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Tom Harbold: Violent themes have negative impact

What should have been an evening of harmless, vicarious, cinematic violence turned all too real for attendees of last Friday's midnight showing of "Batman: The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo.

In a tragic and horrific example of life imitating art, 24-year-old Ph.D. student James Holmes burst into the theater wearing a gas mask and body armor, hurled what seems to have been a tear-gas canister and then opened fire with a formidable array of weaponry.

Before surrendering to the police - somewhat unusually for mass murderers of this nature, Holmes does not seem to have been seeking his own death - the perpetrator had killed a dozen people and wounded almost five dozen more, including a 3- month-old infant.

As inevitably happens in cases such as these, voices have been raised calling for tighter controls on the purchase of legal firearms, since all of the weapons used in the incident - a military-styled AR-15, a shotgun and two handguns - all appear to have been purchased legally.

This reaction is understandable in the aftermath of such a tragedy, but the reality is that someone who is determined enough to kill will find a way to do it with or without guns.

Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City with diesel fuel and agricultural fertilizer. Al-Qaida killed 3,000 people on 9/11 with box-cutters and airliners. Returning to the present incident, Holmes booby-trapped his apartment with an array of improvised explosive and incendiary devices that kept police and other authorities stymied for more than 24 hours. The idea that stricter gun control laws could have kept him from carrying out a lethal attack, even without firearms, is optimistic to the point of being divorced from reality.

It also distracts attention from the real problem. What is the real problem? Well, as one of my Facebook friends posted after the event, in a tone dripping with irony, "Hard to believe that violence could break out at the showing of a movie that does so much to promote tolerance, love and non-violence."

Let me be clear: I am not blaming the "Batman: Dark Knight" movies for this incident, certainly not in isolation. But the fact remains that we as a culture have consistently glorified, in recent years, dark and gritty themes, characters and scenarios, moral ambiguity and anti-heroes in our movies, TV shows, video games and other shared cultural experiences. "Decadent" is a compliment and, as a T-shirt I saw recently put it, "bad is the new good."

For most people, most of the time, this is probably fairly harmless, although I do believe that a situation in which the average American youth has witnessed 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence by age 18 leads to a certain desensitizing of people's moral sensibilities and compassion.

But for individuals near the breaking point, in terms of their mental balance, this glorifying of darkness can provide both excuse and incentive. In this case, Holmes seems to have specifically identified with the Batman villain, The Joker.

What is the solution? It's unrealistic and probably undesirable, to return to the world of "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Lone Ranger," when Hollywood supported wholesome entertainment and moral lines were clearly drawn.

But perhaps we do need to consider the effect on society of a constant drumbeat of dark and violent themes posing as entertainment, with each movie or video game seeking to be more gruesomely realistic, or realistically gruesome, than the next.

Surely we are creative, and innovative, enough to do better than that.

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