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Shawn Vestal: Our cultural narrative of violence

Shooting. Punching. Killing.

If you were to judge us by what we find entertaining, you would conclude these are our holy trinity. The things we believe in more than any other things; the things we will watch and watch and watch and watch some more; our story of who we think we are.

Shooters. Punchers. Killers.

Not long before the cinema shooting in Aurora, Colo., I took my 5-year-old son to see the new Spider-Man movie. This is, I know, a debatable decision. His deep love of superheroes – fostered by dad – means he wants to see things that are filled with the cartoon versions of shooting, punching and killing, and we have let him, within limits. The movie itself was as expected; it made my son want to run around and pretend to punch and web-shoot lizard men.

What really struck me were the previews: a 20-minute assault of assault, chopped into two- and three-second blasts, aimed with precision at the heart and mind of the American boy.

Shooting. Punching. Killing.

Was my son too young for Spider-Man? Maybe. I know this: No matter how much his mom and I have told ourselves that we are not dunking him in the cultural bath of violence, there is nothing that revs his heart like some good punching and shooting. He doesn’t have gun toys, but he has plenty of toys that he uses as guns. He loved the movie, and he loves the cultural soup of violence, children’s edition: from Tweety Bird to Spider-Man.

Is it any wonder? It’s the same stuff that revved his old man’s heart, and still does, from time to time. Some of my favorite films and books are horrifyingly violent and transgressive. Or, you might say, thrillingly violent and transgressive.

A lot of us love a tidy cinematic killing. A sweetly justified slaughter. A righteous, bloody comeuppance for those who’ve got it coming.

It’s the backbone of half the stories we tell in movie theaters. There’s nothing as cinematically satisfying – or as deeply cynical – as a noble good guy who is forced by circumstance to kill the deserving bad guy. Even the supposedly anti-war and anti-violence movies eventually give us a big dose of it. It’s the “Unforgiven” phenomenon – Clint Eastwood spends the movie persuasively debunking the romanticism of the gun and revenge, then gives the audience a big, belly-filling batch of gun revenge in the end.

Shooting. Punching. Killing.

I don’t think violent movies or video games “cause” shootings like the one in Aurora. But I also wouldn’t argue that they have no effect. Saying “movies don’t kill people” is roughly as smart as saying “guns don’t kill people” – which is to say, not smart at all.

What struck me on the day of the killing was how quickly a lot of us rushed to the political ramparts. Most distasteful were those who immediately began crying out stridently in defense of guns. Within hours of the killings, there they were, singing the praises of the Second Amendment, making preposterous comparisons between assault rifles and rocks. People kill people, these arguments ran, and there’s nothing at all we should do, or even talk about doing, to limit access to assault weapons or hundred-round magazines. It’s just exactly, precisely like limiting access to rocks.

Was that more sad or more dumb? Close call. But cries for an end to – or limits on – movie violence brought out a similar knee-jerk, defensive response in me: Movies don’t kill people. Guns kill people.

Human beings have made up violent stories forever – probably exactly as long as we’ve been killing each other. I don’t believe that artistic violence makes you a killer, and I think certain kinds of violent art can do the opposite; it’s hard to say that “Reservoir Dogs” glorifies violence any more than “Hamlet” does. I myself, in my spare-time literary activities, write stories that are sometimes violent.

But a constant parade of thrilling, retributive, uplifting violence? A more or less constant narrative that starts when we’re children, in which deserving “bad guys” are dispatched violently by unquestionably “good” guys? It’s part of it. It has to be. We’re infected with the dream of righteous bang-bang. We’ve got it bad. And when we want to carry it out, we can find the right tools instantly, everywhere.

It would be a miracle if we do one thing in an effort to prevent another Aurora. We’ll just argue along predetermined lines for a while, and then forget it. Aurora is the price we have already decided to pay. When you hear people saying that what we needed there was more guns – a movie house full of gunmen, dishing out the justice – you realize how deeply this dream has deluded us.

No law will dig that out of our hearts. And nothing we say about it can erase the fact that the story of a righteous hero producing justice with a gun is only a few scant details away from the story of an evil villain producing tragedy with a gun.

Sometime soon – probably tonight – my 5-year-old son will ask me to play with him. He likes to pretend to be superheroes, ninjas, “good guys” – and he likes to entertain various scenarios in which we get the “bad guys.”

We don’t use guns or pretend to kill. Occasionally I get on my high horse and give him a pointless little bleeding-heart lecture about violence, or make-believe, or whatever. But make no mistake about it. What we’re doing is a watered-down pantomime of the cultural religion: Shooting. Punching. Killing.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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