Propaganda of the Deed

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As if performing a tribute to the masked terrorist who is the film's chief antagonist, 24-year-old Aurora, Colorado resident James Holmes allegedly carried out an armed rampage at the local midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, leaving at least a dozen people dead and more than 50 wounded. One of the victims was a three-month-old infant.

Holmes, a former Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado, reportedly  purchased a ticket to the film, left the theater after the movie began, and returned wearing a gas mask and riot gear – what some described as a "full SWAT uniform." Armed with four firearms, Holmes was described as setting off a gas grenade and then shooting as panicked movie patrons dove for cover or ran for the exits. After surrendering to police outside the theater, Holmes informed investigators that his residence – part of an apartment complex reserved for students, patients, and staff at the University of Colorado Medical Center u2014 was rigged with explosives.

"People were running everywhere, running on top of me, like kicking me, jumping over me. And there were bodies on the ground," recalled eyewitness Christopher Ramos. "I froze up. I was scared. I honestly thought I was going to die."

At first, Ramos recounted, he thought Holmes might be involved in a promotional stunt associated with the film, which depicts a terrorist rampage led by an enigmatic, hyper-violent criminal named Bane. The story includes an armed assault on the stock exchange of the fictional Gotham City, followed by an even more horrifying series of bombings that paralyze the city and leave it cut off from the rest of the country. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelley announced that as a precautionary measure against possible copycat attacks, his department would provide enhanced security at theaters showing the film.

The Dark Knight Rises is the capstone to the highly acclaimed trilogy that resurrected the Batman film franchise. Director Christopher Nolan, widely regarded as a gifted and provocative filmmaker, has described the film as a "war movie," one that unabashedly addresses class conflict and institutional corruption. Partisan pundits have attempted to shoehorn the movie into the pre-fabricated categories that have been superimposed on contemporary politics.

Noting the incidental similarity between the villain's name and Mitt Romney's Bain venture capitalist firm, Rush Limbaugh denounced Nolan for creating a Democratic Party agitprop film. Salon critic Andrew O'Hehir manages to outbid Limbaugh's foolishness by describing the movie as an "evil" and "fascistic" masterpiece:

"It's no exaggeration to say that the ‘Dark Knight' universe is fascistic (and I'm not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). It's simply a fact. Nolan's screenplay (co-written with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and based on a story developed with David S. Goyer) simply pushes the Batman legend to its logical extreme, as a vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society. Maybe it's an oversimplification to say that that's the purest form of the ideology that was bequeathed from Richard Wagner to Nietzsche to Adolf Hitler, but not by much. Whether you think Nolan is endorsing or condemning that idea, or straddling the fence with a smirk on his face, is very much up to you."

O'Hehir's view of the film was obscured by the dense thicket of undergraduate-level collectivist sophistries in which he has chosen to live. Nolan's story did not extol the supposed virtues of the Leader Principle – in which lesser beings are fused into the collective instrument of a superior will. Bruce Wayne was a flawed but irrepressible noble hero whose individualistic crusade was meant to encourage others to find and act on the best impulses within each of them.

In crafting the screenplay (along with his brother, Jonathan), Christopher Nolan said that Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities was an important touchstone for The Dark Knight Rises. He also referred to the influence of legendary director David Lean. One throw-away line in the movie resonates with Lean's adaptation of Dr. Zhivago.

In the aftermath of Bane's revolution in Gotham, one character – examining a plundered dwelling – muses:  "This used to be somebody's home."

"Now it's everybody's home," another character brightly replies.

This exchange calls to mind a conversation in Dr. Zhivago between two Communist Party functionaries in the aftermath of the October Revolution. As they help themselves to a home that has been seized from a wealthy family, the Communists defend the confiscation as a triumph of the "people"; after all, they insist, "it's only just."

Bane's assault on Gotham was an cinematic example of what the French Revolutionaries and their ideological offspring call "The Propaganda of the Deed" – a conspicuous act of violence used as a "sudden, violent shock" to shatter the status quo and catalyze revolutionary change. Immediately after demolishing much of Gotham City, Bane – backed by a mercenary army – imposes martial law and revolutionary "justice" in terms very familiar to collectivist "people's revolutions" from Jacobin France to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

It's tempting to think that in addition to Dickens and Lean, the Nolan Brothers might have drawn inspiration from Carlos Marighella's Mini-Manual for the Urban Guerrilla, which provided tactical guidance for generations of terrorists. (Interestingly, the Nolans compared Bane to Argentine Marxist mass-murderer Che Guevara.)

The purpose of terrorism, explained Marighella, is to "to intensify repression," resulting in draconian measures that "make life unbearable" for the subject population. When faced with "revolutionary violence," government will eagerly resort to "police roundups, house searches, arrests of innocent people [that] make life in the city unbearable…. " Rejecting the "so-called political solution," the urban guerrilla must become more aggressive and violent, resorting without letup to sabotage, terrorism, expropriations, assaults, kidnappings, and executions, heightening the disastrous situation in which the government must act…."

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a millionaire Marxist publishing magnate, published Marighella's tract and gave it wide international circulation. He concisely summarized Marighella's strategy as the use of relentless violence against the innocent in order to provoke an "authoritarian turn to the right" – the imposition of dictatorial measures and the consolidation of power by a State apparatus that will fall into the hands of the revolutionaries.

Bane's tactics in The Dark Knight Rises could be described as an adaptation of the Marighella/Feltrinelli playbook. Tragically, it's entirely possible that the massacre in Aurora – whatever the shooter's motive might have been – will serve as "propaganda of the deed" in the service of people pursuing authoritarian measures regarding individual firearms ownership and other indispensable liberties.

Reprinted from Republic Magazine with permission from the author.