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Phil-osophically Speaking: July 26, 2012

A Dark Night Rises

Few movies have been more bleak, punishing and existential than The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final movie in the Batman trilogy. Notwithstanding its “all’s well that ends well” finale, for 164 unrelenting minutes the audience is assaulted with a savagery that nearly belies description as the fabled city of Gotham is literally razed by a 21st-century version of Huns and Visigoths armed with killing machines and heavy duty weaponry. I don’t think movies and video games, no matter how violent, precipitate mass murder, although it’s not implausible that images of uproarious and unremitting violence may cause a brittle sanity under prolonged and extreme distress to crack, resulting in an orgy of bloodshed. This pretty much capsules what happened in a Colorado multiplex where we have 12 dead and many dozens wounded in the latest rampage by a tormented loner obsessed with killing on a mass scale.

This is not an article about assault weapons. After the Tucson murders by Jared Lee Loughner, another mentally disturbed loner, I argued against the selling of militarized assault weapons with speed loaders and rapid-capacity ammunition magazines and don’t see any point in going over well-trodden ground. Nor is it an argument about the right to keep and bear arms. The Second Amendment of the Constitution is the law of the land and it should remain so. Nor does it probe the depths of James Holmes’ afflicted and depraved psyche. The mystery of iniquity is just that, a mystery. But it is a meditation of sorts on how violence has receded from most of society even as it has become more vulnerable to individuals, like Holmes, who run amok firing automatic weapons into crowded theatres.

I find it striking, even darkly ironic, that the relative frequency of these mass killings, Cho Seung Hui of Virginia Tech, Loughner of Tucson and Andrew Brevik of Norway and of course Holmes, comes at a time when violence in society, despite the sensational publicity it receives, has dramatically decreased. In fact, we’ve never been safer. Steven Pinker, an erudite and astute cognitive scientist has given us a brilliant historical overview, a literal tour de force, on the decline of violence in contemporary society. For those who often lament what the world is coming to, then Steven Pinker’s masterful book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Lincoln’s hopeful and magnanimous words in his first inaugural address), is a happy antidote.

Pinker informs us that tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century (this was particularly shocking); that the murder rate in medieval Europe was more than 30 times what it is today and the institution of slavery, wholesale executions on the flimsiest charges, torture chambers and human sacrifice were widespread and a staple of a great many civilizations. Today, rape, hate crimes, child abuse and cruelty toward animals have been substantially reduced. By almost every measure crime is down, even though human nature has not changed. What’s the reason for this pacification? Certainly police procedures and technology have contributed in curtailing these atrocities but not nearly as much, says Pinker, as literacy, cosmopolitanism, trade and economic integration.

But these welcomed trends largely impact us collectively and offer virtually no protection against the lone wolf intent on large-scale mayhem. Perhaps nothing can fully insulate a society from these predators. One obvious approach would be improving our ability to identify, intervene and defuse potential threats. It would by no means be a catch-all mechanism but it may well offer an additional layer of protection. Currently, the law makes it very difficult for families to help a loved one who is deeply troubled. They often feel desperate and powerless. We live, after all, in a society where civil liberties are deeply cherished and if a person does not seek help and has committed no crime, the police and the psychiatric profession will likely inform you that nothing can be done. This is especially grating when James Holmes’s mother, upon being advised her son was in custody for the shootings, reportedly told police they had the right person.

It’s clear that the laws for dealing with people showing severe signs of mental disturbance need to be changed. The psychotic, the paranoid schizophrenic and other maladies triggering volcanic explosions that result in wholesale slaughter are certainly identifiable. There are recognizable outlines, contours of personality and habits that lend themselves to this classification. Of course these diagnostics cannot pinpoint threats with great specificity, but we know these malefactors are mostly male, loners, often bizarrely anti-social and are fascinated by high-powered weaponry. While most men who are loners and anti-social do not commit mass murder, if these psychological earmarks also include collecting serious firearms including, in this case, ballistic body armor, that should be a red flag. There must be a better way of targeting people who acquire raw material for killing whether purchases are made at gun shops or through the Internet, where Holmes acquired thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Targeting, with proper oversight, is critical and while I’m steadfastly observant of the protocols that allow a multicultural society to cohere with civility, I’m passionately and wholeheartedly politically incorrect when it comes to public safety. I’m all for profiling. When it comes to stop-and-frisk, I’m all hands. Profiling is an indispensable tool for preventing terrorists from blowing up airplanes, fighting criminal behavior on our streets and maybe even deterring mass murder. Honing the profile of a mass murderer into something that is more scientifically predictable is a dilemma and a challenge. But we have to start somewhere, why not start with what we know, then carefully and methodically build upon our understanding.