Good morning, shooters

In my whole life I have spent a total of seven days in the United States, in 2006, to attend – of all things – a criminology conference. I had to organise my own accommodation and so I spent some time on the internet checking out customer reviews of hotels in downtown Los Angeles. This was a mistake. As most people know (but I didn’t back then), these reviews are seldom if ever written by people who have had an ordinary experience and/or are in full control of their nerves. Horror stories abound, if not about the establishment themselves, certainly about the neighbourhoods, which in big cities are nearly always depicted as being critically unsafe. I quickly formed a mental picture of a place in which I would be mugged or gunned down if I so much as dared to venture outside my hotel after dark.

As it happens, downtown Los Angeles at night appeared to be mostly occupied by homeless people and sure, this was unsettling – I had never seen so many in one place – but hardly dangerous. I was reminded of a long stopover at LAX on my way back home some years earlier during which a recorded voice repeated at five-minute intervals, in English and Spanish, that travellers were not required to give money to solicitors (a word that confused me a little back then) and that the airport didn’t endorse their activities. The obsessive repetition of the warning was of course far more bothersome, intrusive and violent than the soliciting itself.

My experience of Los Angeles was perfectly ordinary, except for the sight of two FBI cars riddled with large-calibre bullets in a parking lot a short distance from Gehry’s Concert Hall. This image was closer to the America I knew through films and cop shows, the America of gun violence and permanent war between the police, and the many kinds of people who live or are placed outside of the law. Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken a photograph of those two cars, but I have it now, it’s on my hard drive, and it proves to me that I really saw them, as opposed to conjuring them from the fictive America that we all inhabit.

The mass shooting in Aurora last Friday is finely balanced on the boundary between the Real and the spectacle of the Real, its representation for the purposes of entertainment. That the event is already routinely referred to by news media, with ghastly laziness, as the ‘Batman shooting’ shows that the choice to ride that boundary can’t be imputed to James Holmes alone. When we say ‘tragedy’ we mean the horrible thing that just happened, and tend to overlook the fact that the word originally belonged to the theatre, but now the tangle is well and truly inextricable. A man acquires a small arsenal and assaults a cinema full of strangers, styling himself as the villain of the film that is being projected onto the screen. As a response and a mark of respect, the producers of the film choose to temporarily withhold information about how much money the film has made during its opening weekend, thus of how successful the spectacle was. The next day the National Rifle Association – the body that lobbies on behalf of men who wish to acquire small arsenals, and that for many years used to be chaired by a film actor – greets its followers with the words ‘Good morning, shooters’. This is all theatre. Last Friday it just happens to have had real victims.

It is part of the theatre, too, to hear calls against people who politicise, or can be accused of politicising, the tragedy. These have the predictability of a recorded voice blaring out of a PA. The victims of the attack would have been okay if only they had been allowed to carry concealed weapons of their own, says Tammy Bruce in The Guardian. The answer is more guns. Charlton Heston always went on the offensive too, as he did after Columbine. He knew that it’s what works. However that response begs the question of what it means to politicise an event like the attack on the theatre audience in Aurora. This, in the language of the NRA, simply means: liberals reflexively calling for stricter controls on gun ownership. It is in the interest of the gun lobby to reduce the politics of gun violence to a question of market regulation, of supply and demand. Look at Utoya, says Bruce: didn’t Anders Breivik get hold of all the weapons he needed in spite of Norway’s strict gun laws? Couldn’t those kids have defended themselves against him, had they been armed? That a commentator can suggest, and in The Guardian of all places, that militarising children at a summer camp is the solution to mass gun violence while the President calls timidly, inanely for ‘common sense gun control’ shows to what extent the Right owns this debate.

The other cornerstone of the conservative argument is this: that madness and evil belong outside of society, therefore implicitly outside of politics. The depoliticisation of the Utoya massacre, the attempts to characterise Anders Breivik as a madman whose stated motivations couldn’t be taken seriously or at face value, much less be linked back to the people and the groups that he acknowledges to have been inspired by, might seem uniquely egregious, but how can gun violence on this scale be depoliticised at all? How is the society that isolates, the society that overlooks, the society that arms exonerate itself from all political responsibility, as it did after Columbine and is in the process of doing after Aurora? Acts of madness are like acts of God, outside of our control, claim these voices. Nor was there a chance, in the country that grants its authorities extraordinary powers of surveillance, to detect and raise alarm over the online purchase over two months of more than 6000 rounds of ammunition, in part perhaps because such purchases are not only legal but also not necessarily unusual. At any rate, says the FBI, the only defence against the Lone Gunman is other citizens reporting their suspicious behaviour. There is no technological solution, no mechanised system of control nor sweeping power of enforcement that could protect society against such a threat.

And then there is what is normal.

This tweet posted the morning after the shooting by the account of the official journal of the National Rifle Association was met with understandable outrage, to which the organisation responded first by deleting the tweet, second by deleting the account, and third by claiming that the person who posted the tweet was unaware of the Aurora shooting at the time. I see no particular reason to disbelieve this claim. What I find chilling is that on any other Friday morning this would be the greeting directed to the account’s 16 000 followers, and nobody would think of taking exception.

