The Dark Knight Rises, the most anticipated movie of the year, was opening at midnight across the country, including Century 16 in Aurora, Colo. Hundreds of Batman fans filed into the theater, many in costume. No one thought much about the guy with the shock-orange hair that July night in 2012. Not until he started shooting.
About 30 minutes after the movie started, James Holmes—wearing a gas mask—threw a couple of smoke bombs and fired a 12-gauge shotgun into the audience. He killed 12 people that night, injured another 70. When police captured him, he is said to have called himself The Joker.
Holmes pled guilty by reason of insanity. His trial starts today. If he’s found legally sane, he could face the death penalty. And at the crux of his sanity is a deceptively simple question: Did Holmes know right from wrong?
I’ve written a lot about Batman over the last few years. My book, God on the Streets of Gotham, was published just two months before the Aurora shooting. That question of sanity—whether Holmes knew right from wrong—eerily echoes a theme found in Batman’s mythos and fleshed out so effectively by Christopher Nolan in 2008’s The Dark Knight. There’s a reason why so many of Batman’s foes wind up in Arkham Asylum: They can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. And that’s particularly true of the Joker.
To be sane, we must know what good and evil are. “Everybody knows it,” I heard someone say on the radio this morning. “Everybody knows the difference between right and wrong.”
But the Joker would argue that such particulars are difficult to parse. Concepts of good and evil are malleable. And the Joker’s not the only one who might say so.
Many philosophers, including Friedrich Nietzsche, have rejected the notion of good and evil. “That which an age feels to be evil is usually an untimely echo of what was normally considered good,” he writes. Right and wrong, he and others might say, is contextual. Cultural. It is liable to change with the times. No sane man would suggest that what Holmes was anything but wrong, of course. But if we follow the logic that right and wrong is a manmade thing, there’s also no cosmic check to make sure the deed always stays wrong. Today, only an insane or evil man would kill innocent moviegoers. It’s not likely that society would ever say differently. But could it? It seems that, conceivably, it could.
Unless, that is, some innate sense of right and wrong stopped us. Unless we believed that morality exists apart from the ethical fashions of the day. And that, I think, requires God.Let’s unpack this a bit more, just for a moment. An amoral universe certainly doesn’t much care about us or what we do. Without God, human life can’t be sacred. It is not inherently valuable, cosmically speaking. Our lives may be wonderfully complex and we may find ourselves attached to them. But in the grand scope of things, life—and the preservation of it—is neither right nor wrong. Life, simply, is. We’ve chosen to give it value—much as we’ve imbued gold or money with value. But if society determined that human life—or at least some types of human life—aren’t to be valued (as certain segments of society have tried to do over the centuries, and some do even now), that value goes away.
If we create right and wrong, than we can change it, too. Perhaps Nietzsche understood the implications, as he himself spent the last years of his life in an asylum. Societies influenced by Nietzsche, most notably Nazi Germany, understood. And in The Dark Knight, The Joker understands it as well. Morality, if self-made, will tend to crumble under pressures of survival and self-interest.
“Their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke,” he tells Batman. “Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”
But society doesn’t buy it. Most of us believe in right and wrong. We believe in good and evil—that some things are just plain wrong, no matter what our culture says now or may say in the future. And such notions are predicated on faith. I think they have to be. “True inner righteousness does not judge according to custom but by the measure of the most perfect law of God Almighty by which the mores of various places and times were adapted to those places and times,” Augustine says. Good and evil are unchanging. They were set before we were born and will last after we die. If we buy into that notion, we buy into the idea that there’s something beyond our own predilections that determines right and wrong. “Everybody knows it,” the man said on the radio. You’d have to be insane not to.
We may not think in those terms on a day-to-day basis. But when Batman flips around the city in spite of governmental pressure not to, he’s following a higher sense of right and wrong than our manmade rules. Even if the whole of mankind determined tomorrow that certain people were not worthy of protection, or of life, Batman would know it was wrong. He’d know that there are some rules that transcend human understanding and cannot be changed through human initiative. And so do we.