The Limits of Civilization

I am on vacation in Colorado; the mountains are gorgeous, the cycling invigorating, the hot tub soothing, the family company comforting.  This is the sort of week that induces the awkward poser to post a bit of puff, about Colorado’s commitment to physical fitness or the ingenuity of the early mountaineers.  But despite the bucolic veneer of our vacation, the moment any one turns on the television the placid façade cracks.  The movie theater tragedy is everywhere.  Another seminal event, another Dallas, another Columbine, another cause to wring our hands and say ‘How can this happen?’


I have no better answer to how this happens than the next guy, I only know that it does, and with enough regularity and intensity that if we don’t accept these tragedies as fixtures of modern life, we are fools for deluding ourselves.  The death count, number injured, and venue choice for the Aurora, Colorado massacre of movie-goers at a midnight premier of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises are all tragic, but what elevates this bit of madness in my mind is the invasion-level amount of planning and armament involved.  The killer was meticulous in massacre.


As we sort through our grief, ponder the arbitrary nature of tragedy, tighten up security in yet another aspect of our daily lives and argue around the peripheral issues such as how easy it is to get ammunition on the Internet, we will likely not ask the harder question of whether we should have limits to gun ownership, and I doubt we will even entertain the more basic question.  Is man inherently violent, and if so, can that need ever be sated vicariously?


Violent behavior is a human trademark.  Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of our Natures: Why Violence Has Declined that we are living in the least violent times ever, yet we seem unable to get to that point where violence is erased from our everyday lives.  We still go to war, though in America we make sure our wars are far away and affect our daily consumption as little as possible.  We still live in fear of crime, despite the fact that it actually occurs less often; we couldn’t worry about crimes we never knew existed until they invaded our home on the six o’clock news.  We still resort to violence in our daily lives as a means for solving disputes; thus people still hit their spouses and their children. And we still suffer arbitrary, aberrant violence such as James Holmes perpetrated at that midnight screening.


“Batman stories almost always center on violence, madness, and single-minded discipline”, Douglas Wolk wrote prophetically in this week’s Time magazine, before the midnight movie massacre.  Batman is the twenty-first century anecdote for violence in a civilized society.  Like the gladiators of ancient Rome, the jousting matches of the Middle Ages, or the cock fights of Latin America, Batman is a surrogate for our violent tendencies, a two hour, $250 million relief valve to dissuade us from acting out our primal tendencies.  Sitting in the dark theater, each of us is the Dark Knight, we possess cunning and strength and grace, we battle evil and regardless how dire our straights, we emerge victorious.

We will never know why James Holmes could not have simply bought a ticket, sat in the audience, and assuaged his violent impulses watching Batman.  That cinemagraphic surrogate satisfies most of us, but James Holmes was compelled to act his violence out.  We cannot understand this because our reality is circumscribed by what we call ‘civilization’.  We use terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘delusional’ to describe the killer, but really ‘uncivilized’ does the trick.  He acted so far beyond the limits of anything we can tolerate; we have to disbar him from the most rudimentary definition of humanity.  The most civilized thing we can do now is band together, tend each other’s wounds, and guard against the next time; for as long as there are limits to what is acceptable in civilized society, there will always be someone who transgresses them in a free society.

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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