A Day Without Superheroes

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Here is one lesson from Friday's Colorado theater massacre: superheroes are fantasy but supervillains are not.

Less flippantly: we live in a era where it is infinitely easier to commit transcendent evil than to perform remarkable good. This is only the latest in a series of episodes that demonstrate the malign power unique to our times. The 9/11 attack. The Columbine killings. The Fort Hood shootings. Choose-the-bombing with the terrible details of blameless dead and wounded from too many cities anywhere in the world.

If news reports are right, this particular nutjob took his inspiration from the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Night. Most of what made that a great film was the late Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, a decades-old nemesis of Batman in the comics.

And a lot of what made the Joker such an effective villain, in the comics and the movie, is how ordinary he is. There's nothing "super" about the character. No special powers, only limited technology that goes much into the impossible. Over the many years and artists who have developed the character, the Joker has sometimes wandered into the realm of goofy camp. But the most effective versions -- notably the ones in Frank Miller's Dark Night graphic novels and that 2008 film -- were human-sized figures of creative evil with no obvious motive.

In the 2008 movie, Ledger's Joker offers a series of explanations about what turned him in the clown-faced villain. With zero indication that any of them were true. But at one point he offers an irrational but logical motive that feels like it's real:

"Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!"

And here's another thing about chaos: in 2012, it's easy. Anybody who can get access to off-the-shelf modern tools of destruction and isn't too particular about who gets killed can engineer a comics-villain sized massacre any day of the week.

Only a few generations ago, doing evil was not much easier than accomplishing good. An individual's influence was limited to the strength of an arm -- or of an army of arms willing to obey. Real skill and planning and networking -- all of those were necessary to ruin more lives that one could reach at the end of a knifepoint.

But here are the tools of destruction that the New York Times listed a few hours after the killing: gas mask, body armor, a tactical helmet, AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-guage shotgun and a 40-caliber Glock handgun. Plus some kind of tear gas. And what at this moment is still an unknown web of booby traps -- real or feigned -- at the alleged killer's apartment.

Far as I can tell, this is all stuff that anybody without a felony conviction could assemble in a busy afternoon. And takes no more skill to employ than a garden hose.

Doing good is a lot harder. It requires actual skill. Consequences matter. Seeds much be sown and carefully nurtured. Networks of technology and people need to be planned and pruned. And even with the best of intentions and planning, there are no guarantees.

Evil, on the other hand, can give absolute guarantees.

Giving a human the powers of a spider? Not happening. Gliding, bat-shaped capes that would allow someone to leap from a skyscraper to a safe landing? Physics says no. But bullets and explosives are a commonplace.

I'm not going to dip deeply into the resumed argument about gun control. No question that limiting access would make such events as today's less likely. But the technology is too widely available, too easy to produce, to make it impossible.

The philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt used the memorable phrase "banality of evil" to describe the Nazi horror. For our era the issue is the simplicity of evil.

We are forced to live with the reality of joker upon joker upon joker. Why so serious? Because there's never going to be a Batman.

You may have noticed I've never mentioned the accused shooter's name. That's not by accident. If anything is clear, it's pretty obvious he wants to be famous. I can't stop that, but I don't have to be a party to it.

And not being a party to evil is the only power, not super but superlative, that all of us have.

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