What We Failed to Learn About Terrorism from The Dark Knight

Or, “Stop Calling Them Gunmen and Start Calling Them Terrorists”

One of the most notable elements of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is that, despite being made by a British writer and director and set in the fictional Gotham City, the films capture the zeitgeist of the post-9/11 America in a frightening, realistic way.

But there’s one lesson in these films that we don’t seem to have retained: terrorism can take many forms. 

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, the first and third films in the trilogy, show evil as an extensive international network motivated by belief in a higher cause: the League of Shadows, lead first by Liam Neeson and later by Tom Hardy’s Bane. It’s an evil organization which resembles Al-Qaeda or IS/Daesh in its reach and tactics. 

Unlike the other two films, in The Dark Knight our villain is Heath Ledger’s Joker: a criminal who seemingly materializes out of nowhere. His background is unknown, with no criminal record or history of violence. He operates as a loner, with a few followers but no peers. He believes not in fundamentalism but in anarchy and chaos. He prefers easily-obtained weapons: in his words, “a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets.” He kills with abandon, targeting mob bosses, murdering his own followers, burning corrupt businessmen alive, turning civilians against one another. Throughout it all, he operates without loyalty and welcomes death. 

CA.0627.darkknight
Perhaps film’s most famous villain of the oughts.

He gives a speech, in one of the more famous moments from the film, explaining why people are so frightened of him. Because he disrupts expectations. He disrupts “the plan.” Because anyone can be his victim, not just “a gangbanger” or “a truckload of soldiers.”

The mass waves of shooters (most of whom are white and “Christian”) overtaking America resemble the Joker in every way: they kill innocents, make spectacles of their crimes, and fear nothing, including death. The American mass shooter is almost always suicidal. There are few mass shooters who begin their killing sprees expecting any outcome aside from death or life imprisonment.

Like the Joker, they cannot be “bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.”

But there is a key difference. In The Dark Knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent holds a press conference and calls the Joker what he is: a terrorist. America’s leaders, when they hold press conferences, talk about gunmen, about shooters, but not about terrorists.

Harvey-Dent
“Let’s consider the situation: should we give in to this terrorist’s demands?”

But why don’t we call them terrorists?

There are varying definitions of terrorism, but all circle around the same theme and meaning. The Oxford Dictionary calls it “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”

In 2004, the United Nations defined terrorism as any act “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” This has been debated since – as there are disputes over whether or not this should be considered “official.”

The FBI defines “domestic terrorism” as:

activities … [that] involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law … appear intended to

  1. intimidate or coerce a civilian population,
  2. to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
  3. to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

These definitions perfectly summarize the Joker’s tactics. They also describe the behavior of the majority of mass shooters in the United States of America – including Dylann Roof, the white supremacist whose version of mass destruction was to mass murder church-goers, and who the FBI decided, bizarrely, should not be labeled a terrorist

A few explanations for why we don’t call this terrorism come to mind, but one stands above the rest: we don’t want to admit the honest truth, which is that homegrown American terrorists, “domestic” terrorists – labeled by the media and politicians as “gunmen” or other variations on that theme – are becoming a part of daily life in America.

This refusal to call a terrorist a terrorist isn’t limited to crimes committed in America. The New York Times fails to call even Anders Breivik a terrorist, instead referring to his murder of 77 people in Norway as “a protest.” Apparently the mass murder of civilians is not enough to be considered terrorism, whether inside or outside America. Similar to the recent Planned Parenthood act of terror, Breivik was motivated by right wing politics and a disdain for women’s rights.  

This is not to say that every shooting is an act of terrorism, or even every mass shooting. Some are escalations of domestic violence; others are gang-related. As The Economist says in a saddening response to America’s current state of violence, most of America’s shootings have only “single victims, that warrant only a mention on the inside pages of local papers, if they make the news at all.”  

But there is a reason that we should refer to many of the gunmen (and occasional gunwomen) who commit mass shootings as terrorists. Because terrorism is scary. And we should be scared. Americans should be very scared about the epidemic of mass shootings in America, and we need to do something about it. There are many ways to calculate mass shootings, but there is one truth about which we should start agreeing: there have been hundreds of terrorist attacks in America since 9/11, by crusaders against women’s health and women in general, white supremacists targeting protesters and church-goers, and religious fundamentalists of varying beliefs.

It’s frightening. It’s terrifying. We wish it wasn’t so, but this country is awash in terrorism.

I’m not saying that I’m an expert in counter-terrorism. I’m also not saying that the approach taken in The Dark Knight trilogy is correct: Batman’s tactics of surveillance, lying to the people, torture and violence don’t work in Gotham City, are not working in the real life international war on terror, and won’t work against domestic terror either. (One notable difference is that, unlike America, Batman does not kill his enemies.)

The-Dark-Knight_Surveillance
A prescient moment in The Dark Knight, preceding Assange and Snowden by years.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but the first step is talking about it honestly and calling it what it is. America has a terrorist problem.

Even if the plan is horrifying…

One disturbing thought remains. The Joker says that the reason no one cares about dead soldiers or gangsters is that “it’s all part of the plan.” It’s only when he threatens to kill public figures that “everyone loses their minds,” because he has “upset the established order.”

Dent-Joker
One of the Joker’s several suicidal moments, during a monologue about anarchy and chaos.

Are mass shootings becoming part of the established order? Are victims of shootings considered to be “part of the plan,” whether in government buildings or churches or health clinics? As The Joker says, sometimes “the plan is horrifying.”

And it’s a very horrifying idea to consider that mass shootings are becoming something we are used to, something that doesn’t make front page news unless the death toll is unusually high, something that prompts the same responses from the same politicians on a weekly basis. Something within the established order.

Or, as the BBC said in the wake of the latest shooting: “just another day in America.”

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