Nothing could be more natural in the face of the unassimilable loss that is Aurora than the call for us to come together or the exhortations from our leaders that we are so much stronger than the violence wrought against us. Psychologically, these moments of communal affirmation may well be essential. They reduce suffering and trauma. They are welcome.
So what I’m emphatically not saying is that such appeals to our sense of community and our common bonds should be diminished or silenced. Yet a thought experiment might be worth trying. What would happen if in the wake of the next horrific shooting (it’s coming, by the way: these are now part of the structure of American life) the calls for community, for coming together, were left aside? What would happen if we were to experience the next brutality separately and alone? No appeals for communal outpouring of aid. No praise for our resilience. No calming words about how much stronger we are than the they of evil.
I’m not here to suggest what would happen—because in fact no one knows. That’s why it’s a thought experiment. Offered here is a purely speculative effort at imagining what might happen—no more than that.
Imagine then our thought experiment in action: a terrible shudder of violence has just unfolded, but in this case not followed by the usual declarations about our communal strength. Given no consolation, left to fall downward on and on in our separateness, alone with the jagged mechanism of our isolate thought, down into the dark cloud field that such violence actually opens in us, we might finally sink into a hostile landscape of pure individuality, recourseless, fearful, enraged, destructive—detached and bereft.
This possibility is what makes responsible leaders rush to speak up for community in the face of such tragedies. And it’s no joke. Alone we would be turned over to the demons. But here’s where the thought experiment comes in. What if, in this fading away of the communal, an illusory and even mythic sensation of our togetherness were torn away too? What if in this painful moment of truth we were actually able to see ourselves as we really are? In other words, what if we were to have a genuine experience of our every-man-for-himself society? Who knows where such a revelation would lead. The thought experiment doesn’t require that closure. But it does seem to open up the possibility of a terrifying experience of our reality.
Or another outcome, less apocalyptic this one, more optimistic: what if an experience of our isolation and pure individuation actually led to a deeper and more authentic hunger for genuine community—perhaps even (and here the optimism flies over the moon) to some recognition that community is more than a feeling. It requires structures. It must arise out of our way of life, instead of being a coping mechanism only pressed into service when someone has once again enacted the mass murder script on the American stage.
Some would perhaps follow this line of reasoning through another question: how is it that we live in a society in which isolated young men can purchase an arsenal of weaponry, ammunition, and perhaps explosives, with impunity, with no oversight? And the thought occurs: perhaps if we did not rush so quickly headlong into consolation, this question might be cleared of its categorical political baggage. Even some of those who rushed out to buy guns after the election of the nation’s first black president might just suffer a moment’s reconsideration, once the consolations and intensities of groupthink were denied them.
Or instead—left to brood alone about the meaning of such an attack—maybe we’d follow our thinking in erratic directions, into taboo territories. Consider for example the clear prohibition against asking what Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies had to do with the killings. With no one to shout us down (and maybe this is isolation’s unique value) we might, some of us at least, entertain thoughts about why it was the Batman saga that the killer chose as the setting of his mayhem.
This is not to advocate for the idea that the film goaded the killer into action. It’s to suggest that thinking about violence in our society and in the products that entertain us might be fruitful. Nolan himself issued a statement following the shootings. “The movie theater is my home and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” But what if Nolan’s film itself violates that ‘hopeful and innocent place’? Having not seen the new film, I obviously can’t comment on it—but I did see the 2008 movie that preceded it. One man’s reaction: I found it to be an appalling jumble of contradictions that finally cohered into an ugly justification—after buildings fell in clear reference to the 9/11 attacks—for vigilante violence and torture.
I realize many will disagree. They will cite (and praise) the film’s ambiguity, since after all, isn’t art supposed to enlarge our sense of the space of uncertainty and ambiguity in our lives—forgetting entirely that the work in question is a cartoon and is seen by many (most?) of its audience as such. Artists have always wanted to have it both ways: to titillate, console, and aggrandize the consumers of their work, while delivering suitably ‘progressive’ messages or critiques of social conditions. But Hollywood is more shameless in this than the other arts, and Nolan is doing nothing if not following a time-honored tradition. His Batman saga fits what must have been the film industry’s motto all along: Hollywood—we make vengeance palatable for America.
Entertaining such thoughts has value, not as a way to deliver a brief against Nolan and his movie but because it might lead us in the direction of actually undertaking to untangle the meaning of the violence that haunts our actual national life—from predator drones to prison rapes to the endless toll of mundane and undramatic murders that unfold daily, which action movies do not reflect so much as provide a comforting screen for (pun intended).
But please, don’t get all bent out of shape. I’m only suggesting a thought experiment. A what-could-happen-if scenario. I proposed a couple of outcomes—and perhaps not the most important ones. Remembering this: what matters in my view is the possibility of thinking about what’s happened in more idiosyncratic ways, without consolation, in isolation, adrift in arenas that would be taboo in groups. Who knows what such thinking might reveal about who we are and what we are becoming, if such unexpected lines of thought were pursued in the privacy of an un-ameliorated grief and fear, before we rushed to come together as a community and ‘move on’?