My column for The Guardian:—
Everyone’s a critic, as the say — except when national tragedy hits a movie theatre, and they all become Sociology Professors. The recent shooting in Aurora has loosed a spreading oil-slick of opinion as to its causes and conditions. Some want an end to midnight screenings. Others want costumes banned in theatres. Opponents of movie violence have, meanwhile, piled onto the scrum. “The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it's not so terrible,” director Peter Bogdonavich told The Hollywood Reporter. “Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It's almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. It's all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy.”
That’s how it always goes with arguments about movie violence. It’s always someone else being desensitized — it’s always “them,” those “others”, or “us” — never the person who wants it toned down. It’s never “me.” I’ve been desensitized. I’ve been numbed. “A million violent movies have the cumulative power to desensitize and destabilize, to make things worse, and that’s what we’ve been seeing the past quarter century or so, the million movies,” argued Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, nevertheless failing to find herself, or her readers, among the impressionable. “You can go to a horror movie and be entertained or amused,” she argued. “But there are unstable people among us, and they are less defended against dark cultural messages.”
There are actually three arguments here, posing as one. The first is that movies have gotten more violent; and the more violent they’ve gotten, the more desensitized we’ve grown; thus necessitating more violent violence. This is unarguable. The climax of Bonnie and Clyde, which so riled everyone in 1968, looks kind of tame today, with lots of rolling and writhing of the kind parodied by Jean Luc Godard in Bande à part. Violence is like inflation, or the news, or fish. It doesn’t keep. In ten years time that is exactly how the latest Tarantino will look: yesterday’s violence, yesterday’s news.
The second argument, running alongside the first and occasionally called on to fill in the gaps, is that movie violence desensitizes us to the real thing: all those gunshots onscreen make us less likely to appreciate the gravity of actual bullets. “A hundred studies have demonstrated conclusively that viewing violence on the screen increases aggression in those who watch it, particularly children,” pointed out Carl Cannon at RealClearPolitics.
This, too, is unarguable: exposure to violent films leads, in the short term, to more aggressive behavior. In one test, a group of subjects"received either an insulting or neutral evaluation of themselves from their supposed partner and then watched either a prize fight or an exciting but nonaggressive scene. After this, they either had an opportunity to evaluate their partner right away or they had to wait an hour before evaluating him. On scoring the subjects' written statements about the partner it was found that (1) for those given the immediate opportunity to be aggressive, the violent movie increased the strength of the angered subjects' initial attack on their partner over that displayed by the similarly insulted men shown the nonaggressive film; (2) if the angry subjects had to wait an hour before evaluating their partner, there was no difference between the aggressive and nonaggressive movie groups". In other words: after watching a boxing match you are more likely to get you into an argument with your partner, not less.
All that is common sense. You probably already knew as much. There is an intergalactic space-field of difference, however, between “arguing with your partner” and “pointing a a semi-automatic assault rifle at a six-year-old and squeezing the trigger” as Holmes did. The very thought is revolting to most people, so counter to our hard-wiring does it run, so much so that even reading that last sentence probably lit up your amygdala — the part of the brain that deals with emotional response: empathy, remorse, guilt and the like. It’s also the part of the brain that is largely dormant in psychopaths like Columbine shooter Eric Harris. “His brain was never scanned, but it probably would have shown activity unrecognizable as human to most neurologists,” writes Dave Cullen in his remarkable book, Columbine. Nobody yet knows quite what Holmes is — he could turn out to be schizophrenic — but the highest likelihood is that he is same genetic misfire as Harris, a psychopath, identifiable by two major distinguishing characteristics. “The first is a ruthless disregard for others; they will defraud, maim, or kill for the most trivial personal gain. The second is an astonishing gift for disguising the first.”
Their whole personality is a lie, undetectable often to the parents who raised them. “A correlation exists between psychopaths and unstable homes — and violence upbringings seem to turn fledgling psychopaths more vicious. But current data suggests those conditions do not cause the psychopathy; they only make a bad situation worse… Symptoms appear so early, and so often in stable homes with normal siblings, that the condition seems to be inborn.”
To conflate the inhuman lack of affect which afflicts psychopath short-term desensitization felt by a normal person watching violent movies is a mistake: psychopaths cannot be desensitized. There's nothing to desensitize. As Martin Amis observed in the New Yorker in 1994, movies are “unlikely to affect anything but the style” of their atrocities. Harris and Klebold may have geeked out over their “really cool” double-barreled shotguns because it reminded them of the Tarantino-produced Desperado, but in many ways their movie-fandom was one the more normal thing about them — spookily normal, in the same way that their pause for soda in the cafeteria was — but normal nonetheless.
What was abnormal about them is a very hard thing to understand, in part because the condition shreds all human understanding: it’s like trying to empathize with a black hole. At the same time, national tragedies demand answers, so people turn to things they can understand. They blame violent movies, or videogames, or midnight screenings, or lax gun laws, or bullies, or Satan, although only one of those things measured up in the mind of Eric Harris as an antagonist worthy of his time and attention. “Fuck you Brady” he wrote in his journal of the Brady Bill, which put in place a series of background check for anyone purchasing firearms, “thanks to your fucking bill I will probably not get any!” He didn’t want to draw undue attention to himself before he pulled the trigger, although he did write a school paper in which he probed the Brady Bill for loopholes, and found them: it only applied to licensed dealers, he found, not private dealers or gun shows. “The FBI have just shot themselves in the foot,” he concluded.
The bulk of the arsenal they used would end up being purchased at Tanner Gun show. “We… have…. GUNS!” he wrote in his journal. “We fuckin’ got ‘em you sons of bitches!” The only thing illegal about them was their barrel length.