Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Harry Potter School of Heroism

An iconic line from ‘Batman, the Dark Knight Rises’ embodies a sentiment so cruel and abusive that it shook me. The line is “You have my permission to die”, first triumphantly spoken by Bane after snapping Batman’s spine in single combat as a monologue revealing his dastardly plans for Gotham. This was glorious stuff, a key moment in the story where Bane stands with complete power over his adversary, choosing his words carefully to inflict as much despair as he can on his helpless victim. This is a man devoid of humanity, a monster worth fighting, a Bad Guy.

Now, this wasn’t the thing that bothered me. The thing that made me stop and think ‘hold on a second there’ was when the tables were turned. When, on the steps of City Hall, Batman (now recovered from his spinal injury) fights Bane mano-a-mano, and wholly defeats him. Standing over his wheezing, pathetic-looking body, Batman re-echoes Bane’s words: “You now have my permission to die”. This phrase has become a meme, echoed by anyone seeking a quick laugh at the melodrama of its overblown callousness. 

Thinking a little deeper, I’d say that this was the moment Batman lost. He lost by becoming as cruel and heartless as his enemy. Naturally, the logic is that Bane deserved it, he was simply getting his just desserts. Payback’s a bitch.

Another line, this time from Nietzsche, springs to mind: “Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster.”

The theme of ‘good but badass’ heroes is ridiculously common in action movies. Tough, ruthless men and women: warriors, mercenaries, soldiers, cops, spies, bodyguards, commandos, ninja, assassins and hitmen are frequently portrayed as heroes. The distinguishing feature they possess are a very particular set of skills that usually come down to the ability to kill people (and to look sexy doing it). They are Good Guys. They kill Bad Guys. Sometimes in a spectacular fashion that elicits cheers and applause from movie-goers. This could be a beheading, a knife through the crown of the skull or perhaps an explosive detonated within their adversary’s body just after the bad guy realizes what is about to happen. The image of ‘a good guy with a gun’ is glorified and eulogized, enshrined in legend and admired by lots of people, copied by some in their choice of profession or their own self image.

Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, is an object lesson about cycles of violence and vengeance: an eye for an eye, a rape for a death, a mutilation here, a little cannibalism there. One must admit that the bard went a little berserk at the end there, but the underlying theme is pretty clear. Payback is a bitch and an uncaring, undiscerning one at that. Violence inflicted on your enemies will in turn evolve into violence inflicted on you and the moral arguments you might try to use to continue justifying retribution become ever weaker as you continue. Moreover, the situation perennially escalates, becoming more entrenched as you progress. Once you start with vengeance, you will find it harder to stop. This is the tragedy that gets played out again and again in places like Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Algeria, Belfast, and even on the streets of my home: Los Angeles. Men fight and men die based on the same tired, empty, cycles of revenge and retribution.

If these people have heroes, they are as the ancient Greeks imagined them: Hector and Achilles, cutting through swathes of enemies to wade in their blood, gloriously terrible and beyond the scope of lesser men. To me, these people aren’t heroes, but bullies, driven by ego and a need to dominate and overpower others. Consider, an alternative school of heroism, where evil can be confronted by intelligence, force (if necessary) but always by humanity, decency and goodness. Consider Harry Potter.

There’s a moment in HP7 when Harry is fending off the evil machinations of the dastardly Draco Malfoy. They’re flying around the Room of Requirement and someone starts a fire which traps and threatens to engulf Malfoy. Harry then places his own life in danger to rescue Draco, just simply because it’s the right thing to do. At a later stage, when Voldemort has supposedly killed Harry, Malfoy’s mother examines his body to find he’s still alive and she lies about it to Voldemort. Why? Because he had saved the life of her son.

This embodies the sentiment expressed by Abraham Lincoln when he said: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”. By steadfastly holding on to his decency, even in the face of all manner of provoking circumstances, Harry provides an exit route from this steadily spiraling cycle of violence, as similarly demonstrated by Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

An important aspect of the notion of heroism is that it presents idealized people who we admire and aspire to emulate. I wonder how many professional murderers chose their profession because of James Bond, the Godfather, Scarface, American Sniper or maybe even Batman.

