Anders Behring Breivik looks like your normal, everyday guy - open face, pleasant features, well-kept hair and clothes. What’s interesting about this is the fact that this type of man, the typical Joe Schmoe who mass murders large numbers of innocent people, is the basis of Western culture’s greatest hopes as well as that of its deepest fears.
John Mayer sang about being “bigger than my body gives me credit for,” and many of us cling to the idea that even when we’re down, we’re made of different, stronger stuff than we appear to be. Conversely, we use the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” as a cautionary tale and have the (what we tell ourselves is an irrational) fear that the people we love might not be who we think they are.
While insecurity and distrust -- and the occasional psychopath featured in the media -- may make us doubt those around us, I think recent moves in pop culture spurred by current events have allowed this concept to cross the line from a general subconscious anxiousness to the fertile ground of popular imagination.
Before 9/11, there were of course films that addressed mistaken and hidden identity both in a realistic and supernatural context. But post-9/11, the popularity of spy-, vampire-, werewolf- and secret-identity-based TV shows and books series went through the roof. Instead of our neighbors being fundamentalist martyrs or sociopaths, make them into sexy vamps, troubled superheros, and CIA agents working for the greater American good - foreign creatures with humanlike fears, weaknesses, and feelings.
We want to believe that the human can subdue the much-stronger monster and win the day through those empathic virtues that make us human. This fascination is a great adaptation of our own personal fears of not being enough, of being duped, of unintentionally making a tragic mistake and trusting the wrong person - and what better audience to target this to than one which is young and still honing those senses, still finding its way in the world, and still very vulnerable to being taken in?
Incidents like Breivik’s recent attack, as well as the bad breakups that I know we’re all been through, prove to us that we can’t always tame the monster, no matter how hard we try. But as much as I dislike some of the films and stories out there that make it seem like defeating the bad in the world only takes a couple of hours and a happy thought, I can’t help but feel that what’s important is that we continue to tell these stories.
It’s essential that we continue to believe that we can slay the dragon, smoke out the terrorist, call the cheater on his lies - that we aren’t helpless in this world. Because sometimes, according to Gandhi, “when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn't have it in the beginning.” In other words, we can become more than what we seem, bigger than our bodies give us credit for.