The way we fear now

In the process, his crime has probably also solidified the Batman movies’ status as a cultural touchstone for our era of anxiety. Every human society has feared the anarchic, the nihilistic, the inexplicably depraved. But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer (a literal mad scientist, most likely), from the Virginia Tech shooter to Jared Lee Loughner, our contemporary iconography of evil is increasingly dominated by figures who seem to have stepped out of Nolan’s take on the DC Comics universe: world-burners, meticulous madmen, terrorists without a cause.

Indeed, even when there is some sort of ideological cause involved in these irruptions of evil — as there was in the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course in 9/11 itself — the main objective often seems to be destruction for destruction’s sake. Calling Osama bin Laden’s terrorism “Islamist” or Timothy McVeigh’s terrorism “right wing” is accurate, so far as it goes. But the impulse that brought down the twin towers or blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building feels more anti-civilizational than political — and thus closer to the motives of a group like the League of Shadows, the secret society that seeks Gotham’s destruction throughout Nolan’s Batman trilogy, than to the enemies America confronted in the past.

Those older enemies — Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China — represented a different form of evil: institutional rather than individual, strategic rather than anarchic, grasping and self-interested rather than unpredictable and nihilistic. However brutal and depraved their systems, they embodied alternative models of how a political order might be structured, rather than a rejection of political order itself.