As we sat in the upper tier of the movie theater Sunday afternoon waiting for the previews to begin, I turned and asked: What would you do if a guy dressed in long coat and mask came through that exit, tossed a couple smoke bombs, and then started shooting?

She pointed to the floor.

I looked to the exits. It would be a struggle to get through the frantic crowd to safety, especially since the theater had stadium seating. Once you made it to the railing I suppose you could just jump over, but you’d land on someone, maybe injury them or worse.  If you got trapped standing in the crush mob, you’d be a sitting duck. But if you dropped to the floor, you’d get trampled.

Bullets would be flying. People would be dropping around you. You could either stand and wait for it, or crouch down and wait for it, but as he made his way up the aisle you would know it was coming.

I read somewhere that he didn’t walk through the fire exit until about 20 minutes into the movie — a particularly creepy moment in the film where a group of terrorists with assault weapons take over a Wall Street-like trading floor. I wondered if he timed it that way, if he’d somehow known when to enter, even though he couldn’t have seen the film because it was the theater’s first showing.

I wondered if I was the only person thinking about these things while sitting in the dark. Probably not.

In his landmark monologue Swimming to Cambodia, a film I’ve watched dozens of times, Spalding Gray talks about the downfall of the southeast Asian country and described “an invisible cloud of evil that circles the earth and lands at random, in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia… America.”

How else could you explain what happened last Friday in Aurora, Colorado, a town that will forever be identified in our lexicon the same way as Columbine, Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech and Nine Eleven?

How else could you explain what drove James Eagan Holmes (Why do they always have three names?) to walk through a crowded movie theater and randomly shoot to death a dozen people and seriously injure scores more? They have yet to find a motive, but what other motive (beyond, of course, religious fanaticism) could possibly drive anyone to go on a killing spree?

How else do you explain a 39-year-old handy man named Roger Bowling who stood in court Monday accused of dismembering a middle-aged couple in suburban Detroit? He cut off their hands and feet and dumped their bodies into the Detroit River. The only mistake the young couple had made was letting Bowling stay in their home because he had nowhere else to go.

How else do you explain a serial pedophile rapist like Gerald Arthur “Jerry” Sandusky?

How else do you explain what happened on Dec. 5, 2007, when Robert Hawkins went on a pre-Chrismas shooting spree at our very own Westroads that left nine dead?

And how else do you explain the horror story that took place early Sunday morning when, according to a Lincoln Journal-Star report, three masked men broke into a Lincoln woman’s home, bound her wrists and ankles with zip ties, and carved homophobic slurs into her skin before dousing her home with gasoline and tossing a match?

But here’s the thing: I don’t believe in evil. It’s too easy. Too clean. Too simple.

To say someone did it because he or she is “evil” takes away logic and motive and reason. It ignores any real explanation.

Calling the three men who bound and carved up that woman in Lincoln “evil” ignores the sheer imbecility of the act. Their motive had nothing to do with being “evil.” It had everything to do with hate. And stupidity. And a lifetime spent surrounded by ignorance and fear and insecurity. Saying it was an act of evil lets them off too easy. I want to know their reasons so we can stop it from happening again.

The concept of evil is a metaphysical tool used by the ignorant to explain what they’re too lazy to figure out on their own. George W’s ridiculous “Axis of Evil” concept was his way to create entire nations of boogie men in Iran, Iraq and North Korea, to paint entire countries with one ignorant brush stroke in hopes of facilitating wars. Because we all know the only way to destroy evil is to kill it.

But if you don’t believe in evil, you also don’t believe something as simple as death can solve a problem. Without a doubt, that Aurora gunman with three names will be found guilty of his crimes. And since he committed those crimes in Colorado, he will be put to death because the people in Colorado believe that by killing him they’ll not only be dealing justice and getting their revenge, but also ridding the world of evil.

But when they do kill him, they’ll be destroying the only clue that will ever explain why James Eagan Holmes did what he did. And they’ll be destroying the only thing that can keep it from happening again.

Or maybe Spalding was right. If so, you better start praying if you ever ever find yourself stumbling toward the exit or crouch below the theater seats in the dark.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at

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