In 1996, a man shot and killed 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania. If degrees of abjectness are assignable in such cases, for a massacre to unfold at Port Arthur was, for Australians, doubly awful. As Robert Hughes wrote in The Fatal Shore, his superlative history of the country’s origins as a penal colony: “Port Arthur has always dominated the popular historical imagination in Australia as the emblem of the miseries of transportation, ‘the Hell on Earth.’” Since the late 1970s, the ruins at Port Arthur, once the British Empire’s most pitiless labor camp, had been treated on the model of the European death camps; as a secular holy place, a site to wander in while meditating on how human beings subjugate and deform and generally thieve the dignity from other human beings. One of the first victims of the Port Arthur massacre, facing the barrel of the gun, said simply: “Not here.”
As a nation in no small part ancestored by convicts, Australia has a sober relationship to criminality, and the country’s response to the Port Arthur massacre was magnificent in its sobriety. The federal government enacted strict gun control laws and initiated a massive firearms buyback program. (In the 18 years prior to the Port Arthur massacre, Australia experienced 14 mass shootings; in the subsequent 16 years, there have been none.) But the reaction to the Port Arthur tragedy went beyond legislation and into a serious attempt to understand the causes of the “civil massacre,” as it’s labeled in the literature, an effort that began more or less immediately. The Port Arthur perpetrator had been assigned a defense psychiatrist named Paul Mullen. When Mullen first interviewed the shooter, he was struck by his repeated queries about the death toll: He wanted to know if he had exceeded the body count of the Dunblane massacre in Scotland, which had occurred six weeks earlier.
Mullen had a suspicion about his client’s repellent one-upmanship, and his research confirmed it: that civil massacres were by their nature copycat crimes, “modeled,” as Mullen has since written, “on Rambo-like images and informed by knowledge, and occasionally study, of prior massacres.” While it is true that civil massacres occurred throughout the 20th century, they were rare until the mid-1960s, when the phenomenon took a grimly familiar shape with the so-called “tower sniper.” The incident at the University of Texas, in which a former Marine held the Austin campus under siege from a bell tower, received massive media attention and was even turned into a well-known TV movie. It provided, according to Mullen, a kind of ritualized script (Mullen’s word) that civil massacres have followed ever since.
A young man stages a mass gun killing as a grand and redemptive act of vengeance on the world, an act so spectacular it draws the apparatus of instant notoriety —the news media—into action, thus lending the perpetrator an aura of power so sorely lacking in his ordinary life. OK, asked Mullen, but who is this young man? Piecing together a profile of the typical perpetrator, Mullen noted that among “pseudocommandos” (another term from the literature) feelings of guilt and worthlessness were conspicuous for their absence. These were invariably young men with a high (if deluded) self-regard, who believed they had been grossly undervalued by the world —so much so, their lives had become one long psychic injury. They had often been bullied or neglected as children, had grown up into loners, and often had recently lost their last shred of emotional connection or support (job, girlfriend) with the world. But their dominant experience was one of persecution; their dominant affect, one of resentment.
Narcissism, persecution, resentment—even as I write it, I think check, check, check.
From a social-psychological point of view, young men are a thicket of false positives. Who can pick from among the millions of alienated boys who will, triggered by loss, sow chaos? The preventative focus must come elsewhere; and to this end, Mullen, along with many other researchers, have looked to an unusual antecedent. The English phrase “running amok” is derived from the Malay concept of pengamok, or someone who commits an intensely violent and indiscriminate homicidal assault, often with a machete or a dagger, often in a crowded public space. Westerners have been fascinated by the pengamok since Captain Cook first visited the Malay archipelago and recorded its existence in his journal, in 1770. Since the amok was regarded as an extreme form of gila kena hantu (a kind of possession by evil spirits, or tiger spirits) or gila buatan orang (possession by witchcraft), it was treated with enormous tolerance—even, researchers claim, subtly sanctioned by the Malay tribes.
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.