What does it mean to call yourself a ‘shooter’, as opposed to a gun owner, or even a gun lover, if not that what you do – what defines you – is that you put your gun to use? There is a distinct shift in rhetoric here: it is no longer the gun as an instrument of defence, not only of oneself but also of the country and its way of life – which is how the NRA has historically framed the issue and leveraged its interpretation of the second amendment of the US Constitution – but the gun as instrument, as tool, and not just primarily for sport. Behind, a massive industry that needs to not only sell the weapons, but ammo as well. In fact Wal-Mart will only sell you the latter (although it’s bringing back the guns now too). And so the customers of this industry become shooters, and the act of purchasing 6000 rounds of live ammunition is redefined as model consumer behaviour and no longer constitutes its own kind of madness.

Finally there is Batman. The one between film violence and real-world violence is the most problematic of correlations, and what happens to a culture, to a society when the scene of the spectacle becomes literally the scene of the violence is equally hard to speculate upon. If it is in fact true, as the police has claimed, that the attack was the culmination of months of careful and deliberate planning, this would neatly match the meticulously orchestrated marketing campaign for The Knight Rises, adding another set of elusive correspondences. As Elliott Prasse-Freeman and Sayres Rudy argue in their analysis of the trailers for the new Batman, in contemporary cinema this film-before-the-film has become just as rich a text as the feature itself, and equally important – if not more so – to its fortunes. Blockbusters are made or broken by how they fare during opening weekend, so the decision by Warner Bros to postpone revealing the takings of The Knight Rises even by one day had a rather greater import that some might have realised. So much so that in the end they just couldn’t go through with it, and studio officials leaked the numbers to Deadline and The New York Times, expressing wonderment at how the film managed to ‘maintain much of its momentum in the wake of the killings’. There goes another industry that won’t give an inch, and there goes another consumer behaviour redefined as virtue, as resilience. If mass shootings are senseless, if they are random, incomprehensible acts of madness, than what makes sense, what is sane is for the disruption to be minimised and for normality to resume as soon as possible, along with the forgetting.

In the best piece to have been written in the hours after the shooting, The Onion gave a timeline for this process, for the ritual shows of public mourning and for what little analysis and debate would follow. It was almost certainly accurate: ‘In exactly two weeks this will all be over and it will be like it never happened.’

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. O Giovanni this is horribly fair comment.

    The theatre of the original tragedies, that of Ancient Greece, was not considered entertainment. It was sacred (and compulsory for all strata of society), reflecting back to the human being the great mystery of being human, along with its counterparts, comedy and satire (also, interestingly, a sort of pornographic/Bacchanalian release)… interestingly, violence abounded in these tragedies but was always reported (often by a Messenger with this sole purpose): never shown. And the violence always had consequence, a consequence that so shaped and affected the protagonist (and the audience) that a profound human *experience* was achieved, one so intense that wild celebration of life and fertility to follow was considered the only sane response. Oedipus might be said to have summed up the purpose of his tragedy in the line: I seek to be no other man than that I am, and will know who I am.

    Perhaps we still seek to discover who ‘I am’ (individually and collectively) in the theatre of life, in the theatre of movie-making. And the images we are shown of ourselves are more cruel and bloody than, I dare to say, most of us would imagine on our own: certainly more complex and spectacular violence than we could imagine without the focus of creative minds funnelling resources into cgi in ever more impressive ways. But unlike Ancient Greek theatre, we are not sitting in daylight, able to see our fellow theatre-goers; we are not aware that we are taking part in a sacred ritual, and there are no conscious collective, communal rituals to ‘debrief’ the intensities of what we experience.

    Anyway – thanks for the post. Guns and oil, no one wants to tell the real story or face up to the real cost.

    1. And before it was that, tragedy was a form of dramatic satire, which incidentally strikes me as a good descriptor of what The Onion does. Their work is quite simply of one of the best forms of criticism around, and they shine at times like this.

  2. In another example of how far right the gun debate is conducted, one of the most publicly lauded responses to all this has been from actor Jason Alexander, and yet he is merely advocating for a reduction in the availability of automatic weapons. Because that’s “different” to owning a handgun to defend yourself against intruders. It just seems to be a whole other world of logic to me.

    Perhaps his relationship to Hollywood and the profile of his response feeds into what you’re saying above, too.

    Anyway. Thanks so much for this essay.

    1. That he got savaged for saying something as mild as he did, that what he said could be framed as controversial is quite baffling, yes. He also wrote that 100,000 die in America from domestic gun violence every year, which – unless I’m missing something – is over ten times the actual number. There’s a point at which numbers are so large they cease to have meaning but I’m a little staggered by the apparent failure of so many to make coherent factual statements about the problem as well.

  3. Great essay, thanks for sharing.

    Jason A’s piece I think was partly angled that way in order to sidestep the hysterical second amendment sideshow (which he also discusses).

