The media conventions are pretty much chiseled in concrete by now. If a guy guns down large numbers of people while shouting “Allahu akbar!” don’t worry, it’s a one-off, part of no broader pattern, just a “lone wolf” who succumbed to “workplace violence” (Major Hasan at Fort Hood) or worries about impending foreclosure (the Times Square bomber) or any of the other highly specific, individual, customized circumstances to which card-carrying members of the Amalgamated Union of Lone Wolves are prone. But if a genuine “lone wolf” guns down large numbers of people without shouting “Allahu akbar!” the media herd stampedes to ask the obvious question:
And, being dreary groupthink liberals, when they’re seeking a motive for mass murder the first place they look is the livelier factions of the conservative movement: Tucson, Ariz.? Must be “toxic rhetoric . . . coming, overwhelmingly, from the right” (according to Paul Krugman of the New York Times). Aurora, Colo.? Must be something to do with the Tea Party (according to Brian Ross of ABC News).
But, of course, there is no “why.” Apart from their feeble and predictable biases, the reactions of Brian Ross et al. are eminently understandable: A reporter is a storyteller, and a story with no motivation is fundamentally defective. A couple of weeks back, I was in County Down, one of my favorite places on earth but one not untouched by Northern Ireland’s three decades of “Troubles.” Even today, round the Mountains of Mourne, in overwhelmingly Loyalist towns huge Jubilee banners of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh hang over narrow village streets with the in-your-face triumphalism of Saddam posters at traffic circles in Tikrit back in the good old days, while down the road in overwhelmingly Republican towns the thoroughfares are stark and unadorned. I motored through Warrenpoint, a small, somnolent town where on one day two fertilizer bombs exploded near Narrow Water Castle and killed 18 soldiers — the British army’s single biggest loss of the entire campaign. Whenever I pass the cozily bucolic setting — the castle is now a prestige venue for wedding rentals — it seems to me faintly absurd to have killed that many for so small a cause. But what are we to make of Aurora, where large numbers of people die for no cause other than a homicidal movie tie-in?
Warrenpoint is the natural order of things. If you’re going to persuade impressionable young men to skulk around the neighborhood planting bombs, there ought to be a reason. Which is why Brian Ross & Co. go looking for one. As a Reuters executive put it after 9/11, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But James Holmes and Jared Loughner were born in 1987 and 1988 respectively, and the former seems to have had no cause while the latter toyed with all the causes of the post-cause generation — 9/11 conspiracies, Jesus conspiracies, international banking conspiracies, New Age conspiracies. One man’s terrorist is another man’s bored ADHD stoner.
If you recall the spate of American school shootings around the turn of the century, you may also remember that in the immediate aftermath of September 11 they ceased — almost as if, in a nation fired to righteous anger and waging war in a just cause, even the most solipsistic psychos can discern that taking out Grade Six will look like an act of feeble narcissism. But the years go by, and righteous anger fades to WMD, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Bush lied . . . and the lone-wolf sociopath returns.
When the previous Batman film came out, several of my colleagues on the right attached great significance to Alfred the butler’s wise old words to Master Bruce — “Some men just want to watch the world burn” — which they seemed to think were an incisive if oblique analysis of al-Qaeda et al. I think not. The jihad boys enjoy, as the Joker does, the body count. But, unlike him, they have an end that justifies the means. The idea that they simply “want to watch the world burn” is a Hollywood evasion. For a decade now, the summer blockbusters have avoided saying anything about terrorism, Islam, 9/11, Bali, Beslan, the Tube bombers, the Shoebomber, the Pantybomber, etc. A couple of years back, they made a big-budget thriller in which (stop me if this sounds familiar) a jet is on course to take out a skyscraper. Who’s behind it? Osama? Saddam? The mullahs? No. The bad guy is the plane itself, an automatic pilot gone rogue. As much as the press coverage of Major Hasan, contemporary movie violence eliminates any broader context to focus on the “lone wolf.” Film after film shows bad men plotting, scheming, disguising, infiltrating, planting, detonating, slaughtering on an industrial scale. But why? Who knows? And so we watch the world burn, with explosions and fireballs and shattering glass and screaming civilians unmoored from any recognizable reality. Back in the spring, I passed an amiable couple of hours with Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 4, an instantly forgettable blockbuster. It opens with some bloke blowing up the Kremlin and proceeds to the usual nuclear-countdown finale in a parking garage, but it isn’t about anything. It’s like a perfectly executed act of mass terrorism for no reason at all.
In that respect at least, the Multiplex Madman is a creature of his time. There’s something almost unbearably poignant in that moment when James Holmes bursts through the door of the theater to hurl his smoke canisters and everyone assumes it’s a promotional stunt. Just for a second, the film, the killer, and his victims have achieved an eerie synchronicity in the detachment of violence from meaning. And then reality reasserts itself.
If that sounds like a complaint about movie violence, it’s not; it’s a complaint about something more basic — about movie storytelling. There are all kinds of interesting tales you could tell and still get in the fireballs. But they’re complicated beyond PC shibboleths and they’d require you to engage with the world as it is. So Hollywood gets more and more technically accomplished to less and less purpose. As Alfred the butler might say, some studio vice presidents just want to watch the world burn.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).