I.

Four years ago, I was invited to attend a midnight screening of The Dark Knight. We waited in line at the IMAX theater (a real IMAX, mind, not one of those psuedo-IMAX screens a lot of other theaters have) for a few hours, and while I’m not generally one to get up in arms about non-Lord-of-the-Rings movies, for this, I was excited.  Really excited. It was the first time I’d been at a midnight release, but it was more than just that—it was being in a theater full of Batman (or at least Chris Nolan’s version) fanatics, almost all of us in our early or mid-twenties. It was like having that sleepover party you wanted as a kid, only without the adults telling you to quiet down.

This is one of those memories that has managed to stick with me, its edges a little sharper, its picture a little bit clearer than most of the others I have. Yes, the movie was fantastic, yes, seeing it in IMAX was worth it, but this isn’t the reason it sticks with me. So, while I had no plans to catch The Dark Knight Rises at midnight (the group of friends with whom I caught the earlier movie is now dispersed all over the northeast, such are the penalties of growing older, I suppose), I could understand the excitement. I know what it’s like to want to be one of the first to see the movie, to have one of those experiences that friends will remember five years from now when schedules no longer allow for a three AM bedtime on a weeknight, to be able to react to the movie in a subconscious unison.

I had no plans to catch a midnight screening of TDKR, but there was certainly a part of me jealous of those who were going.  I mean, if I had a chance to relive the time I saw TDK, there’s no question I would have said yes, and yet, of all the things I’ve done, of all the times I’ve been in large crowds or in confined spaces, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt anything other than safe at a movie theater.

The theater’s all about escape, after all. It’s one of the last remaining places where no one cares about what you’re wearing, who you’re friends with, where seats are first-come, first-served (except in Europe) and an adult ticket is the same price for everyone. Going to see a movie (or a play) is about immersing yourself in another world, dreamed up by a director or writer or producer, executed by the actors and the special effects or stage crew, and forgetting, even if just for a couple of hours, the problems in your own life.

That whole thing about shouting “Fire” in a crowded movie theater…that’s supposed to be something you can joke about, something you use as a metaphor for some other instance. It’s not supposed to actually happen.

II.

I’m on a visit to my parents and staying for the weekend, so it’s my mother who tells me when I wake.

“Did you hear the horrible news?”

“No,” I say. Email/reader/Twitter…these things I usually check the moment I open my eyes, but my iPad’s charging across the room and I haven’t had a chance to look.

“Well,” she says, “in Colorado, at a midnight screening…”

For some reason, call it intuition, call it cynicism, I know what she’s going to say before she says it. What I’m not expecting, however, is the sheer number: 12 dead, more than 50 injured. I only know a few people in Colorado, so I’m not expecting that I’ll have a connection to any of the victims, but again, here I am wrong.

One of the victims is a 24 year-old sportscaster whose last tweets were with someone I have been tweeting with for over four years. It’s amazing how small the internet can make the world, I think.

Some time later I realize that had I been there, my instinctual reaction—to flee for the exit—would have gotten me killed.

III.

After the news breaks comes the spin. It’s so formulaic now that you’d think mass shootings happened with the same frequency as a celebrity couple announcing their divorce. First, there’s the shock of the event itself, then the grieving, then the massive, insatiable crush to profile the shooter/perpetrator more fully than the BAU team on Criminal Minds.

We want to know the killer’s race, religion, political affiliation, state of mental health, traumatic childhood, even how the killer amasses his or her (but almost always his) cache of weapons and then we begin to debate what the Founding Fathers actually meant by the second amendment.

This is always the part that loses me, because in the end I’m not sure it matters. The problem, after all, isn’t one person—people unhinged, for whatever reason, people with a propensity for violence will exist in any society, regardless of gun control laws, religious sentiments or racial composition. If you wanted to get academic about it, you can argue that the problem is cultural—that we live in a culture so dependent on the military-industrial complex, so enamored of our military and the macho strong-man that we inherently condone violence even when we believe we do no such thing—but here’s the thing: as long as we focus on the killer and not the victims, we give the killer the attention he craves, and we do nothing to help the victims, their families or our society.

IV.

In The Dark Knight, Michael Caine’s Alfred says, of the Joker, that “some people just want to watch the world burn.” It is an unfortunate truism; there are people who thrive on havoc and chaos, not all of them evil at first glance. There will never be a way to prevent such people/corporations/societies/what have you from existing, so the question becomes, how do we respond?

The Dark Knight worked as a movie because it laid bare that the answer to that question is unbearably nuanced—that sometimes the only way you catch the bad guy is to become the dystopian police state, but, unfortunately, unlike Batman, we don’t build our surveillance monitors to self-destruct once our aims are achieved. In some respects, it’s gone so far as to be absurd—imagine a person from the 1960s time-travelling to a modern airport, with metal detectors, limits on liquids, pat downs, full-body scans…and heaven help you if you say the word ‘bomb’ or anything similar.

We put up with the airport measures because there’s not much that can save you if a plane is hit, but if we let this line of thinking—that it’s okay to put up with insanely harsh and reactionary security measures just in case—we end up wondering where we draw the line. Do the metal detectors really help in urban junior highs and high schools? There are reminders that violence in schools can occur in any setting;  Blacksburg, home to Virginia Tech, is a largely rural area. Would we be willing to put up with bag checks and pat downs at a movie theater? The chances of another mass shooting occurring at your local theater are probably miniscule unless you live in an active war zone, but they are not non-existent.

As long as we focus on reactionary measures, as opposed to changing a culture in which ownership of weapons is not merely tolerated but encouraged, we’ll still have to answer the question—how do we deal with the ones that want to watch the world burn—and it’s unlikely, if not outright impossible that we’ll find an answer that can satisfy everyone.

V.

As the day’s gone on I’ve seen a number of Facebook updates asking how to help the victims in Aurora. The sentiment is certainly laudable, and any help that can be given—in this case, I imagine needs are more emotional and spiritual than physical, though they are all equally important—should be given.

Still, my response to “how can I help?” isn’t the number for the Red Cross in Colorado; it’s something a little more mundane, something a little closer to home:

Even if you can’t help out much for a community in Colorado, you can certainly help out in your own. There are plenty of options, from donating blood to volunteering at a hospital; if the only thing you end up doing is to take a first aid or CPR course (from licensed professionals, please—or from the Red Cross directly), you can still arm yourself with knowledge that could save a life (even your own).

And yes, tell your family and your friends how much you love them. I’ve lost relatives and friends with no warning, and I know I’m not the only one. Life is short and we are nothing without each other, without the support networks we lean on even when we don’t realize it, and there are some things you can never say too often.