In the Dark Knight, when Batman chooses not to run over the Joker when he can, we are supposedly offered a number of valuable messages—the caped hero has not quite descended into the jungle of the vigilante; the rule of law and due process are upheld; saving the Joker ensures Batman is not the Joker; and even perhaps the misunderstood crime fighter senses a sick affinity with the similarly outcast crime perpetrator. But lost among the director’s messages is the simple fact that had Batman splattered the psychopathic mass murderer, dozens still alive in the remaining minutes of the film would not have been slaughtered. Or was that the director’s message—that Batman’s inflated sense of justice, his inability to terminate evil, ensures that evil will terminate others good but weaker than he?
All of which brings us to our third symptom of the modern age that makes the contemporary rampage killer somehow different. If the suspect is charged and found guilty, I have zero confidence that he will be hanged. I have a great deal of confidence that over the next five years, his awful presence will pop up on a news broadcast. We can execute bin Laden and high-five it; we can incinerate over 2,000 suspected terrorists by video-controlled Predators, and have the president brag about it in warning away suitors from his daughters at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner— but we cannot do the same for someone who was tried, convicted, and sentenced for horrifically destroying people.
For months to come after his trial there will be a “new” revelation in the case—an interview, a testimonial from a former friend, a novel twist about the evidence. The net effect is that we will know more about the killer and his crime, and each day ever less about his victims.
Tonight, I wish to know nothing about him other than the information necessary to try, convict, and punish him—and any data that might provide some sort of deterrence in preventing another such rampage.
In comparison to those he killed and maimed, and the legions of their relatives and friends, he is nothing. We the sophisticated with university degrees are supposed to know better: that hanging such a nightmarish criminal when convicted is both barbaric on our part and offers no statistical evidence that it will deter future such killers.
Perhaps. But society needs to be affirmed with a certainty that it has the clear sense of evil and good to try, convict, and punish the killer. Hanging Saddam or Eichmann, for all the controversies over their trials, at least offered some finality: they were evil and now are no more—and now we don’t worry whether Saddam was unloved, or the circumstances of Eichmann’s childhood.
In other words, I don’t care a whit whether the Aurora killer was a loner. I don’t care if he was unhappy or if he was on medication. Millions share such pathologies without killing a mouse. I don’t even know whether giving him swift justice will deter the next mass shooter. Yes, give the suspect expert legal counsel; call in all the psychiatrists imaginable; sequester the jury; ensure the judge is a pillar of jurisprudence; but if he is found guilty, I would prefer the gallows and quickly so, to remind us that we live in a civilization that prefers to remember the victims and to remember nothing at all of their killer.