If we’re truly serious about stopping massacres like Aurora, we need to cure our addiction to evil.
Historians of the amok now speculate it was a redemptive act of face saving, a way for a young male to massively compensate for a perceived loss of status. The analogy to the civil massacre is obvious. But here is where things get interesting: Incidents of amok began to decline as Malay tribes modernized and Westernized. By the mid-19th century, the amok was being described and treated as a mental illness. In effect, Western psychiatric medicine disenchanted and banalized the amok—and as a result, it lost its implicit sanction as a magnificent act signaling the presence of evil spirits. And here is where things get doubly interesting. As one researcher has written: “Inexplicably, while the frequency of and interest in amok among primitive tribes were decreasing, similar occurrences of violence in industrial societies were increasing.” It is as if the pengamok were a virus that, even as it was being eradicated on the Malay island chain, leapt to the West: to Austin, to Dunblane, to Port Arthur, to Colombine, and beyond.
To define the civil massacre as the sequel to the amok will perturb some corners of the liberal mind. For even if we achieved an unlikely paradise, of media decorum and gun control, the central fact of the amok would remain untouched: its place within our own animistic worldview. We are, in short, still addicted to evil. It is our version of the gila kena hantu. While I agree with Anthony Lane, that no movie causes anyone to kill, let’s not pretend the Aurora filmgoers were attending a screening of The Sorrow and The Pity. They were watching a prime example of a genre known for the extreme nihilism of its villains; for their charismatic malevolence, and the creatively annihilative uses to which they put modern technology. Superheroes are, after all, an invention of the late 1930s. They arose in America in part as a psychic response to European fascism. Superman appeared in 1938 and gained in popularity along with the war effort. We were fighting an awesome evil that nothing short of an awesome counterpower could defeat.
A revived attraction to superheroes may in part be a response to 9/11, but I think the clue to their peculiar resurgence lies elsewhere. The rise in popularity of the blockbuster comic book film runs concurrent to the end of the Cold War; they express a resulting crisis of identity. The nature of that crisis comes home when you think about the defining feature of the Batman franchise: The astonishing, supersaturated performances of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as the Joker, counterpointed against the almost deliberately color-drained performances of Michael Keaton and Christian Bale as Batman. In the absence of a cogent notion of heroism, superhero movies nonetheless express something very real: a vestigial reservoir of awesomeness-longing—a need for the awesome villainy necessary to call forth a potentially awesome heroism.
American public figures persist in preferring a quasi-theological language of diabolism (both Romney and Obama called the Aurora shooter evil) as if the morally neutral language of psychiatric explanations somehow destigmatizes acts of violence, letting the perpetrator off the hook. The very lesson of the amok is the opposite: It was only when any notion of the amok as a manifestation of evil was set aside that the amok became fully stigmatized, and Malay culture’s quiet sanction of the pengamok’s own view of himself, as a vessel of something retributive and grand, finally withered away. Were we serious—truly serious—about making the civil massacre disappear, having it become, like the amok, nothing more than an antiquated curiosity, the history of the amok tells us precisely what to do: divest evil of its grandiosity or mythic resonance by completely banalizing it.
The idea will perturb certain other corners of the liberal mind. When Hannah Arendt returned from Jerusalem, having inspected the Nazi villain Adolf Eichmann up close, she shocked many The New Yorker subscribers by proclaiming he was, in every respect, small: small-minded, small-statured, small-souled. The concept of evil being the easiest trick by which the middlebrow mind aggrandizes itself, her readers wanted Mephistopheles; but Eichmann persisted in being small. It was an almost ontological comedown, to think that the worst mass murderer in history was not in any respect awesome. Everyone is familiar with the catchphrase the banality of evil. But it serves to obscure the truly revelatory thing Arendt concluded from her journey to Eichmann’s trial: “Only the good has depth and can be radical.” What would a world that understood the depth and the radicalness of that statement even look like? Imagine that, no matter where a poor, damaged, pitiably sick young man, terminally wounded by the insult of the world, pulled out an automatic weapon, the first and natural response of his first victim was: Not here.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.