Years ago, in the classic graphic novel Arkham Asylum (a work its creator considers a failure, oddly enough), a psychologist posited that The Joker was not actually insane, but instead possessed of "super-sanity" -- a state in which he, having no true personality of his own, could change himself from day to day, moment to moment, in order to best survive in a harsh and broken world.
Batman's reply was simple: "Tell that to his victims."
Of course, that Batman was a harsh and unyielding fellow, obviously in need of some loosening up (as the Joker himself pointed out in his own, unique way). But he was right: all rational explanations, psychological hand-wringing, and in-depth diagnoses aside, whenever the monster gets out of Arkham, people die. Lots of them. Badly.
And they keep dying until someone catches the clown and puts him back where he belongs.
So who's to blame for The Joker? There's been a half-dozen origin stories, and all or none of them may be true. As the fellow said in another, classic graphic novel -- Batman: The Killing Joke -- he prefers his past to be multiple choice.
The running gag in the latest movie where he keeps offering differing accounts on how he got those scars is both informed by this situation (comicbook continuity is often a contradiction in terms) and perhaps a window into his madness. He may not even remember what happened to him.
All he knows is he's here, and he's got no plan, but he's got a lot of jokes to tell... so why aren't you laughing?
Maybe as Batman says in The Killing Joke, it's because we've heard it already, and it wasn't funny the first time.
So stop me if you've heard this before. A clearly deranged fellow gets a notion to do some harm to some people for reasons that only he can fathom. The deed is done, people are hurt and killed, and, as is our national custom, we rush to judgment as soon as possible. And only well after we've had time to reflect and cool off do we see that we were just a little hasty in our judgment, but by then it's usually too late -- people who were blameless were demonized, people who were possibly involved weren't even on the guest list, and, in the end, we have to admit that the only villain in the piece is the deranged fellow who did the damage.
Yes, Harley -- you HAVE heard this joke before.
Remember Columbine? Marilyn Manson, violent video games, and the mysterious "trenchcoat mafia" were clearly at fault. Well, okay, maybe not. But MM got badmouthed, video games got another strike they didn't need nor deserve, and kids all over the country got told to leave their lovely coats in the locker, lest they carry guns and bombs into the classroom.
It turns out the shooters didn't have anything to do with goth kids and their taste in clothing or music. They were idiots who wanted to kill and then die.
Remember the DC Snipers? We were told it was the militia, or icky Muslims out to get us. Well, one manhunt later, and it's a whack job and his underage accomplice -- something of a reverse Batman/Robin relationship, complete with a modified car and a big gun. Christian militia? No. Islam? Well, NOI, maybe, but that's clearly not the Islam they were thinking about. But I'm sure the Muslims in the DC area felt a lot better, especially after it turns out that the shooter was a total nut who had nothing to do with them at all.
He was an idiot who wanted to kill.
I could go on. Sometimes I do. I really do.
But let's jump ahead to why I'm here, tonight. There's been a tragedy. Maybe you've read about it. Maybe you think you know ALL about it.
I know some people really think they do.
Some of those who think they know all about it think they know enough to lay blame at the feet of the radical Right and its irresponsible hate anthems. It's Glenn Beck's fault for making his violent fantasies known. It's Sarah Palin's fault for putting up that graphic with the crosshairs, and that "reload" thing. It's the target's opponent's fault for letting would-be voters shoot an M-16 at his rallies.
It's this ass-clown with the clever sign, and all those like him.
It's their fault. Clearly. They made this young man go and kill. Their rude, irresponsible, eliminationist rhetoric sent him spiraling over the edge and WHAM - dead people. Guilty, guilty, guilty.
Well, no. Not really.
There's still so much we don't know. Do we know he watched Glenn Beck? Do we know watched FOX News? Do we know he rooted for Palin, voted for W, or stood arm in arm with pro-war neo-con loonies as they demanded we bomb Iran? Do we know if he has a THERE ARE AMERICANS AND THEN THERE ARE LIBERALS bumper sticker on his car?
No, we don't.
What DO we know? We know he was seen with his hand on the gun. We know he had an envelope at his house that indicated prior planning. We know he's described poorly by people who knew him, or knew of him. We know he refuses to cooperate with the arresting authorities.
We know he takes a scary mugshot.
Past that, we don't know jack. Of course, that has not stopped people from playing that good old blame game. At least no one thinks he's a Leftist -- at least not yet.
But give them time....
But you know what? Even if it turns out he was was Beckhead, and a Palinator, and thought W was Wonderful, it still would not be anyone's fault but his own.
The fault for our output does not lie in our input, but what we decide that output will be. In Loughner's case, the output was an atrocity. But whether he was into Beck, Lenin, or the Teletubbies, the output is clearly his own fault, and no one else's.
Invisible forces do not make us kill. Rock and roll does not cause suicide. Halo does not make you shoot up your school. Internet bullying does not force you to commit suicide.
"Puff the Magic Dragon" does not make you drop acid.
And all the FOX News in the world can't make you do anything, except maybe believe outrageous things. But what you do with those beliefs are your own damn fault. Eliminationist rhetoric does not make us act on it. Crosshairs on a congressional district and admonitions to reload do not turn us from pulling levers to pulling triggers.
So why do we play this blame game? I think it's because we like to see the world as a place where things happen for a reason. We need there to be some kind of rational explanation we can hang on to when something really terrible happens. And we prefer to believe that there's something we can actually DO to fix it, so that terrible thing never happens again.
But what do you do when the terrible thing is done by some crazy person?
If you're realistic, you admit that insane people are just going to be insane, and that there's not a whole lot you can do. You can't ban everything that might set them off. You can't take freedom away from everyone because of the actions of a few. You have to be vigilant and brave, and hope you catch the bad things before they get through.
If you're forward thinking, you see to it that the states get more than adequate money for mental health. The way we look after our mentally ill is a disgusting joke, and has been for decades now. This needs to be a national priority, and now.
And if you're like most of the people out there in talky-talk land, you find something to blame it on, and don't let go until it's totally, absolutely, 100% clear that you can no longer use the facts to support your position. Then you don't apologize, hope no one calls you on your BS, and wait until the next time something terrible happens to get your two cents back out in the ring, again.
Anything to feel like we've got a handle on a situation you can't really have a handle on.
When the Joker gets out of Arkham, people die. Batman shows up, kicks the hell out of him, and puts him back in. He will never kill the Joker, and the Joker probably won't try to kill him, either, because Batman's part of the joke, too. It's the sort of absurd situation where you have to laugh, however ruefully, because there's no sane response.
Real life is often that way.
But we here in reality have an option. We can seek the real enemy -- mental illness, itself -- and try to control it. We can put the blame where it really belongs -- a system that does not work -- and try to fix it. We can stop putting the blame where it does not belong, and do what we need to so that we won't have to blame as often, if ever.
Because if we don't recognize that the real fault is that of the person who makes the terrible thing happen, and we would rather blame other people and things for their actions than take responsibility for the poor state of mental health in our country, then we, in fact, bear much more blame than the boogeymen we nominate for public enemy #1 at these terrible times.
Even if it is Glenn Beck.