Well, hold on. Not everyone is good people. Somewhere, lurking in our communities, there are the psychopaths and the deviants. They--especially the psychopaths--are so adept at parroting our values back to us that they can live completely undetected in our societies until they decide on their moment to strike. We're the good people, and they, the others, are the evil psychopaths.
If only it were so simple. We all have a capacity for cruelty, and we all have the capacity to empathize with others, even with psychopaths. In the context of studying maximum security prisons, Professor Lorna A. Rhodes interviewed guards about the fear of "contamination" they experience when interacting with inmates labelled as psychopaths. There is an assumed predictability to psychopathic behavior because it is characterized as ruthlessly rational. But if it is so easy for us to inhabit the mind of a psychopath, and if contamination is such a threat to the extent that the line between psychopath and investigator can be made indistinguishable, then is there really such a stable boundary between the good "us" and the evil "them"?
Zombies are already dead, so killing them means nothing. Unlike other texts that need to justify righteous violence against people, zombie texts need no ethical justification for violence against zombies. Killing zombies could be a matter of survival, pride, entertainment, etc; such motivations work to establish character and tone, while the real ethical drama comes from how characters interact with each other. There are only three cases I've seen that tease the notion of acting ethically towards zombies, and for each of them the takeaway significance is how such behavior establishes the total zaniness of the characters involved. In a weird way, the banality of why humans kill zombies reminds me of what the Columbine shooters reportedly thought about their peers at high school: a bunch of painfully normal sheep that were ready for slaughter.
To be clear, I'm not saying that if you enjoy zombie killing entertainment, then you are somehow harboring violent, psychopathic tendencies. What I do want to suggest is that zombie texts allow us to inhabit that mindset without necessarily defining our own selfhood through the experience. It is, in other words, an experience of mindset tourism in which we are encouraged to empathize with a place for violence without consequence, carnage for the sake of enjoyment, and rugged individuals, unfettered by law, doing whatever it takes to take advantage of a faceless zombie horde. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the Columbine terrorists were living in a similar world, in which the lives of those around them elicited nothing but frustration and amusement, and deserved nothing more than violence.
Put differently, I think there is a very complicated relationship between watching violence, enjoying the violence we watch, and actually being the kind of person who would commit violence in real life for sadistic purposes. Nevertheless, in this complicated relationship, there is a way in which certain kinds of art may close the gap between "us" peaceniks and "them" psychopaths, allowing us to inhabit some kind of shared mental universe that operates under its own set of rules. In that sense, if we can root for the Cockneys, if we can enjoy another round of Left 4 Dead, then on some level, we can (and do) violate the social taboos that nominally prevent us from seeing killers like the Columbine shooters through their own eyes. All we have to do is imagine that we're living incognito in a zombie-infested world.
This isn't just about some weird thought exercise to make you feel bad about yourself. I think this could mount a strong challenge to the notion that "We're good people" and "We don't do these kinds of things". It's why I feel that the evil psychopath rhetoric feels suspiciously like a ritualistic attempt to waive away the carnage so that we can feel decent about ourselves again, that we are the good people, and they are the evil psychopaths.
But when we do think of ourselves as "good people," when we try so hard to deny our capacity for cruelty, this sort of general certainty of character actually opens our society to harboring the worst acts of complicity to abuse. In a 2014 interview for The New Yorker, Thierry Cruvellier, a journalist who followed the Pol Pot international tribunal, made a fantastic point:
"At the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Duch’s victims are presented as victims, which they certainly were. But eighty per cent of them were themselves Khmer Rouge, and if they instead had been asked to be perpetrators the overwhelming majority would have obeyed. To accept that Duch tells us something about ourselves doesn’t mean we accept his crimes, and it doesn’t mean we risk showing him sympathy. It makes us think in more realistic terms about how mass murder operates and how it relies on people like us."
Today, just as it has always been, "we are good people." Segregation happens, but nobody did it. Gun violence happens, but not in our community. Even the underdogs aren't in great shape. Immigrants desperate to "acculturate" in the US end up internalizing anti-black racism from white culture (my own parents are guilty of this insanity). The gay community has a serious problem with transphobia and misogyny. I've heard stories of black refugees from Klan-controlled lands harboring contempt for Puerto Rican immigrants. Hell, even Tim Wise had a freakout in which he chewed out a black commenter for being critical of his work.
I realize that participation in the Pol Pot genocide is an enormously different situation than being part of a two-person terrorist attack, or playing the part of being "good people" in the aftermath. But Columbine was concocted and executed in a country that has no problem destroying the lives and livelihood of over a thousand colored innocents, yet officially loses its shit when a handful of white people are accidentally killed. It was an attempt to bask in power through terror in a nation where fear is often used as an instrument to herd the people into backing bad decisions over and over again.
The terrorists at Columbine may have killed themselves, but the fear they commanded is alive and well. Schools are coming to resemble prisons while at the same time tightening their affiliations with actual prisons. Under the guise of "zero tolerance," children face unprecedented surveillance and harsh punishment with little room for understanding or error. I find it hard to believe that this environment, awash with fear and institutionalized violence, would prepare children for healthy social living. What's more, as adults continue to press harder and harder against psychopathic children in waiting, they come more and more to rely on violence, cunning, bullying, and mistrust, to see their fears assuaged. In short, they come closer and closer to thinking and acting like the very psychopaths they are trying to catch. It would behoove them--and all of us--to step out of this "good people" trance and come face to face with the truth. We are all kin to the monsters we are trying to chase.