It’s been about three months since the Aurora theater shooting trial began. A jury has already determined that James Holmes, while mentally ill, was not legally insane and, thus, culpable for his heinous actions July 20, 2012. Next week, they’ll decide whether he should die for them.
I’m glad I’m not sitting on that jury.
Does Holmes deserve to die? Maybe. What he did July 20, during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, is as persuasive an argument as there is for the death penalty. He killed 12 people during that early-morning slaughter, including a 6-year-old girl. Another 70 were injured. He had booby-trapped his apartment, too, hoping to kill more. Police found 10 gallons of gasoline and 30 homemade grenades there.
When police caught Holmes, they found him to be preternaturally calm . His hair was dyed a garish, glowing orange. Reports at the time alleged that Holmes had called himself the Joker.
For anyone who saw The Dark Knight, the comparison was horrifically apt. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” we’re told by Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the movie. The Joker calls himself an “agent of chaos.” He had no other motive for his actions. As the trial went on, it was pretty clear that Holmes didn’t really, either, outside the confused logic of his own mind. They wanted to watch the world burn. Surely, that world would be better without such men.
Batman, as many times as he’s tangled with the Joker, would probably agree. And yet he always lets him live. Sometimes he even saves him. Why?
“No guns, no killing,” Batman tells Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. “Where’s the fun in that?” Catwoman retorts. But it’s Batman’s way. Not since his earliest days has Batman used lethal force. His aversion to killing has become as much a trademark as his cape and cowl.
It’s not always easy. He, like we sometimes, longs for vengeance, for some final justice, for the struggle to just end already. How many times has Joker escaped now? How many innocent lives has he taken, simply because no one put a terminal stop to his insanity? Batman knows this as well as anyone, and sometimes even he needs to be reminded to not take that final step.“I want him brought in, and I want him brought in by the book!” Commissioner Gordon tells Batman in the graphic novel The Killing Joke.
“I’ll do my best,” Batman says. But Gordon, who’d been tortured by Joker and whose own daughter was crippled by the villain, feels the caped vigilante may be less than sincere.
“By the book, you hear? We have to show him! We have to show him that our way works!”
You could argue that James Holmes is now subject to “our way.” He was tried and convicted by a jury of his peers. That same jury will deliberate on what Holmes’ final fate should be. That’s the judicial system in action—the system that Batman always places his trust in when he drops yet another malcontent on the steps of Gotham’s police station. If Holmes dies, he will do so under the law. And perhaps as such, Batman himself would approve.
But when I think about why I like Batman—why I’ve always liked him—a lot of it is wrapped up in his intrinsic, paradoxical mercy. The value he places on human life, however twisted that life has become. To me, it speaks to Batman’s penchant to follow a higher authority, a law not written by mortal man but one to which we are all still beholden. That we are not the final arbiters of justice. With his strict moral code, Batman draws one of the strongest lines between good and evil, and that line is a human life. If Batman crosses it, he knows that he’s not so much different from the Jokers he fights.
He understands the cost of his moral code. He knows that his way is not perfect.
But Batman, when the choice is up to him, chooses life. And I think I would too.