More gun violence. My heart goes out to those affected by the tragedy in Newtown Connecticut as 20 small children and seven adults die in one of the worst massacres in U.S. history. One recoils at the horror of what the children in that school went through; and it’s impossible to fathom the pain and suffering that the families, the communities and so many others will feel.
Already the political snipping have started – Huckabee’s bizarre remark that the killings are due to God being removed from the schools ( as if this has anything to do with it) to those who argue for tougher gun control (Connecticut already has tough gun laws and the guns used were registered). There will be time enough to talk about solutions but the underlying issue here is a strain of violence that runs deep through our culture and people who can act out their mental health issues with immense firepower at their disposal.
At the same time (or the same day more or less), a man in China walked into a primary school in the Henan province village of Chengpin and attacked 22 young children and one adult. We don’t know what was troubling him, but the difference was that all the children are still alive.
He used a knife.
Here, someone picks up a Glock semiautomatic pistol and puts on a military vest before entering a primary school to shed blood. Glocks seem to be a favorite of those bent on a deadly rampage, used in killings in Arizona, Wisconsin, and Colorado. Perhaps because they’re so effective.
But I don’t see an easy answer to the gun violence here. It goes beyond access to the weapons themselves – it’s not video games, movies, or television but something else. Those are all the easy targets, the easy answers to something we do not understand.
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
Everybody was happy, indeed.
Sadly, we’ll probably make ourselves happy again, finding something easy to condemn for the shooting, bemoaning the gun violence we hear about so frequently and missing the deeper issue entirely. But there will be no comfort for the people in Newtown.