Violence Strikes
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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.


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 harassing them.

"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 their escapades.

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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