We need to choose our heroes wisely. I choose Harry Potter.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Barbarism of Fear

Weapons are funny things. I'm a pretty seasoned competitive fencer, or rather, I used to be. Nowadays, when I show up at a good club for a bout or two and can expected to be trounced by everyone, but in my day, I wasn't half bad. I was a pretty good foilist: 75th in England in 1995. I trained with Olympians and even beat one of them once in serious competition (it was his first bout of the day and I'm pretty sure he was half asleep). So, I knew and still know how to fight with swords. I watched swordfighting movies with a high body count and would be generally more concerned about the techniques being used than the actual events being depicted. I loved Akira Kurosawa's classic 'Seven Samurai' or Robert Mitchum's 'American Yakuza' and 'The Princess Bride' remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

I wonder how I'd feel if my interest in swordplay was linked in the public mindset to the Rwandan genocide, so that people associated me with the brutal members of the Interahamwe, who killed close to a million people in Rwanda in 1994. After all, they largely used machetes which could be considered to be a little like swords at a pinch. Naturally, the connection would be a little ludicrous and grossly unfair.

I think that this may be the way that some gun owners feel when they are associated with the atrocities of mass shootings. Even if you might disagree with the comparison, I think they feel unfairly judged. Like me, they have an interest in perfecting their skill at using their weapons. Like me, they might even romanticize the martial art itself. Like me, the idea of actually using a 'live version' of their weapons on real people might horrify them. There are a great many gun owners who would never, ever kill anyone, except in the most extreme of circumstances. It's an interesting fact that the majority of US infantrymen in WWII would not fire their weapons at the enemy; to the chagrin of their commanders, but also as a loud testament to the natural goodness of humanity. Training programs in the army put paid to that pretty quickly so that soldiers in Vietnam were much more likely to kill when facing a real person (and suffer the associated psychological trauma into the bargain).

The crucial distinction about weapons arises from a person's underlying intention.

There are people who learn to use swords and other weapons in martial arts classes with a focus on self defense. This could include sticks, knives or other 'realistic' approaches to using and defending against weapons (including unnarmed techniques). The intention here is to hurt, injure, blind or even kill your opponent. Similarly, there are gun owners who obtained their weapons for 'self defense', to protect themselves and their families. When someone has that intention, I feel that they transition into a new state of being; you become someone capable of killing.

The much-overused phrase: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" is true, but if you bought a gun with the intention of firing it a human being (for whatever reason) then you might well just be one of those people who kill people. It may even be the case that the process of holding a gun in your hand, of firing it at a target that looks like a bad guy crouching and waiting to strike, of enjoying action movies that depict bad-ass heroes kill bad guys makes someone more likely to be one of those people that kill people.

I practiced martial arts (including Krav Maga and Jeet Kune Do) for several years, it seemed like a natural progression from fencing and I liked it. I was good at it and still am (up to a point). I remember though, watching the movie 'United 93' about the 9/11 hijackings, how my body felt during the film. As I saw the action on screen, I started to internally visualize choke holds, takedowns and elbow strikes that I would have tried to use, had I been there. It was intensely vivid and visceral. In my mind, I would have fought, gouged and strangled and my body and brainstem was happy to help. At that moment, I confess, I was quite capable of being a killer. If I had been trained to use firearms, I'd probably have been planning of how I'd shoot them instead of choke them. Guns simply make it much easier to translate this sort of murderous intent directly into action, reality and death.

Barry MacGuigan, the great irish featherweight, grew up in Northern Ireland amid the murderous violence of the troubles. He used to say 'Leave the fighting to MacGuigan' as a counter to the rhetoric being slung about between Protestants and Catholics. He was the inspiration for the 1997 movie 'The Boxer' starring Daniel Day Lewis where the main contrast between protagonists drew a bright line between the men who fought with their fists to win and men who fought with guns to kill.

There are times, I suppose, when we might need to fight, tooth and bloody murderous nail, for survival. I hope never to be placed in such a predicament. If I was, I hope to acquit myself with the same level of courage shown by Victoria Soto, Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, Alex Teves, or Brian Murphy (heroes from Newton, Aurora and Wisconsin). To have to ponder such a situation is to have to consider a truly horrifying choice. Must we all train ourselves to become killers in order to survive? 

This is barbarism. I feel that we have to ask these questions about why we have become so afraid of one another. Why are we willing to become killers? Are we that afraid of each other? Do we really need to be able to kill our opponents in order to feel safe? Or to feel powerful? Or relevant? At the heart of this question is a deep seated fear of other people in our society (or even of society as a whole) and addressing that issue directly is what we need to do.

Posting gun-owners' addresses online absolutely will not help, neither will asserting that 'genuine monsters' live amongst us, neither will spouting nationalistic rhetoric with accompanying conspiracy theories and threats of violence. Finding effective methods to reduce gun violence in the long term would be a smart thing to do (and the research shows that rates of gun violence tend to correlate with the availability of guns). I think that finding some courage to act with restraint and consideration towards people who scare us might just make a much bigger difference in the long run.