    The tragedy/theatre discussion is really interesting too. The horror of this was definitely magnified in the imagination too because our traditional position in cinema is so passive – as one of a collective group willingly surrendering themselves, and disengaging our ‘normal’ responses to what’s around us (we don’t talk, we suspend our disbelief). For someone to take advantage of that with violence – while also co-opting part of its rhetoric – is such a horrible violation.

    I do think the decision to release stats etc and continue the marketing of the movie as planned is more than just a demonstration of consumer/market resiliance though. If they’d done the opposite, we’d be back to your larger point Giovanni about this so quickly becoming ‘the Batman shooting’, thus depoliticised/something that doesn’t require real analysis. A lose lose situation, probably.

    1. I take your point, but they did both. They said they would wait one day to release the numbers but then went ahead and leaked them anonymously to journalists and industry insiders. It’s as if they had called for a minute of silence and then started whispering halfway through – a sign, I think, of how inured, almost pathologically so, American culture is to this kind of violence. Imagine losing the ability to follow through on such a small gesture.

      If I try to cast my mind back, and bearing in mind I wasn’t anywhere near the country at the time, it seems to me that shock and the debate after Columbine were far more sustained. Yet the number of victims was almost identical.

  4. Thanks Giovanni. Apparently I couldn’t buy fertiliser in the US without the FBI knocking on my door, but a small arsenal nobody worries about.
    While the links between Dark Knight Rises and the motives of Holmes are speculative it’s obviously no coincidence that he chose that film to make an attack.
    I saw it last week. It’s pretty horrible; confused, reactionary and portrays a world in which we need a radical violent man in a weird costume with a heavy duty arsenal and a ‘genius’ intellect to make a difference. It’s as if Holmes stepped directly out of the screen.
    Curiously, while the previous 2 films take place in a Gotham which exists of itself in its own disconnected world, DKR is set fairly and squarely in America, extended singing of The Star Spangled Banner and all.
    Yes, the Onion got it right didn’t they. Just as they did with this item on the jailing of Black men.,14323/

    1. “It’s as if Holmes stepped directly out of the screen.”

      But this was the very first screening after midnight on Friday morning, so he couldn’t have seen the film before, right? I’m not entirely sure on this point, but that’s when the film supposedly opened in the United States. And if that is the case all he had to go by – and prepare for, over several weeks or months – were the trailers and the marketing campaign, which had their own plotline and their own dramatic crescendo. Without wanting to aestheticise this thing, it’s one of the aspects that I find more chilling, this idea that he might have counted down to the premiere in the same way that the fans and the media did.

      “Yes, the Onion got it right didn’t they. Just as they did with this item on the jailing of Black men.,14323/

      Or this one, on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting:,20525/

  5. I’m guessing you’re right, that he was counting down, in sync with the trailers. Holmes acted exactly as the characters on screen were/would behave, and no doubt there will be endless and meaningless speculation about his motives and a de-linking of them to any social context.
    It’s the response that has been even more chilling though. As you say of Warner and their leaking of box office figures:” Imagine losing the ability to follow through on such a small gesture.”
    Yes, imagine.

  6. Also, the debate taking place as to how the media should avoid turning the killer into a hero is deeply weird. I mean, sure, on its own terms the discussion makes sense.
    But surely the more important question is what kind of society have we built if random murder holds such a deep fascination that discussing the killer in the ‘wrong way’ might provoke others to emulate him. The mere fact that we even have to talk about how to avoid portraying as murderer as a ‘hero’ points to something profoundly wrong.

  7. But the media depiction of violence is very weird in general. We have the commodification and packaging of violence for ‘shooters’, cinema-goers and video gamers for the ad breaks, and the utter depoliticisation of the theatre of war and everyday state violence as the news.

    ‘We may never understand what leads anyone to terrorise their fellow human beings,’ Obama said in the wake of these shootings, while drones were launched from benign, unmarked office buildings in Virginia – targeted assassination machines that have massacred and injured the numbers attacked in this cinema times a thousand (at least!) during the course of his presidency. Yet, where is the Real in the depiction of their deaths?

    But it’s complicated. Because we can’t separate the individual from the society, nor the event from its representation – can we?

    1. Another thing I’m ultra-disturbed by are the images accompanying this story. Compare this one of the lone white guy who’s gone a little crazy (but look at that guy-next-door smile – you can still trust him):

      And this black-kid-as-future-threat:

    2. Death from above targeting males of a certain age group – and killing many other people besides – clearly doesn’t count as terror. Also, a murder campaign operating within a legalistic framework, however perverted, doesn’t count as terror. And even Tom Junod’s piece on (supposedly) Obama’s lethal presidency could not be framed except as the story of an American victim (‘Obama’s Administration Killed a 16-Year-Old American and Didn’t Say Anything About It. This Is Justice?’).

      There is seemingly no place in America outside of this text, or to the extent that there is by venturing there you become instantly a marginal voice.

  8. Too soon for black humour? If there is no white knight in all this, how soon before a feature film on the incident is in the pipeline?

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