Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Don't let us make heroes out of killers

Joker in the Dock' screamed the tabloids, next to a picture of their flame-haired baddie looking wild-eyed and dangerous. 'Batman Killer faces world.' If you'd given a blank front page to the Aurora mass murderer and asked him to summon up his dream headline, the chances are he'd have come up with something similar.

The pleasure he'll derive from being presented across the globe like the crazed, indiscriminate exterminator who stalks the dark corners of the Dark Knight universe will surely make up for the loneliness of his self-imposed solitary confinement.

Let's get this straight.

It's clear that art influences people's behaviour. Great art - whether it be in books, films, or TV shows - is powerful. In the hands of a master, words and pictures can rouse us to fantastic emotional heights or plunge us into despairing depths.

They can make us cry. They can make us feel guilty or angry or profoundly grateful.

They can provoke us to question our priorities, commit ourselves to new causes, resolve to be better people.

It's always bemused me that Oliver Stone compared the influence of films to that of sugar-packed Twinkie bars; is there any film-maker who has worked harder to sway audiences' political opinion than the director of Platoon and JFK?

Yes, movies, books and video games are influential, but whether they can put murderous thoughts into the head of a previously non-murderously inclined person is a different question.

Even if they can, we can't ask film-makers and writers to reign in their imaginations and poetic gifts on account of the million-to-one chance that their impact will be as negative as that of the Dark Knight cult's on the Aurora killer (for anyone still questioning that - he dyed his hair like Heath Ledger's , donned a gas-mask like DK villain Bane, and yelled 'I am the Joker' before imitating a scene from Frank Miller's 1986 DK comic). The alternative to free expression - a world full of faux Hallmark sentiment, in which the arts simply represent the repression of feeling, opinion and insight - is beyond countenance. For the most part, it's the knock-your-socks-off power of the arts which makes them such an invaluable part of our lives.

What we can ask though, is that our media change their approach.

The appeal of presenting those whose acts are so heinous they defy human ken as thrilling enigmas or mythical darklords seems indefatigable for many newspapers and TV news programmes, despite it so obviously fulfilling the fantasies of the perpetrator.

The age-old practise of giving mass/serial murderers capitalised cool nicknames - The Batman Killer; The Crossbow Killer; The Moors Murderers; The Ripper - and describing them in terms usually reserved for cartoon characters - deranged, demonic, fiendish - hands them exactly the kind of folk-devil notoriety they crave. There are already stories that the Aurora killer had just been dumped by his girlfriend, and rejected by three women on the sex hook-up website Adult Friend Finder.

But instead of being derided as the social failure he was, he has, as he is likely to see it, been awarded an eternal place as a cult anti-hero bang in the middle of his favourite subculture. What a way to inspire like-minded, equally pathetic souls.

You might notice that I haven't used the guy's name in this article. That's because I want people to forget it as soon as possible. Instead, this time, let's remember the people who were killed. Every one has a story more worthy of re-telling than his.

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