe in Satan, then what do we make of our sense that something is wrong with the world, that a random malevolent shooter lurks in the schoolyard or the cinema lobby? Our collective disquiet about the mass murders of our time is intensified by the sense that they select their victims at random; that they have come from different backgrounds and harbor dissimilar grudges, and that we have failed to come up with an “explanation” for their actions, or a reliable template to help predict or avert an attack. And yet we remain reluctant to accept the possibility that evil is not a problem that can be solved or a question that has a solution. How do we reconcile our wish to prevent further violence and to protect ourselves and our families with the suspicion that, as those who believed and believe in Satan would argue, evil is an element in the universal order, an aspect of nature and of human nature, a force and a constant threat that exists—and will continue to exist—despite our best efforts to understand and eradicate it?

After each eruption of psychotic violence, our response is to rehearse the same discussions that the last incident inspired, as if new answers might yet emerge from old debates. Thus, since the Aurora murders, newspaper essays and blog posts have questioned whether certain films (in this case, The Dark Knight Rises, at whose premiere the Colorado shootings occurred) help incite, or contribute to, these murderous outbursts. But no matter how often we cite John Hinckley Jr.’s obsession with Taxi Driver, no matter how many scientists monitor the brain waves of teens playing Grand Theft Auto, we can’t manage to convince ourselves that films, TV shows, and video games cause mental illness. We know the mentally ill can become fixated on a fictive narrative, but common sense tell us that violence can just as easily be triggered by a hallucination, an imagined insult, a chance encounter on the street. Which of the above should we regulate to keep a tragedy from occurring?

The other argument that these episodes inevitably revive concerns the issue of gun control. This time, liberal bloggers and Facebook posters reacted as if conservative columnist David Brooks had suddenly experienced a significant IQ surge after he stated the obvious on the op-ed page of The New York Times: Tighter gun control would decrease crime and violence, but people determined to kill lots of other people will still find a way to do it. We all know that shootings of this sort have occurred in countries with much stricter regulations on firearms than our own—for example, Norway, where last summer Anders Breivik shot sixty-nine people at a summer camp near Oslo.

I have been using the plural: shootings. But to the victims and their loved ones, each is a singular event. Unlike the public’s interest, their pain is permanent and enduring. That knowledge, along with our fear, is what the media traffics in. And the grieving victims are in no condition to decide if they want their agony used in the ratings battle with competing networks as their story becomes news, the only news, the subject of special updates and hour-long specials. The further irony is that that the killers become household names, but the victims mostly remain anonymous and are forgotten by all but their own friend and families.

For a while these events snag our attention and give us, as a culture, something to talk about. Not only are we receiving a painful-pleasurable jolt of fear, but we are being confirmed in our sense that the strangers you should care most about, the people whose grief you feel almost like your own grief, are the ones who look most like you, the ones who do things you can imagine you and your family doing. The media’s preference for stories about (preferably white) American victims—as opposed to reports of violence further from home—helps persuade us it’s fine to feel that way: a natural human instinct.

Innocent citizens in Mexico are regularly being sprayed with bullets in the course of their daily lives. But we can’t quite imagine ourselves waiting in line at a clinic in Veracruz, whereas we might think: Hey, I almost took the kids to the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in my town! The number of Syrian civilians killed daily during the last months surely outnumber the dead in Colorado. But I haven’t seen Assad’s mug shot on a tabloid headlined “Face of Evil.” Am I not supposed to worry about blameless Afghan citizens killed by mistake during a drone attack? Why should intentional violence perpetrated by narcos, soldiers, dictators, or machines—and resulting in the accidental deaths of the innocent—seem less evil to us than the methodical picking out of random strangers in a move theater? Aren’t all such incidents variations, in a sense, on a single theme—the theme being the evil things that crazy or “sane” people will do to one another given the opportunity, license, and a weapon?

Do I expect this to change? Do I really believe that one person will read this blog and think, Hey, she’s right, I really should care as deeply about those clinic patients in Veracruz and wedding guests in Kandahar as I do about the movie-goers in Colorado? I don’t, no more than I expect that mass violence will stop functioning as mass entertainment. I’m not critiquing a situation so much as describing one that exists and will likely continue.

I suppose one could say that Jared Loughner’s grin and John Holmes’s neon hair sell newspapers the way Nardo di Cione’s devil sold salvation. The difference is that the devil, unlike Loughner and Holmes, played a cautionary role. Be good, go to church, tithe, confess—and perhaps avoid the inferno. But who would know enough to stay home from the movies or the mall? Every time we leave the house, we’re taking our lives in our hands! The randomness is part of the terror and part of the fascination, just as that fascination may be an ineradicable part of our nature.

Meanwhile, we continue to believe, or to hope, that every problem has a solution, every disease a cure waiting to be discovered. We advocate better treatment for the mentally ill, a more effective way to keep guns out of the hands of the violent and the mad. We’d like to think we can protect ourselves with social reform, or that another meaningful essay on gun control or cinematic gore may somehow help. A recent posting on the World Socialist Web Site is enviably certain about the roots of violence. ”How and under what conditions individuals live, not their biochemistry play the critical role…Those who commit mass killings have specific psychic histories and serious disorders, but the disorders have their ultimate source in existing social relationships and the prevailing social atmosphere.” But if that’s the case, why don’t more doctoral candidates in neuroscience do what James Holmes did?

I too would like to see stricter gun control, attentive and competent social services, more readily available mental health care, communities and individuals that notice and take action when someone seems to be going dangerously off the rails. I agree that a more equal and compassionate society might relieve some of the pressures that drive the mentally ill to violence. But the unfortunate truth is that, even if we pass intelligent new laws and correct the worst of our social inequities and injustices, there will always be some tormented individual compelled by a chemical imbalance, inner demons (but not the devil!), soulless capitalism, or some private compulsion to act out the most painful, destructive, violent impulses of the culture. We can’t blame it on Hollywood, the NRA, the government, or the media.

Perhaps we can make ourselves safer, but we will never be safe. Call it mental illness or evil, a flaw in the system or the design—random mass violence is one of the visions of hell we live with. Somewhere, lost in my house, like the front page with Jared Lee Loughner’s photo, is a CD of the great country duo, The Louvin Brothers, singing a sad and beautiful gospel hymn entitled “Satan Is Real.”

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