Neither The Joker Nor Godlessness Drove Batman Shooting

When men don’t fear God, they give themselves to evil. This was clearly the case in the latest mass murder. —Ray Comfort

As many of us are struggling to find a reason or reasons for the Aurora, Colorado theater shootings in the early morning of Friday, July 20, there is no shortage of pundits offering their own explanations. Maybe the alleged shooter, James Holmes, was depressed after scoring low on exams in his PhD program at the University of Colorado. Or he must have had a rough upbringing. Or the common refrain: he’s simply psychotic, and no verifiable reason for the shooting will ever be discovered.

The responses from religious commentators, scholars, and pastors have a similar range. Shootings like this will continue because of our increasing desensitization to violent images, one Patheos blogger argued, while another evangelical commentator believes that this act was simply evil. According to a guest on an American Family Association radio program, if Holmes had accepted Christ into his life he would have never committed such a crime. Meanwhile, Vision America Action President Dr. Rick Scarborough claimed that it is the removal of God from the public square that has left God no choice but to lower the divine “hedge of protection” of innocents at a movie theater. According to Scarborough, God mercifully (though in theologically suspect manner) chose to intervene only after 12 moviegoers were killed.

Yet any of these explanations could be applied to Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Gabby Giffords shooting, and Ft. Hood, which raised additional religious concerns. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this recent mass shooting is its association with popular culture. We know that a theater playing the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, was chosen as the site of the massacre by Holmes and that he responded to police shortly after being apprehended by proclaiming, “I’m the Joker.”

While only speculating at this point, the likely Joker that inspired Holmes is the one played by Heath Ledger in the first of the The Dark Knight movies, released in 2008. At that time, John-Henry Westen of wrote the following prescient passage (reposted shortly after the Aurora shootings) about Ledger’s particularly dark, violent, and psychotic portrayal of the Joker:

Are there going to be imitators of the Joker portrayed in The Dark Knight? There already are. Just look on YouTube for the number of videos where teens are dressing up as and imitating the lines of the Joker. Even more seriously, however, there have been crimes committed since the film’s release where the criminals have dressed in Joker makeup.

The film would likely not be dangerous for those well-grounded in morality; but for the many in today’s world who have not received the moral training that would allow them to clearly distinguish between good and evil, Joker character and philosophy of “anything goes” presents an all-too-appealing alternative way of attaining power and recognition.

Westen would no doubt find, in Holmes’ statement to the police, evidence of a copycat crime that discloses a lack of “moral training” in Holmes’ background. This argument is a corollary to the general stance that taking God out of the public square leads to moral relativism, and finally to a Machiavellian power grab. But wouldn’t all bad guys in the movies furnish the morally untrained with the temptation of mimicry? And, mental illness aside, don’t all mass murderers suffer from some sense of moral relativism?

He Floats Above History

Perhaps a more precise way to connect Holmes to Ledger’s Joker, if in fact we can do this at all, is by way of the source for their respective actions. Ledger’s Joker is different from his predecessors’ in that the former does not seem to have a personal narrative or a telos (purpose) that could help guide predictable action, much less the moral kind. In the Batman comic book series the Joker’s wife and child are accidentally killed, after which he falls into a vat of chemical waste that disfigures him. These narrative elements help explain the Joker’s insanity, which in turn drives him to commit maniacal and sadistic crimes in the city of Gotham.

Skipping to Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989, we get essentially the same origin narrative, though here his disfigurement follows an earlier set of events where we find Jack Napier (later the Joker) killing Bruce Wayne’s (later Batman) parents. In both of these Jokers we find a history, a narrative, and a stable (relatively speaking) identity; there is a method to their madness.

Ledger’s Joker on the other hand seems to have no personal biography at all—or at least one that he uses to justify his crimes. He gives radically different stories about his disfigurement and, after his capture, no record of his fingerprints, dental records, or DNA can be found. He floats above history, so when he lands and wreaks havoc, it seems random, senseless, and destructive for destruction’s sake. Or as some would define it, evil.

This may be one way to understand James Holmes’ identification with the Joker. From what we know so far, he was a loner, far from home, and when asked about the kid they used to know, friends have only been able to manage brief and generic descriptions such as, “quiet, kept to himself.” Admittedly, the same can be said for most of the mass murderers over the last 15 years. However, all of Holmes’ predecessors left behind either notes, confessions to friends, Facebook postings, or blog entries that attempted to justify their future act or simply notify the public of it. These stand as clues to a telos, however twisted.

Holmes seems to have left behind no online fingerprint aside from a cryptic message on an adult dating website. And instead of a note or manifesto, as in the case of the Unabomber, he left a booby-trapped death chamber for anyone who attempted to enter his apartment and for those living in his building. More destruction to “explain” destruction leaves nothing in his wake.

Rather than attributing Holmes’ and the Joker’s nonexistent moral compass (and neither seems to have one) to an absence of moral training that would be there if prayer were back in public schools, we may need to look at their apparent lack of a self-conscious narrative as a more telling source.

Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us that the human being is a

teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men [sic.] is not about their own authoriship; “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

Moral relativism can be held by those who have a detailed and rich personal story, and most who have no such story do not commit heinous crimes. However, it is a narrative, whether religious or not, that locates past actions and channels future ones, whether moral or not. We may never know what story James Holmes found himself a part of—or if there even is one. But if Holmes has no story, no self-conscious telos in his life, then we may be able to unravel a part of his tragic association with Ledger’s rendition of the Joker without having to use this unbelievable tragedy as yet another weapon in a culture war.