Violent Trauma, The Aurora Shootings and The Way of Lunacy

There are a number of ways to deal with the experience of violent trauma.There’s therapy, which of course takes many forms: talking through the experience, associated memories, feelings and thoughts with a paid professional; art therapy, premised on giving vent and voice to your negative feelings and emotions through the creative impulse in a medium such as painting, sculpture or music; there’s hypnotism, drawing the suppressed negativity to the surface whilst in a mesmerised state; there’s repression, which we all do a bit of every day, i.e. we suppress the impulse to throttle our bosses because we submit to certain types of behaviour in order to live in civilized society; and we repress a certain amount of stress in order to function in every day life. Men are actively encouraged to repress their sentiments and affections for fear of appearing too soft, the long term effects of which are often cited as, among other things the reason why shaking baby syndrome occurs more often in boys and the reason Irish males between the ages of 18-25 account for one of the highest suicide rates in Europe.

And of course there’s fantasy, not in itself a terrible or deleterious element of a constructive course of psychotherapy, but when prescribed by an amateur or a petition of social media users as a way of helping 58 shaken victims by confronting them with an image directly associated with the violent trauma they have experienced, as the above appeal that I came across posted on facebook three days after the shooting, started by Emily Sanchez, requests of Welsh-born star of The Dark Knight Rises Christian Bale, then it starts to sound a little bit less healthy and a bit more deranged.

The request tacitly acknowledges that the film will be indelibly associated with the horrifying experience inflicted on theatregoers by James Holmes. Else what would be the efficacy in having Bale dress up as Batman except as some kind of reparation of the image in the victims’ minds for the upset that it may still be continuing to cause as a psychological symbol. But let’s stop for a second. If you are dealing with the mental trauma associated with gunshot wounds or even being witness to an attack like this, in which your memory is clouded with smoke, gunfire, bodies falling, running all around and screams of terror and anguish and hovering above it all in your grey matter is the image of the DC Comics hero, larger than life looming towards you on a cinema screen, what is going go be the effect of seeing the actor himself, striding purposefully towards you in a hospital bed, wearing the exact same costume, replicating and amplifying the imaginational icon of fear for you? I can think of nothing more fear-inducing.

Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed and I do think it’s good and noble of the actor to have gone to visit the victims of the shooting as himself, but isn’t there a strong chance we’d be seeing a second set of headlines about further upset caused if this insane appeal had been acted on? The philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in an analysis of The Joker, Batman’s nemesis and the character that James Holmes allegedly identified himself with before opening fire, says that the clown prince of crime is ‘not a man without a mask, but, on the contrary, a man who is his mask — there is nothing, no “ordinary guy” beneath it.’ What kind of message are we sending if there is no ordinary guy beneath the mask of The Dark Knight, that there is no piecing together the brokenness of violence, no dissembling the experience of trauma?

Not only is this attempt to deal with the tragedy dangerous, but it is also insultingly trivialising for the victims. You would not see an appeal like this with any other situation in which a group from the public have been deliberately terrorised: not a Holocaust survivor, not a refugee from Iraq, not a family member who has lost a loved one in an IRA bombing. You may as well send Adam West, belly sagging over his utility belt, Robin at his side smashing fist against palm crying, ‘Holy travesty Batman! We’ve just made light of an unspeakable horror!’ And if that sounds flippant, it is only to illustrate the undeniable flippancy in Sanchez’s probably well-intentioned and unfortunately popular effort.

The worst part about this campaign is that it seems to actively deny the real problem. It attempts to engage with nightmares through the use of escapism, instead of engaging with the issue in real, complicated terms. That poor, unfortunate community in Colorado, has sustained terrible loss and yet, as is the worrying trend in the wake of gun violence in America, firearm sales have spiked for fear that those pesky legislators in Washington DC may try through their dictatorial power of democratic process pass a law in some cockamamy attempt to protect the scaredy cat, commie citizens of this beloved nation. Fascists masquerading as elected representatives seem oblivious to the fact that we have to bear arms to protect ourselves from the fearsome colonial overlords trying any minute to quarter themselves in our homes. We must continue to perpetuate a perfectly healthy paranoia in the national psyche about ourselves and continue to desensitise our children to violence while guillotining any serious, difficult discussion about the real reasons individuals end up blurring the line between the value of human life and the enacting of a twisted psychological vision.

Until we, as a nation, recognise our collective culpability and initiate difficult national discourses about these issues, without leaders who only seem to grudgingly acknowledge days after the event that something must be done by the government of America to protect the citizens of America, I fear these unspeakable acts of violence will continue. Much will come out in the next few weeks about James Holmes and the unregenerable evil within his dark pit of a soul. It is almost certain that somewhere, he confused symbols of fantasy with his version of reality. Let us try to fight the good fight and refuse to give in to the same temptation. What do we become otherwise?

And I do know how it is. You see something in the sidebar or in front of you as you’re scrolling down and it’s a nanosecond of your time and an iota of effort to ‘like’ or ‘share’. I’ve liked everything from Matt Smith to Debbie Harry and I’m pretty sure I’ve shared a map of Panem because I thought, ‘Yeah, that makes sense with what the book says,’ but there must be a line at which you stop and think about spreading an arguably callous, wrong-headed campaign. I also think that Facebook and other social media can be a force to effect great social change and information sharing, as jives with Tim Berners-Lee’s great vision, but we also have to act conscientiously in what is by nature a superficial environment that often feels like it is all surface and no substance.

I have a feeling there are those who might think that I am spoiling a well-intentioned act, but there are many well-intentioned efforts that have ended in a jeremiad of despair, attempts to create a stronger German state for instance in 1938; more recently the attempt to prevent bloodshed through the location and elimination of weapons of mass destruction annihilating thousands of innocent Iraqis in the process; the effort to monitor the usage of libraries and the internet by free citizens in the name of preventing terrorist atrocities, swapping freedom for an anxious sense of security. We all mean well, but the extent to which we carry out our ‘good intentions’ can pave the way to a better world or a very bad place, as the adage goes.

I would end by saying that if I have caused offence, ‘that you have but slumber’d here‘ but that would be to attempt an escape again, to elide the real and dark chapter in our nation’s history that we must scrutinise unflinchingly if we are to avoid repeating it.

Do remember, I may disagree with you, but I’ll do as Voltaire would have done to defend your right to say it.

This post was informed by the following article:

And Jason Farago speaks to our tendency as a nation to avoid complex national discussions in this article:

This BBC Radio show features a fascinating discussion. Only about 28 minutes does someone finally call in and add a sensible voice to the discussion:

2 responses

  1. Pete, this was such an insightful post. I agree wholeheartedly. Thankfully, I didn't see the ridiculous Batman request that you wrote about, but I will admit to snickering at the "make your profile picture a cartoon if you hate pedophilia" (or whatever the hell that was). Obviously my example is silly and wouldn't affect victims one way or the other, but it's a good example of how we are moving our lives online in a really vapid, thoughtless way. As far as our lack of political movement on issues like gun control, I'm beginning to think we're a lost cause. My only hope is that Obama toughens up a bit on these issues if he is re-elected, as he will no longer be concerned with pleasing the "middle" (otherwise known as right leaning people who were never going to vote for him anyway).

  2. Thanks, Marina. I do worry an awful lot. The World Service radio programme that I linked to was insane. The whole initial panel of people there just did not think there was any way through legislation that any of the tragic events in Aurora could have been prevented. Halfway through, an American psychiatrist called up and said how important it was to look for warning signs and she was practically shouted down for 'dangerous thinking'. Worrying times indeed.

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