Colorado is mourning. You can feel it.
It’ll be like this for a while. The Aurora shooting isn’t something we can just “get over,” something we can push aside and move past. Not here in this state, maybe not here in this country. Most of us go to movies to get away from it all — to find respite from the “real world.” Now the worst part of the real world kicked in our sanctuary door and opened fire. That’s not something you just shake off.
Only a couple of hundred people were in that Aurora theater when 24-year-old James Holmes opened fire. But all of us got hurt.
So we’re going through the stages of grief now. Shock, denial, anger. The last is what many of us are feeling now: rage. Most of us can’t take our pain lying down. We can’t just curl up and weep, sucking our collective societal thumb. We get angry. We want someone to pay. Now.
You can hear it everywhere — in the corner Starbucks, at the deli across the street, at a stoplight if you flip on talk radio. People are furious. What happened wasn’t right, This killer, this “Joker,” cheated us in a basic, primal way. He stole our security, our peace of mind. He stole 12 people’s lives. It’s not fair. And many wonder why in heaven’s name we should be fair to him.
“Due process?” they say. “He didn’t give his victims due process.” People hint darkly of frontier justice. They seethe as they rattle off the benefits they assume the killer’s getting: Cable. Internet access. Food. One radio caller said that, if he had his druthers, he’d let the victims vote on whether the killer would get fed at all.
But when I feel like that, I again go back to Batman and the example he sets (albeit in his fictional world of Gotham City). And I see the reflection of a better way.
Before Batman became Batman — when he was simply Bruce Wayne wandering through the mountains of central Asia in 2005’s “Batman Begins” — he ran into a super-secret outfit called the League of Shadows led by one Ra’s al Ghul. The League shares Wayne’s love of justice — surpasses it, in fact. They’re determined to obliterate sin and evil without mercy, without grace. “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural,” al Ghul says.
But when he asks Wayne to prove his worth to the League by beheading a proven thief and murderer, Wayne refuses.
“I will go back to Gotham and I will fight men like this, but I will not become an executioner,” he says.
“Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share,” al Ghul tells him.
“That’s why it’s so important,” he says. “It separates us from them.”
In that moment, I think, Wayne becomes Batman — a real hero who’s not out for vengeance, but for justice. See, true justice must contain a whiff of compassion, a hint of the grace that God extends to us: sinners who, if we’re Christian, believe we deserve death just as much as the Aurora killer.
Sure, when we have a little distance, most of us want to be level-headed about such things. We want to be fair. Even those who’ve never been inside a courtroom know and understand all those hallowed phrases of our judicial system: That suspects deserve “due process,” should be “presumed innocent until proven guilty” by a “jury of their peers.” They shouldn’t be subject to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
But for all those good intentions, our attitudes tend to change when we get smacked in the mouth. We slide back to the rule we learned in the park or the playground: If someone punches you, punch ‘em back — twice as hard, three times as hard, so hard that they’ll never ever dare hit you again.
That playground rule might’ve worked back then, it might’ve not. But the instinct to follow never leaves us; not fully. In our worst moments, we don’t want justice: We want payback. We want an eye for an eye and interest.
This isn’t about capital punishment, mind you. It’s about who decides. Due process — the ability to treat a presumed killer with the respect he didn’t afford his victims — is what separates us from him. We show our character when we, like Batman, lay our anger and rage at the altar of a higher authority — be it our laws or our God — and allow that authority to do its work.
Paul Asay is the author of God on the Streets of Gotham: What the Big Screen Batman Can Teach us About God and Ourselves. He works as a movie reviewer with the Christian outlet Pluggedin.com.