In my whole life I have spent a total of seven days in the United States, in 2006, to attend – of all things – a criminology conference. I had to organise my own accommodation and so I spent some time on the internet checking out customer reviews of hotels in downtown Los Angeles. This was a mistake. As most people know but I didn’t back then, these reviews are seldom if ever written by people who have had an ordinary experience and/or are in full control of their nerves. Horror stories abound, if not about the establishments themselves, certainly about the neighbourhoods, which in big cities are nearly always depicted as being critically unsafe. I quickly formed a mental picture of a place in which I would be mugged or gunned down if I so much as dared to venture outside my hotel after dark.
As it happens, downtown Los Angeles at night appeared to be mostly occupied by homeless people and sure, this was unsettling – I had never seen so many in one place – but hardly dangerous. I was reminded of a long stopover at LAX on my way back home some years earlier during which a recorded voice repeated at five-minute intervals, in English and Spanish, that travellers were not required to give money to solicitors (a word that confused me a little back then) and that the airport didn’t endorse their activities. The obsessive repetition of the warning was of course far more bothersome, intrusive and violent than the soliciting itself.
My experience of Los Angeles was perfectly ordinary, except for the sight of two FBI cars riddled with large-calibre bullets in a parking lot a short distance from Gehry’s Concert Hall. This image was closer to the America I knew through films and cop shows, the America of gun violence and permanent war between the police and the many kinds of people who live or are placed outside of the law. Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken a photograph of those two cars, but I have it now, it’s on my hard drive, and it proves to me that I really saw them, as opposed to conjuring them from the fictive America that we all inhabit. [Update: except, not really. See Witen in the comments.]
The mass shooting in Aurora last Friday is finely balanced on the boundary between the Real and the spectacle of the Real, its representation for the purposes of entertainment. That the event is already routinely referred to by news media, with ghastly laziness, as ‘Batman shooting’ shows that the choice to ride that boundary can’t be imputed to James Holmes alone. When we say ‘tragedy’ we mean the horrible thing that just happened, and tend to overlook the fact that the word originally belonged to the theatre, but now the tangle is well and truly inextricable. A man acquires a small arsenal and assaults a cinema full of strangers, styling himself as the villain of the film that is being projected onto the screen. As a response and a mark of respect, the producers of the film choose to temporarily withhold information about how much money the film has made during its opening weekend, thus of how successful the spectacle was. The next day the National Rifle Association – the body that lobbies on behalf of men who wish to acquire small arsenals, and that for many years used to be chaired by a film actor – greets its followers with the words “Good morning, shooters”. This is all theatre. Last Friday it just happens to have had real victims.
It is part of the theatre, too, to hear calls against people who politicise, or can be accused of politicising, the tragedy. These have the predictability of a recorded voice blaring out of a PA. The victims of the attack would have been okay if only they had been allowed to carry concealed weapons of their own, says Tammy Bruce in the Guardian online. The answer is more guns. Charlton Heston always went on the offensive too, as he did after Columbine. He knew that it’s what works. However that response begs the question of what it means to politicise an event like the attack on the theatre audience in Aurora. This, in the language of the NRA, simply means: liberals reflexively calling for stricter controls on gun ownership. It is in the interest of gun lobby to reduce the politics of gun violence to a question of market regulation, of supply and demand. Look at Utoya, says Bruce: didn’t Anders Breivik get hold of all the weapons he needed in spite of Norway’s strict gun laws? Couldn’t those kids have defended themselves against him, had they been armed? That a commentator can suggest, and in The Guardian of all places, that militarising children at a summer camp is the solution to mass gun violence while the President calls timidly, inanely for ‘common sense gun control’ shows to what extent the Right owns this debate.
The other cornerstone of the conservative argument is this: that madness and evil belong outside of society, therefore implicitly outside of politics. The depoliticisation of the Utoya massacre, the attempts to characterise Anders Breivik as a madman whose stated motivations couldn’t be taken seriously or at face value, much less be linked back to the people and the groups that he acknowledge to have been inspired by, might seem uniquely egregious, but how can gun violence on this scale be depoliticised at all? How is the society that isolates, the society that overlooks, the society that arms exonerate itself from all political responsibility, as it did after Columbine and is in the process of doing after Aurora? Acts of madness are like acts of God, outside of our control, claim these voices. Nor was there a chance, in the country that grants its authorities extraordinary powers of surveillance, to detect and raise alarm over the online purchase over two months of over 6,000 rounds of ammunition, in part perhaps because such purchases are not only legal but also not necessarily unusual. At any rate, says the FBI, the only defence against Lone Gunmen is other citizens reporting their suspicious behaviour. There is no technological solution, no mechanized system of control nor sweeping power of enforcement that could protect society against such a threat.
And then there is what is normal.
This tweet posted the morning after the shooting by the account of the official journal of the National Rifle Association was met with understandable outrage, to which the organization responded first by deleting the tweet, secondly by deleting the account, and thirdly by claiming that the person who posted the tweet was unaware of the Aurora shooting at the time. I see no particular reason to disbelieve this claim. What I find chilling is that on any other Friday morning this would be the greeting directed to the account’s 16,000 followers, and nobody would think of taking exception.
What does it mean to call yourself a ‘shooter’, as opposed to a gun owner, or even a gun lover, if not that what you do, what defines you, is that you put your gun to use? There is a distinct shift in rhetoric here: it is no longer the gun as an instrument of defence, not only of oneself but also of the country and its way of life – which how the NRA has historical framed the issue and leveraged its interpretation of the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution – but the gun as instrument, as tool, and not just nor primarily for sport. Behind, a massive industry that needs to not only sell the weapons but ammo as well. In fact Wal-Mart will only sell you the latter (although it’s bringing back the guns now too). And so the customers of this industry become shooters, and the act of purchasing 6,000 rounds of live ammunition is redefined as model consumer behaviour and no longer constitutes its own kind of madness.
Finally there is Batman. The one between film violence and real-world violence is the most problematic of correlations, and what happens to a culture, to a society when the scene of the spectacle becomes literally the scene of the violence is equally hard to speculate upon. If it is in fact true, as the police has claimed, that the attack was the culmination of months of careful and deliberate planning, this would neatly match the meticulously orchestrated marketing campaign for The Dark Knight Rises, adding another set of elusive correspondences. As Elliott Prasse-Freeman and Sayres Rudy argue in their analysis of the trailers for the new Batman, in contemporary cinema this film-before-the-film has become just as rich a text as the feature itself, and equally important – if not more so – to its fortunes. Blockbusters are made or broken by how their fare during opening weekend, so the decision by Warner Bros. to postpone revealing the takings of The Dark Knight Rises even by one day had a rather greater import that some might have realised. So much so that in the end they just couldn’t go through with it, and studio officials leaked the numbers to Deadline and The New York Times, expressing wonderment at how the film managed to ‘maintain much of its momentum in the wake of the killings’. There goes another industry that won’t give an inch, and there goes another consumer behaviour redefined as virtue, as resilience. If mass shootings are senseless, if they are random, incomprehensible acts of madness, then what makes sense, what is sane is for the disruption to be minimised and for normality to resume as soon as possible, along with the forgetting.
In the best piece to have been written in the hours after the shooting, The Onion gave a timeline for this process, for the ritual shows of public mourning and for what little analysis and debate would follow. It was almost certainly accurate: ‘In exactly two weeks this will all be over and it will be like it never happened.’