Perhaps it's a cultural thing, violence begetting violence, ending with
dead teenagers in the library of a suburban high school. Perhaps we should
have expected it, this rash of shootings, the bloodshed.
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But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be outraged, shouldn't demand answers,
shouldn't take that difficult look within ourselves.
Even now, nearly two months after the shooting in Littleton, Colo., we seem
at sea about what happened. We want to blame music, movies, television,
video games, anything but the simple premise that we are a violent culture
becoming more and more violent everyday.
This is a story about guns, about brute force, about a culture that respects
and demands violence in its everyday interactions. This is the story of
American society, played out at a high school in the Midwest. The story
of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., of Bethel, Alaska, of Jonesboro,
Ark., and Wyoming, Del. This is the story of kids with guns, of a culture
of privilege and power and the powerless and the violent methods we've sanctioned
to level the playing fields.
The story of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and the shootings at Columbine
High School, according to various press reports, begins with a school culture
in which the more popular students, the stronger students, the jocks preyed
upon the weaker students and outsiders, pushing them into lockers and generally
"Jocks pushed them against lockers, yelled 'faggot' and 'loser' at
them while they ate lunch in the cafeteria," according to Rolling
Stone. "One day a few weeks before the killings, Dylan, Eric and
Brooks Brown (a friend) were standing out on Pierce Street near the school,
having a smoke, when a car full of jocks rolled by. A bottle came flying
from the car and shattered at the feet of the three boys."
This is the kind of thing that happens everyday at high schools across the
country. It is the kind of atmosphere that allowed the teen-aged football
players in Glen Ridge, N.J., to believe they could rape a mentally retarded
classmate, that they could perform savage acts upon her, that they could
do so with impunity. It is the kind of attitude that allowed members of
California's teen-age Spur Posse to play its abusive games of sexual conquest
and to view their female victims as little more than collateral damage in
It is the legacy of the bully, a legacy we seem willing to accept and even
endorse, its sinister effects seeping into our political and economic cultures,
our films and music and television, our everyday dealings with just about
everyone with whom we must interact.
It is visible in the way New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani deals with his critics
as he lashes out at protesters and reporters, calling them names, questioning
their motives and almost never taking the time to listen to their questions
or offer answers. It is visible in the way police departments across the
country storm their inner cities as if they were invading superpowers.
It is a Republican Party moving to circumvent the will of the voters during
an ugly and divisive impeachment proceeding, a Democratic president bombing
Iraq and Serbia, turning to the violent option and abandoning any notion
of diplomacy, negotiation or compromise to make his point heard.
It is Chainsaw Al Dunlap methodically dismantling companies without regard
for the people who work for them, the cities in which they are located or
anything other than the quick and dirty profit.
It is the swagger of the professional athlete, the rock and rap star, the
pictures of the privileged enjoying privilege on television, in the movies,
in music videos.
This is not to excuse the Littleton killers. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris
are the ones who pulled the triggers, are the ones who left 13 people and
themselves dead at Columbine High School. They bear the ultimate responsibility.
But there is no doubt in my mind that we helped create the killers that
Klebold and Harris were to become.
Not because they listened to Rammstein or KMFDM, or because they played
Doom or watched the films of Quentin Tarantino. That would be too easy.
This violent streak is part of our American mythology, is central to the
legend we've created about our westward expansion, our growth as a superpower.
We believe we always should meet might with might, strength with strength
and violence with violence.
John Wayne's strong, silent avenger, Clint Eastwood's no-name gunslinger,
Dirty Harry, Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme are the
products of our dysfunctional imaginations. So are hard-core speed metal
and gansta rap, video games and the panoply of violent entertainments proliferating
through our economy. They are not the genesis of our violent culture. They
do not create the violence in which our society wallows. They are a reflection
of the depth to which violence has become a part of us.
And when you add easy access to firepower, an ability to buy guns -- not
just handguns, but assault rifles and all manner of weapons -- on the black
market or at gun shows, then conflagration almost seems inevitable.
Which is why it is so scary.
Our best hope is not to impose restrictions on films and music, to scale
back the First Amendment or deny artistic or press freedoms. That will do
little to stem the violence.
Our best hope is to impose restrictions on the manufacture and distribution
of guns, to stop the open sale of fire power at gun shows, to limit the
kinds of guns companies can produce, to limit the possibility that weapons
can get into the hands of teens like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.
Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor living in New Jersey.
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