As I watched the gruesome details unfold surrounding the recent mass killing in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, I, like most people, had to wonder to myself how something and/or someone like this could happen. How does one get to the point where they become so blatantly indifferent to life that they view killing as a kind of virtual blood sport? As human beings, we have to believe that there is some sort of satisfying explanation for behavior like this (a human vulnerability that the "Joker" incidentally played on in the previous Batman film). Maybe there is some sad story from his childhood that is responsible for the evil, or maybe there is a narrative that helps explain how, little by little, this man chose to go down this particular path of wickedness.
According to numerous reports, when they brought him into the station, he acted as if he thought he were still "in character". Spitting at everyone who came into view, he declared to all present that he was in fact "the Joker". No doubt such a cold blooded murderer could exist in any era, but what makes our time particularly ripe for such a figure has something to do with our uncanny ability to churn out alternate realities quicker than the world can produce its own. In these times more than any other a man really does have the option of living in a kind of surreal world (I'm sure MTV is working on this one as we speak).
In ancient times you at least had to be around other human beings when you went to the Roman Coliseum. Today, you can enter the Flavian Amphitheater without leaving the confines of your own living room. Indeed, we have fostered a culture so digitally connected- and yet so socially disconnected- that it is no wonder that people like James Holmes can't tell the difference between a movie and reality. Incidentally, before Heath Ledger played the role of the Joker, he apparently prepared for the part by isolating himself in a hotel room for an entire month- watching films like "A Clockwork Orange" over and over again in the hope of getting in the right head space. Tragically, it should not surprise us that after so artfully poisoning his mind, he was never quite able to recover from it. Indeed, one cannot so easily dip their head into the great abyss and then pull it right out again. The question for us, however, is whether this James Holmes character is a complete aberration, or whether we as a society are cultivating a whole generation of little "Jokers". Certainly a case could be made for this.
Yet of all the things that stood out to me as I listened to the harrowing details of the case (both tragic and heroic), there was one thing that really struck me- a beacon of hope and sanity amidst all of the carnage and chaos of the story. What I am referring to is something that has become so second nature to us here in the West that we no longer recognize just how extraordinary and outrageous it is. There has always been a form of justice, even in the most barbaric societies, but it is thanks in large part to our Christian heritage that we have also learned to temper that righteous (and sometimes unrighteous) anger with mercy. Not only was the murderer not gunned down on the spot, but when he was detained and taken into custody, he was given a respect and dignity that he himself had denied others. And as he was placed in a prison cell, special care was taken to make sure that he was separated from the other inmates (there was apparently no shortage of prisoners who wanted to kill him). Furthermore, if you take a look at all of the recent cases of mass murderers, from Jared Loughner in Arizona, to Major Nidal Hasan in Texas, to Anders Breivik in Norway, they all have something in common that goes well beyond their senseless disregard for life... the even more senseless mercy that was shown to each of them. It is a practice rooted in the Gospel, and one which finds its full voice in figures like Augustine and Aquinas in their articulation of Just War Theory; which includes, among other things, the basic notion that God is the author of life, and that one should never directly take a life- unless it is necessary for self defense. Call it crazy, call it reckless, call it ungodly if you like, but do not forget that without this kind of mercy, life would simply be an endless cycle of vengeance and retribution- a state of mind not unlike the aforementioned killers.
Consequently, there will be a trial for James Holmes, not because we think men like this are innocent, but because we, unlike the Joker, cling to a set of principals, though sometimes in our haste we might prefer to set them aside. All of the evidence will be heard, not because we think there is any question about his guilt, but because we prefer a coherent moral order to a mob rule. Oh, how tempting it would be to throw out restraint and just kill a man like this with our bare hands, and yet even the families of those affected by this tragedy are denied such a privilege. Great care will be taken to ensure that the man's behavior is not the result of some mental illness, a "minor detail" that would be so easy to jettison given the public outcry. Still, we hold firm to our Christian principles, attempting with all of our moral might to create the necessary groundwork wherein justice and mercy may effectively "kiss". It is in some ways a comical form of restraint not unlike the kind that Jesus proposes when he suggests that 'one good slap deserves another.' Nevertheless, it is precisely this kind of mercy and restraint that separates us from the barbarians; this kind of "due process" that prevents us from returning to the type of savagery that was so clearly evident in the shootings in Colorado.
Authors Notes: Let me state for the record that I am not proposing a justice system that blithely looks the other way when there are terrible crimes such as this, for I could say a lot about the kind of "mercy" that allowed Major Nidal Hasan escape the scrutiny of his military superiors, or the type of coddling that Ander Breivik will receive in a Norwegian "prison". The type of mercy of which I speak is real mercy, not stupidity and moral cowardice; mercy that ensures that justice is genuinely served, as opposed to a form of social venting and scapegoating that ultimately seeks to operate under the guise of justice.