Friday, July 20, 2012

The legacy of the Dark Knight

The stories that will be written in the years to come about the legacy of the Dark Knight series will not be glowing and positive. These films won't just become a part of the film history of this country, they will become a part of it's history, period.

The role of the maniacal villain The Joker would prove to be the one that pushed Heath Ledger over the edge. He infused himself into that role too much, many would say, and it rocked him to his core. Haunted him, even. The demons that would sneak into his brain as a result would lead to his self-medication and death.

His body, found lifeless in a hotel room in 2008. A posthumous Academy Award for the role he will forever be associated with. His greatest work, undeniably, his last.

Little did we know that tragedy was not the last to befall the series.

Today, in a place not far from where I call home, another.

A gunman, self-proclaimed to be inspired by The Joker, opened fire on a theater full of fans. There to be thrilled with the first release of the movie, some of them would never live to see the end.

I will not name him. I will not feed into his pursuits for notoriety. I will not show a picture of his face.

I will not.

Instead, I will try to spell out my feelings, as disjointed and disorganized as they still are.

When the last few major mass shootings have occurred, they've been far away. They've been at workplaces. They've been over there. They weren't close to home. They weren't things I felt threatened by as much. They weren't things I had to sit my children down and try to explain to them.

A friend just had a little girl a few days ago, and related her concerns. About how she doubted why she would bring a child into this world after the horrors of today, and I commiserated. I felt exactly that same way 11 years ago. Morning sunlight streaming through my bedroom windows, my newborn son asleep at my side, I was awakened by a panicked phone call from my husband. I turned on the television just as the second tower fell and I questioned what right I had to bring a child into this world.

That feeling wouldn't go away for months. Years even.

This time though, even if the tragedy is smaller in scale, it hits home just as much. My eldest child, that one sleeping next to me the morning of 9/11, wanted nothing more in the world than to accompany his father to a midnight showing of this film. Last night. My husband seriously contemplated going, as he's done to several other movies of this genre. Decided at the last minute to wait until the weekend to see it.

It could have been them in that theater. It could have been any 11 year old boy and his father. It could have been anyone.

This shooting makes us all unwilling victims. It makes the place that so many of us look to as an escape from the reality of our lives dangerous now. It takes us back to the world we lived in post 9/11, although this time we'll not be scanning the sky for planes constantly, or subconsciously deciding if those in the crowd are threats solely based on their ethnicity. Instead, we'll be afraid of everyone. We'll be afraid of grad students. In ordinary places.

Choosing not to fly, okay. Many did that after the attacks without hesitation.

Choosing not to live normally, and go on about your normal lives, go to your normal places, enjoy the normal things we do every day? Harder. And, I would forcefully argue, is something we should not do.

Though this threat does not appear to be an organized one of terror, the disorganization of it is perhaps even more scary. The fact that there are deluded, armed people out there in the world, plotting for things like this to happen, without any connection to a larger organization, to me, is terrifying. But it is what it is. And we cannot let it dictate our lives. And we should not.

People like this exist.  There are many more like him out there. It's ugly, but true.

If you let their mere existence scare you into hiding, though, they have already won.This is, in many ways, no different than the war on terror.  It's just a more diffuse, homegrown variety.

What is absolutely imperative, though, is what we can take away from this experience. I am not, by the way, referring to the debate about gun control/freedom to bear arms that has already popped up in social media.

That does deserve mention, though. I am a flaming liberal, I've admitted as such before. I support the 2nd Amendment's right to bear arms, but I refuse to believe that our forefathers would have supported the kind of weapons used in this crime, particularly the 100-shell magazine involved. There has to be a limit of reason, a line where people can't honestly argue that something is necessary for recreational hunting or incidents of self defense. This, in my opinion, is far beyond that line.  This, in my opinion, gives unstable people a way to hurt others in unimaginable ways.

What I am actually referring to is the discussion we must, as a nation, have about our mental health system.

Up until the 1980's, there were places often unflatteringly referred to as insane asylums. People were categorically and often unfairly deemed "crazy", and locked up. President Reagan deinstitutionalized the treatment of the mentally ill. HIPAA came along a while later and ensured that every patient has a right to determine their own care.

Which is great...for stable and/or medicated, safe patients who are aware of their conditions, and actually seek help before they pose a threat to others.

For the rest of us, including the entirety of the rest of mental health patients, it is not great.

The homeless numbers have skyrocketed. Many of them suffer from mental illnesses and have nowhere else to go. Incapable of truly caring for themselves, they have no safety net left. The system has been defunded. Places that used to offer inpatient care, not just for the benefit of the patients, but for society, no longer exist in large part.

In addition, It is impossible, legally and ethically, for anyone to do anything about a patient, regardless of how unstable they are, without their consent under HIPAA. Trust me. I know this one well.

Inside and out.

If they say they are fine, they are fine.

If they refuse diagnostic procedures, medications, testing or therapy, fine.


So long as they do not actually hurt themselves or someone else, or make a blatant threat to do so, everyone else's hands are tied. Including law enforcement. Including mental health professionals. Including family.

Now, I am in no way making an argument that the system should go back to the way it was, but - and this is a BIG but, this case proves that it is not working now.

There has to be some kind of happy medium, where inpatient hospitals are adequately funded, and those who pose a legitimate threat to others are able to get the help they need, even if (and maybe especially if) they don't necessarily consent to it.

This is a murky area for me personally, particularly since I studied bioethics in the years that HIPAA was enacted. I worked in hospitals, labored under the weight of ethics commissions and found myself in heated discussions all the time about this. I saw these patients and their families in a professional context. I walked past the locked wards of the psych unit weekly. I dealt with the harm they'd done to themselves, to their spouses, to their children.

Trust me when I say that you only need to see one 14 year old boy, burned over 90% of his body by a raging father, to see things the way I do.

Do I believe wholeheartedly in a patient's right to control their own health care? Absolutely.

Do I believe that their right should be allowed to endanger others? No.

And this is where the murkiness begins. Where there is no obvious line to differentiate between those who can make clear, levelheaded decisions about their bodies begins and where those who can't see the threat they pose to others begins.

It's hard, if not impossible to tease out.

We've done a terrible job of it. We must do better.

There must be some lesson we can take away from this. Something that gives us hope in a time of fear. Pushes us to resume our normal lives as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

There must be something aside from destruction.

Batman would want the people of Gotham to do better. Superheroes aren't real, though, and we must do this on our own.

We must.


  1. Very nice post on a topic needing great sensitivity. I'm so glad you skipped the gun control debate. Not that I'm in favor of military style firearms being available to the public, but gun control isn't the issue in my opinion.

  2. I have two things to say. One, we need to continue to live our lives and not let these senseless crimes change this. The probability of this happening to any of us is low and the media keeps us worried constantly that this can happen again to us. I trust our law enforcement policies and believe they will learn from these tragedies. Two, doctors need to be given the judgement to refer a case over to mental health when a patient is deemed mentally unstable.

    P.S. Barman is a superhero.

    1. Doctors are given the judgment to refer cases. Unfortunately, they often have nowhere to send them once they're referred.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly with your article but contrary to Nelly's comment, I honestly believe that gun control is an additional and necessary part of this tragic puzzle.


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