Reflections on Tragedy

I love Batman, which means that this entire week I have been almost rappelling off the walls with excitement over the coming release of The Dark Knight Rises. In the last days I rewatched both Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, and listened to almost nothing but Hans Zimmer’s scores while writing my dissertation.

It is that same enthusiasm that led moviegoers to the midnight release in Aurora, CO last night. My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones, to those injured, and for the life-changing horror this entails for so many. These murders have become a national tragedy, and it is important–especially for our community–to reflect on them. Before continuing, I must note that in our country, people are shot and killed every day. Yet most of those crimes do not receive anywhere near the same national attention as Aurora has. Sadly, many of the disparities in press coverage paid to different killings are intimately linked to the race and social class of the assailants and victims. But I do not think that is the case with Aurora. Rather, this tragedy has grabbed so many of us because, as Lauren so brilliantly discusses in her Vlog, an attack at a movie theater is an assault on “one of our happiest collective activities.”

Movies and art can allow us to reflect on personal issues and societal challenges in new and powerful ways–which makes it a particularly cruel irony for this horror to have happened at the premier of the final of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. More than most Hollywood blockbuster series, the Batman films are not just action movies, but serious meditations about violence and its consequences. Bruce Wayne’s entire life is shaped by the murder of his parents. His internal struggles over being Batman, his seeming inability to form more than a handful of meaningful relationships – all of these revolve intimately around the trauma of violence. As Batman, his one unbreakable principle is to never consciously take a life. Moreover, in his conflicts with R’as al Ghul, the Scarecrow or the Joker, Batman must constantly confront questions about the nature of violence, and particularly whether his use of force actually just perpetuates violence rather than ending it.

In our lives, and in the work of the Harry Potter Alliance, we often rely on fictional stories to help us comprehend ourselves, our emotions, and our world. Yet in a moment of real tragedy like this, we may have the instinct to retreat, to worry that fiction is an escape which is too luxurious or even dangerous to take. Yes, Batman is about violence, but what meaning does that have next to this actual event? While such instincts are understandable, we should not retreat from our love of story. The HPA has always been about taking the fantasy worlds we love and applying them to the here and now – especially when confronting the scary and horrible parts of our world.

The Batman series provides a perfect vehicle for this. In The Dark Knight, one of the Joker’s grandest plots involves planting bombs on two ferries taking people out of Gotham and out of harm’s way. One ship holds prisoners and the other, everyday citizens. The Joker shuts the ships’ power off and announces to each one that there is a detonator onboard which controls the explosives on the other ship. The Joker says he will set off the bombs at midnight–that is, unless one ship’s passengers decide to blow the other ship up first, in which case they will be spared. The Joker expects that one or the other passengers will choose to push the button, thus proving how truly selfish and immoral humans at their core really are.

For much of this sequence it seems that one or the other set of passengers will destroy the other ship. Yet, in the end, neither group presses the button – common human decency (not wanting to kill) and a belief in the decency of your fellow humans (the hope that others will treat you with kindness and respect) wins out. In turn, this moment provides us our only vision of the Joker perturbed or confused. As much as Batman may have beaten him, even more so, humanity has defeated him. He has been proven wrong; even in extreme situations of fear and the call of self-preservation, people can act out of decency and solidarity with their fellow humans.

It is that faith and hope in humans we must carry forward. The movies are a place of communal hope, inspiration, and escape – at their best they evoke some of the best about what we are as humans. We should embrace that experience and not let distrust and fear overcome us. I will be going on Sunday with a group of friends, all of them social justice advocates, to see The Dark Knight Rises. We will watch, enjoy, discuss and then march on with building better lives and a better world. Join us.

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One Comment

  1. Amy

    July 21, 2012 at 12:23 am

    Paul, thank you for the insightful and thoughtful blog., I submit, we live in a world that is sometimes cruel and cold, yet humanity ultimately proves itself to be more communal and less selfish in the face of real terror.

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