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Editorial: Batman, mass murder and America

A SWAT officer stands guard near home shooting suspect Friday.  |  Ed Andrieski~AP

A SWAT officer stands guard near the home of the shooting suspect on Friday. | Ed Andrieski~AP

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Updated: August 23, 2012 10:41AM

At a Batman movie? We grasp at straws, seeking explanation and insight, and we are struck by the quintessential link — an all-American mass murder at an all-American movie. What is it with us?

We can, as a nation, tell ourselves that this was the work of one deranged young man, one evil nut job, one freak exception.

But it keeps happening.

Reading the news stories about Friday’s assault in Colorado, we encountered the same phrase repeatedly: “The worst mass murder in the U.S. since . . .”

The killing on Friday of at least 12 people by a masked man at the midnight showing of a movie in Aurora, Colo., was the worst mass murder in the U.S. since the Nov. 5, 2009, attack at Fort Hood, Texas, when an Army psychiatrist killed 13 soldiers.

The Fort Hood shootings, in turn, were the worst mass murder in the U.S. since March 10, 2009, when a man killed 10 people across two rural Alabama counties.

The Alabama shootings, in turn, were the worst mass murder in the U.S. since April 16, 2007, when a man killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech University.

And so it goes, back in time and into the future.

Other nations are not immune. Most recently and horrifically, a man in Norway last July killed 87 people, including dozens of children at a summer camp.

But in Norway, this was not the latest mass shooting in a predictable string. In Norway, nobody is bracing for the next inevitable assault. In Norway, as in other European nations, when there is a mass shooting, they say this was “like America.”

Mass murder in the United States is not an aberration. It is certainly not unthinkable. It is rooted in a thin but undeniable sliver of our national DNA.

Over the next months, we will all hash over what the hell is going on, as we do every time, following an unwritten script. We will blame everything from assault weapons to pop-culture violence to godless liberalism to right-wing hate-mongering.

Some of this will be on target. Why, for one, can we not finally grow up as a nation and ban assault weapons? They have no value to hunters or to folks defending their homes. Their only value, by design, is as machines of mass carnage.

Much else of what will be said in the coming days will be misguided or wrong, seized upon to create a false but comforting sense of certainty. As if mass murder were simply a problem of a few bad apples. As if we know exactly what’s going on.

Consider the instant analysis, some of it by this editorial page, in the first few days after two teenagers killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. The killers, many of us wrote then, were apparently swastika-wearing racists who belonged to an alienated gang called the Trench Coat Mafia. It would be years before a more accurate profile of the two killers — they were chillingly more mainstream — emerged.

What we can say is that Friday’s mass murder at a Batman movie will force us once again to choose what kind of America we seek to be — a national family or a collection of armed camps.

We can get to the bottom of whatever pathology drives certain men — always men — to slaughter fellow Americans in movie theaters, in classrooms, in churches. Or we can lock and load, hunker down, throw up more metal detectors and pull down the shades.

We either confront our demons or live in fear.

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