Millions of Americans awoke to another horror last week and decided to go to the movies.
"The Dark Knight Rises" took in about $161 million, according to Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE:TWX). That was on the low end of expectations yet still marks one of Hollywood's highest domestic weekend openings ever. The "Colorado Movie Massacre," as it has been dubbed in some TV news reports, barely slowed ticket sales.
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Sunday night brought soothing words from the president, Colorado's governor and Aurora's mayor and a memorial ceremony that only temporarily eased the pain many people will feel for the rest of their lives.
By Monday morning, alleged perpetrator James Holmes was capturing the nation's attention in court. He had indeed dyed his hair freakish colors, and he was indeed an enigma, just as media reports had speculated.
His face was so spooky that newscasters took turns psychoanalyzing him. Is he medicated? Is he sleep-deprived? Is he crazy, or is he just putting on a show?
I wished I could feel something other than numbness since I live about 10 miles away from the Century 16 theater where this tragedy unfolded. An editor woke me up early Friday morning, asking if I could get there immediately to help gather the news, but I was in New York at that moment, 1,780 miles away.
I didn't feel the least bit shocked. Earlier this summer, about 350 homes burned to the ground in Colorado Springs, about 60 miles south of my home, and I wasn't shocked by that, either. I used to live in that town, and I always suspected it was a tinderbox of pine trees and scrub oaks. I was content to watch the inevitable on TV, even as wildfire smoke filled the air I breathe in metro Denver.
It isn't that I don't care. It is just that I am getting old watching inevitable tragedies. People build homes in areas nature sometimes reclaims. Every once in a while, people also lose their sanity, get their hands on guns and fire upon the innocent. These stories simply repeat themselves.
On Sunday morning, I wandered to a multiplex cinema on Manhattan's east side to see the Batman movie a dozen people didn't live to see. So much for heightened security -- two New York cops stood outside, both attending to iPhones as the theater filled with giddy moviegoers.
On the big screen, I watched as larger-than-life villains terrified New York, or Gotham, on par with 9/11. The movie didn't allow the bad guys to win, yet it venerated their violence as a fine art form. If we were to be judged by the movies we watch, we are a people who worship psychopaths. The man behind the Aurora shooting didn't stay to see this movie. He may have been inspired by the last one, which featured the Joker creating the same kind of deadly chaos unleashed in Aurora. "This city deserves a better class of criminal, and I'm going to give it to them," the Joker declared in the last movie, "The Dark Knight."
The Joker and Batman's other enemies justify their heinous crimes by observing that the entire system, from the power elite on down, is just as corrupt as they aspire to be. "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain," explained the character Harvey Dent, the clean-cut district attorney turned criminal mastermind Two-Face.
In the latest Batman film, the masked criminal Bane easily incites class warfare, putting the high society on trial for crimes that oppress the poor. Catwoman loots only the rich who deserve it.
It is indeed unfortunate that in the real world, some people running our largest companies, the government and even law enforcement itself are hiding behind masks. They make morality seem like a myth for suckers.
Until recently, the county jail where the Aurora shooting suspect is now being held was called the Patrick Sullivan Detention Center. Mr. Sullivan, 69 years old, was a revered sheriff for years. In April, he was sentenced on charges of trading methamphetamine for sex with men. He got 30 days in his own jail, a couple years probation and a $1,100 fine. Then his name was unceremoniously stripped from the jail, disgraced like Joe Paterno at Penn State.
Still, even as society devolves amid an economic malaise, only a very tiny minority of very insane people will watch a Batman movie, decide it bears a curious resemblance to reality, go on the Internet to order an arsenal and commit mass murder.
We needn't bother with serious discussions about Hollywood violence, restrictions on weapons or the moral failings of our leaders. These ideas go nowhere. We have long decided to live in a society that is so free even someone who thinks he's the Joker can buy assault rifles over the Internet. It is just not very pleasant when the inevitable consequences of these decisions land in your own neighborhood.
By Monday evening, I finally made it to the scene of America's latest mass murder. My wife and I joined in a prayer circle around 12 crosses. We saw tears still gushing from family members of the victims. It was not as easy as watching the TV news or seeing a supervillian destroy a city on a giant movie screen.
For a fleeting moment, my numbness faded.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)