“Am I my brother’s keeper?” — Genesis 4:9
A few words about the tragedy in Aurora, Colo.:
In “Dark Knight Triumphant,” the second chapter of a four-part Batman graphic novel, there is an incident in which a goggle-eyed, mentally disturbed young man with orange hair shoots up a movie theater. Three people are killed.
That scene, published in 1986, carries a new and frightful resonance now. How could it not? Last week in Aurora, a goggle-eyed and perhaps mentally disturbed young man with orange hair allegedly shot up a theater playing a midnight showing of the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” A dozen people were killed, 58 wounded. Life imitates art imitating life.
That graphic novel was a sensation far beyond the comic book shops. Rolling Stone noted its “bold thematic twists.” The Los Angeles Times called it “a vivid psychological study.” The Washington Post praised its “edgy realism.”
Writer and artist Frank Miller pictured an aged Batman coming out of retirement to save a Gotham City overrun by nihilistic terrorists. Batman’s town had become a lawless place where the good people were cowed mute by fear. It was a new take on the ancient central conceit of the American superhero myth. Meaning the idea that we are watched over from the rooftops above by a man (or woman) with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men and women, a capable somebody who will fight what we cannot.
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s somebody who will see that the bad thing doesn’t happen and that the bad people get what’s coming to them, somebody who will, just when things look hopeless, save us.
Lord knows we could use some saving.
Could have used it at Columbine and at Virginia Tech. Could have used it in Tucson. Could have used it last week in Aurora.
You know what happened there, of course. How a man left the theater and returned through the exit door wearing body armor. How he threw smoke grenades. How he started shooting.
In a place of escapism, where people had gone to enjoy the fantasy of a man who could fight what we cannot, hell broke loose and chaos reigned. As, periodically, they must. In a gun-besotted nation where the right of each citizen to possess as many weapons of mass destruction as he or she wants is considered sacred and inviolable, who can expect otherwise? We are all vulnerable, always.
And yet, vulnerability is not surrender.
That awful night in Aurora. Jonathan Blunk, a 26-year-old Navy veteran, shielded his girlfriend from bullets with his own body. He died. Matt McQuinn, 27 and Alex Teves, 24, also shielded their girlfriends. They died, too.
Stephanie Davis, 21 years old, dropped down to the floor where Allie Young, 19, was bleeding out from a bullet wound to the neck. Allie told her to run but Stephanie wouldn’t. She stayed there, applying pressure to the wound even as the gunman kept shooting. Both young women survived.
In an instant, called upon to be heroes, ordinary people in an ordinary suburb became exactly that.
Frank Miller wrote about a vigilante who came back to save the people. We cannot know if that inspired the orange-haired man in Colorado — you will not read his name here — to do what police say he did or whether his inspiration came from something else equally senseless. What we can know is that in the awful moment of decision, people covered one another, took care of one another, saved one another.
It is the single hopeful note from the carnage of that evening, the one example worth holding and cherishing and carrying forward from this awful time, not least because it gives the lie to that central conceit of the American superhero myth.
You see, heroes don’t come from above.