Blind Man with a Pistol


Grand Theft Reality

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV raked in more than $500 million its first week—and was linked to a real-life stabbing and mugging. The game is praised for its innovative, realistic and complex gameplay—and vilified for its simulated violence and misogyny. Make no mistake: the game is misogynist. Any attempt to excuse the game’s misogyny is revealing. There is something barbaric about the phrase “You don’t have to kill prostitutes to beat the game.”

But what makes me suspicious of such criticism is that video games seem to bear a disproportionate level of ire compared to the much more graphic violence depicted in television shows like CSI or torture-porn film like Saw or Hostel. In fact, much of the female objectification that occurs in the game is no different than what you’d see during a prime-time commercial break on NBC.

The difference, we claim, lies in the virtual participation such games enable. Simulation, the argument goes, is a small step away from reality. In fact, there is little evidence that first-person simulation offer any more of a connection with violence than watching film or television. So why does the virtual murder of a woman attract more media attention than a real one?

The war in Iraq, which has killed more people in real life than GTA4 will ever kill virtually, was a “clean war.” A war with precision weapons that, we were assured, didn’t kill anyone who didn’t deserve to die. Indeed, didn’t President Bush, five years ago almost to the day smiling in his jumpsuit in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” assure us that the war is over? Jean Baudrillard, as he argued for the first Gulf War in The Gulf War: Did it Really Take Place?, would likely have said that it never really occurred in the first. “We are all hostages of media intoxication,” he writes, “induced to believe.” It occurs only in heavily mediated images on CNN with only cursory relevance to whatever is taking place on the ground.

Likewise Canada’s war in Afghanistan. Our government wages an imperialist act of aggression upon an unarmed nation for an act of terrorism that was neither directed at us, nor committed by those we attack; and we do it in the name of “defence.” Our military strategy, our Foreign Affairs Ministry informs us, is based on rhetoric, not substance. We are strengthening Canada’s role in the world by effecting American foreign policy. Our enemy is not an opposing army, but ethereal “insurgents.” And we are not allowed to see the bodies of our dead soldiers return home. There are no corpses, no weapons, no armies. “Just as wealth is no longer measured in the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital,” Baudrillard writes, “so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.”

The real violence our society inflicts has become simulated, and we combat this shift by criticizing virtuality as if it were real. Violence against sex workers is all but absent from the pages of our newspapers (unless it fits into our spectacular fantasies like the Pickton murders, effacing the individuals who lost their lives over a period of thirty years). Yet GTA4 comes out with attendant social outrage. It is as if the protests against the game are as simulated as the violence it represents: virtual protest for virtual violence while the real deal continues apace.

Games like GTA4 certainly provoke a visceral reaction, a watermark of the tragic misogynist violence that infects our society. But there is something altogether more tragic about a society that condemns sex-worker violence in a game yet does nothing about it in real life, for real sex workers and for real women. I suppose, when real violence becomes a simulation of itself, when the terror in which we are complicit is so overwhelming, so imposing, and so atrocious, what other recourse do we have? No wonder virtual games like GTA4 are so popular.



Modern Tragedy

Josef Fritzl. Nothing can possibly be said. An unspeakable tragedy. A ghastly act of sustained horror the likes of which cannot be recalled in history or in imagination.

Yet something must be said, because he is to stand trial. The debate over whether he is mentally fit, whether sentences in Europe are long enough (and if, at 73, he would survive an appropriate one anyway), and whether or not his case merits capital punishment. A lifetime (maybe two) of rape, four childhoods stolen, inconceivable abuse and imprisonment must now be translated into prison time.

How absurd. What would a punitive sentence accomplish? As a deterrent to future Josef Fritzls? As a stern lesson in the hopes of rehabilitation? A crucible for his soul? The barbarity of his crime has eliminated the possibility of justice.

Usually society is spared such futile calisthenics. When Nickel Mines killed five Amish school children in October 2006, he thankfully turned the gun on himself. The villain behind Austria’s other recent rape and imprisonment narrative, Wolfgang Priklopil, threw himself in front of a street car hours after his prisoner, Natascha Kampusch, escaped. Suicide provides closure to tragedies that would otherwise offer too many questions, that mock, rather than demonstrate our system of justice.

The day after Kimveer Gill opened fire on his Dawson College classmates on 13 September 2006, killing Anastasia Rebecca De Sousa, the Toronto Star ran the headline “Killer loved guns, hated people,” as if it were that simple. As if Kimveer Gill was an anomaly, a one-off who by some hellish mischance developed both a love for guns and a hatred for people. The blame, such a headline suggests, is wholly his: what could possibly be done about such a nutcase?

The logic of such headlines characterize our editorial pages in the aftermath of Josef Fritzl. “How could his wife not have known?”, they question. They could as easily ask how any of us could also not have known: we neighbours, we fellow Austrians, or we fellow human beings who were equally duped. This question, this displacement of blame, reveals that we did know—we do know. Likewise, ridiculous questions concerning the severity of Fritzl’s sentence distract us from the difficult social introspection of which his suicide would have wholly absolved us. We place the onus on Fritzl’s wife, on Gill’s love of guns, on anything that will do because we know, in our heart of hearts, that we are to blame.

The truth is that society failed these individuals catastrophically. When Oedipus Rex tears out his own eyes on stage in one of the most violent scenes in art, it is the price he pays for revealing the hypocrisies and impossible contradictions of the social contract. And the audience watches on, unsettled by the violence but satisfied that he has paid for his crime, that justice has been served. Yet what is truly tragic about Sophocles’s play is that we are complicit in Oedipus’s plight. Our laws and our social mores, the matrix in which we participate and which we reproduce daily, necessitate and determine Oedipus’s fate even as we punish him for it. And Oedipus, blood running from dull sockets, shows us his eyes as if to urge us to revelation.

This is the hard lesson of Josef Fritzl. What kind of society can create such a monster? How do we, as its citizens, contribute to such atrocity? How can a civilization that fantasizes about capturing and torturing women, that imprisons children in illegal concentration camps for a third of their life, that endorses endemic rape and violence in Africa, possibly be surprised when someone shows us our eyes?