When I go TheOnion.com, it’s for laughs, but this time it made me want to weep. Strangely enough, the humor website published one of the most poignant commentary I’ve read on the Aurora, Colorado shootings.
"Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting's Aftermath Will Play Out," reads the headline. The article goes on to quote fictitious experts and fake polling data including the “fact” that “the nation’s 300 million citizens told reporters they can pinpoint down to the hour when the first candlelight vigil will be held, roughly how many people will attend, how many times the county sheriff will address the media in the coming weeks, and when the town-wide memorial service will be held.”
The article quotes “45-year-old market analyst Jared Gerson,” who predicts, "The calls not to politicize the tragedy should be starting in an hour, but by 1:30 p.m. tomorrow the issue will have been politicized.”
Finally, after a litany of similar made up yet surprisingly accurate statements, we hear from “Jacksonville resident Amy Brennen, 32 … speaking for every other person in the country.”
“In exactly two weeks,” she says, “this will all be over and it will be like it never happened.”
Again, the entire “news” story is made up, but it hits so, so close to home. Columbine High School was shocking. Virginia Tech was shocking. Fort Hood was a little less shocking. And now Aurora. (Didn’t we just do this?)
It’s not that way in Aurora and in no way do I want to trivialize the loss of life along with the fear and grief that fills that community. But for those of us watching at home through TV and computer screens, the risk of losing our sense of shock and outrage is real.
Violence is shocking — or at least it’s supposed to be — though it loses its shock value once we get used to it. In 1993, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an article in The American Scholar entitled “Defining Deviancy Down: How We've Become Accustomed To Alarming Levels Of Crime And Destructive Behavior.” Moynihan argued that “over the past generation, the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”
Moynihan focused on crime, but the same phenomenon has been at work in entertainment.
James Holmes, who allegedly attacked the theater during the showing of The Dark Knight Rises, identified himself as “The Joker,” the arch-villian from the 2008 Batman movie, The Dark Knight.
When The Dark Knight was released in July 2008, Jenny McCartney wrote in the Telegraph (UK) that she, a professional film critic, was caught off guard by “the sustained level of intensely sadistic brutality throughout the film.” Along the way, “A man's face is filleted by a knife, and another's is burned half off. A man's eye is slammed into a pencil. A bomb can be seen crudely stitched inside another man's stomach, which subsequently explodes. A trussed-up man is bound to a chair and set alight atop a pile of banknotes.”
We know, she concludes, “that entertainment aimed at young people is becoming markedly more violent. My generation was terrified by the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; the current one is diverted with torture and agonising death.”
It’s impossible to watch that level of violence and not be coarsened. That’s particularly true when children watch violence.
Now I realize that gratuitous video violence — movies, games, Internet, TV — did not directly or independently cause James Holmes to purchase weapons and murder theater patrons. On the other hand, violence in media along with other cultural influences have set the dividing line between acceptable and deviant extremely low, deadening our instinctual shock at horror and violence. Somehow that line needs to move upward.
Of course, you expected someone to say that. After all, with Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and now Aurora under your belt, we all know the drill. That’s the pity of it.
But perhaps this time, by the grace of God, it will be different before we wait two weeks and forget it ever happened.
Publication date: July 25, 2012