Killers who come from nowhere, set on chaos and destruction
One year divides Norway's atrocity and the Aurora cinema massacre – but there is a connection
JAMES HOLMES, the man accused of the Aurora cinema massacre, claimed he was the Joker, of whom Batman's butler Alfred remarked: "Some men just want to watch the world burn".
In Colorado they're still trying to get to grips with the cold calculation and extreme irrationality of the deed in which the killer pumped dozens of rounds into the auditorium at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. Within minutes 12 were dead, including a six-year old, and 58 were injured.
As Aurora mourns, millions of Norwegians have been commemorating the 77 dead and 242 injured by the hand of Anders Behring Breivik a year ago.
There's a connection between Holmes and Breivik. Both were addicts of complex and extremely violent video games. Breivik's choice games, apparently, were Modern Warfare and World of Warcraft. More spooky, if anything, is that another Breivik favourite was Age of Conan, a Norwegian game based on the fantasy world created by the novelist Robert E. Howard 80 years ago.
Breivik used this fantasy world to flesh out his manifesto, 'A European Declaration of Independence'. But his main focus was the destruction of human lives. He didn't care who they were individually – beyond a crude symbolism of the organisations with whom they might be associated. In his case the symbols were the Norwegian Labour Party, to which both his estranged parents had belonged, and a vague notion of the Norwegian government.
Holmes, who appeared in court yesterday, his hair died orange to resemble the Joker, was also apparently focused primarily on killing and bombing. He rigged his apartment - described as looking like the lair of a mad scientist - to blow up anyone who came there, whether it was the cops or the janitor. In this he was following the Joker fantasy, set on destruction rather than any sense of fighting for political or moral ideology.
The point is brilliantly argued by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Christopher Nolan's Batman movies aren't great art, he argues, "but they are effective dramatisations of the Way We Fear Now". Their villains "appear from nowhere to terrorise, seeking no higher end than chaos, no higher thrill than fear".
In the end, this was the aim of Osama bin Laden, hidden in his rambling compound in Abbottabad, increasingly detached from a world he only knew from a primitive computer and reports from his sporadic messengers – but a world he felt compelled to destroy anyway.
I would take Douthat's argument a little further. The pervasiveness of video culture, of which the Batman iconography is a subset, makes this world seem part of everyday reality. For some minds it brings fantasy closer to achievable reality. The two killers who shot 13 and injured 21 in 1999 at Columbine High School, not so far way from Aurora, had created new "levels" - virtual environments - for the nihilistic video game, Doom.
A few years ago the feisty Louise Richardson, now vice chancellor at St Andrews University, wrote a book explaining that most ideologically driven terrorists always want something concrete and political – and this offers a rational negotiating point. Far more worrying are the lone fantasists, like Breivik, Holmes and Harris and Klebold at Columbine. It is always hard to read when their paranoid fantasies, their dreamworlds, will collide with our real world.
A friend working on the Norwegian Royal Commission into the Breivik killings in Utoya and Oslo last summer told me that they had received outstanding expert testimony from British security officials. But, she said, what worried them most was the possibility of a hitherto unrecognised psychopathic loner getting among Olympic crowds.
This world of inner demonology and paranoia leading to extraordinary violence is well understood in Scandinavia. They are at the core of the outpouring of brilliant 'Scandinavia Noir' literature and art – the heart of Henning Mankell's Wallander plots, and the thrillers of Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbo.
The best response to the dark forces is to be as open as possible – on this both Ross Douthat, and Jonas Gahre Store, Norway's foreign minister, agree. It is down to the people and the mourners to just go on being who they are, debating, arguing and letting out their emotions. "The far more dangerous avenue," writes Jonas Store, "is to force extremist ideas underground, where they can fester without completion."