Rethinking virtual violence


James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 59 others during his shooting rampage.


RJ Sangosti-Pool

Some Americans have wrung their hands since last week’s shooting in Colorado about the sickeningly familiar pattern that follows this country’s mass murders: several days of requisite talk about the clearly desperate need to force gun-control laws on our gun-happy society followed by minimal action to lessen the shocking ease of buying guns and ammunition.

However, much less is said about an even more ubiquitous commodity that may also help explain our astounding number of gun deaths: the glorification of violence in our movies, video games and other pop culture.

The connection isn’t too obscure in this case: a gunman firing at the audience of a film, apparently motivated in some way by its prequel, in which a villain’s gruesomely violent crimes are juxtaposed with a depiction of his troubled, intelligent mind. Viewers don’t necessarily sympathize with Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Night,” but the actor’s portrayal glorifies his actions.

Some have denied violence in films has anything to do with real-life crime, including The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, who assured that James Holmes was “not driven by those movies to kill.”

We have been here before, many times; once, very specifically, when John Hinckley, Jr., became fixated on “Taxi Driver”, which came out five years before Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. What holds true then remains the case today: no film makes you kill. Having a mind to kill, at least in any systematic fashion, means that your mind is ready-warped; that the warping may well have started long before, perhaps in childhood; and that you may perhaps seek out, or be drawn to, areas of sensation—notably those entailing sex or violence—which can encourage, inflame, or accelerate the warping.

Although “The Dark Knight” is no “Taxi Driver,” saying that films may not necessarily create killers is stating the obvious. Gun-control critics, too, repeat that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” My concern is that the incessant depiction of on-screen deaths may encourage those already disposed to kill — whatever their motives — to act on their desires.

A recent study backs numerous previous surveys that show watching violence makes people, especially teenaged boys, more inclined to accept violence. After tracking brain waves and other responses to the depiction of violence, researchers concluded that watching violence made adolescents more likely to commit it.

That should be heeded when 80 percent of all firearm deaths among 23 populous, high-income countries took place in the United States.

But reducing virtual violence raises different questions about our society’s nature. On-screen carnage supports multi-billion dollar entertainment industries that it’s hard to imagine any interest group being able to confront, in a country where free trade is gospel and profit king. Witness the failure to stop the grotesque growth of bankers’ salaries since the exposure of their disgraceful greed that precipitated the global financial crisis and left so many Americans homeless.

Despite our still-vibrant civil society, the dominance of crass commercialism is eroding civility and civic-mindedness along with the middle class. As the one percent takes an ever larger share of our GDP, we have become a society in which very little is done to prevent murder partly because no one expects anything can or should be done about it.