Looking For Answers At Columbine

by Mac Lawrence

February 3, 2003


Unlimited money for killing, but not enough for health?
What kind of people are we? How did we get to this point?

Two recent TV programs I saw summed up the unkindly times we're in. The first program was about the closing of more and more hospitals around the country because of limited budgets. Many of the hospitals were funded to serve people who are without health insurance and unable to pay for medical attention. Now these folks are forced to use the emergency rooms of the remaining hospitals for ordinary medical problems, overwhelming the hospital staffs. The program showed lines of sick people waiting for hours to be admitted to the ER. Some never got in and had to come back to try again the next day. City officials were heartbroken each time a hospital shut down, but what can we do, they said; there's no money to keep them open.

The second program reported on the huge new increases in military spending the administration pumped for and Congress approved -- all in all, 13 percent more than the military got last year. For 2003 we pay $2.5 billion to buy a new attack submarine, $3.3 billion for the Navy's "Super Hornet" fighter plane, $2 billion for Osprey aircraft, $8.6 billion for a missile defense system -- hardly what you would think of to defeat Al Qaeda.

The disconnect between these two programs should make every American gag. Unlimited money for killing, but not enough for health? What kind of people are we? How did we get to this point? And how do we get our country back on track?

I experienced another disconnect when I saw Michael Moore's latest movie Bowling for Columbine. If you have not seen the film, it's a combination of humor, irony, and in-your-face interviews. Moore shows us an America with a murder rate hundreds of times higher than that of similarly well-off countries. It is an America in which far too many of its citizens live in a constant state of fear and keep pursuing, futilely, more and more extreme ways to feel safe. The film asks: "Why so much violence in America?"

Moore, who also produced the film Roger and Me and is the author of the best-selling book Stupid White Men, grew up with guns. An expert marksman and a long-time member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), he is appalled that in one year 11,127 Americans killed one another with guns. This compares, Moore noted, with 381 gun murders in Germany, 255 in France, 165 in Canada, 68 in the UK, 65 in Australia, and 39 in Japan.

The film has had mixed reviews. The New Yorker magazine reviewer called Moore "a left-wing joker with a camera," but admitted "that some of his mocking sallies have a way of hitting their target." The San Jose Mercury News gave it four stars. Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire program to a conversation with Moore, plus showing segments from the film. The audience in the theatre I attended was primarily college age; they seemed to respond to Moore's approach, and they seemed to understand the message Moore was trying to get across, which I found hopeful.

In the film, Moore interviewed an intimate of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh who said it is an American responsibility to be armed. He also visited Charlton Heston, president of the NRA, in his gate-guarded home in Hollywood. After a barrage of provocative questions from Moore, Heston finally walked away from the interview.

Moore joked with a clerk in a bank which gave out a rifle with each new account: "Do you think it's a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?" He interviewed executives at Lockheed-Martin, the world's largest weapons manufacturer. He knocked on doors in Toronto to find out if it's true that Canadians don't bother to lock their front doors. (It's true; they seem not to have the fear level that is part of the American culture.)

Bowling contains clips taken during the shooting at Columbine High School. We saw the reactions of the students afterwards, learned about the backgrounds of the shooters (who went bowling the very morning of the shooting), and heard observations about the town of Littleton, Colorado, by residents. Moore ended up taking two of the young victims -- one paralyzed and in a wheel chair, the other with a bullet still lodged near his heart -- to the New York headquarters of K-Mart whose store had sold bullets to the shooters.

By the film's end, there were no clear-cut answers to why so many Americans kill each other. Some people interviewed blamed it on the number of guns Americans own; turns out that Canadians have about the same number of guns per capita as Americans do. Some said it was the movies U.S. kids watch, plus the violent video games they play; turns out that Canadian kids watch the same bloody stuff American kids watch, and vaporize the same video villains. One person thought it might be due to the number of unemployed in America -- but Moore was told that the unemployment rate in Canada is higher than in the U.S. Another person pointed out the history of America has always included violence -- but Moore pointed out that violence has been part of every country's history.

Nor is the answer the mix of races in the U.S.; turns out Canada, which one might think of as pretty homogeneous, is quite racially diverse. And, if you can judge from Moore's interview with a black visitor to Toronto who lives in Detroit, discrimination is nearly nonexistent in Canada. (Moore included a long segment in his film on the irrational fear whites have of blacks in the U.S.)

Though the film provided no outright answers for the violence in the U.S., it did offer some insights. Several came when Moore compared aspects of society in Canada and the U.S. When he asked to see a Toronto slum, Moore was shown an area with beautifully kept buildings, clean streets, no homeless (there aren't any homeless, he was told). The Canadian politicians Moore interviewed answered straightforwardly, were polite, interested in what their constituents thought. Refreshing.

Canadians handle health care differently. "How much did they charge you?" Moore asked a man who had obviously had major medical attention. "Nothing," the man replied. "We have free health care. We consider it a basic human right."

Moore's film also included segments on how much the U.S. spends on its military compared to what other countries spend. On the screen were shown some of the expensive weapons the U.S. is buying that seem useless in a post-Cold War world; the audience groaned.

U.S. foreign policy was not spared: When one of the people he interviewed told Moore that America was committed to using peaceful means to promote democracy throughout the world, there appeared a litany of instances where the U.S. has supported dictators (like Saddam Hussein) and military regimes (as in El Salvador), orchestrated the overthrow of duly elected heads of state (as in Chile, Iran, and Guatemala), and invaded countries whose rulers we no longer liked (Manuel Noriega). Again, the audience groaned.

One thing the film does is raise questions: To what degree, if any, does the fast pace of American life and the emphasis on more and bigger add to the violence in our culture? We've always been a country of rugged individuals, enterprise, competition: Has that helped sow seeds of violence? Is there a correlation between the emphasis a country places on its military force and the amount of violence its citizens engage in?

Today America is the world's only superpower: Does that affect how we act as a people? American military supremacy certainly seems to have affected this country's leaders, who see the U.S. as the world's policeman. We brook no nonsense from anyone, no disagreement from other nations (recall the administration's reaction when a German politician opposed our policy on Iraq: our two countries almost stopped speaking to each other). The American attitude seems more and more to be: We know best; if you don't like it, lump it. Nukes are good for us, bad for everybody else. If you threaten our access to the world's raw materials, watch out. If we see you as a potential problem, we reserve the right to attack, and alone if needed.

This approach -- trying to force the world to be the way we want it to be -- is a loser. In the words of Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, USN (Ret), the first naval officer to serve as director of U.S. military operations for all U.S. forces in Europe and the Middle East: "No nation in history, no matter how powerful, has ever secured a permanent place in the world order through military supremacy....Every nation or empire which would subjugate others will ultimately fail if they attempt to base their domination on military force." The continued success of the U.S. as a world power, he said, "depends on whether we attempt to perpetuate an American global hegemony...or if we seek to exercise constructive leadership as a cooperative member in a peaceful world community governed under the rule of law."

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Mac Lawrence is an activist, a writer, and an editor for the magazine Timeline where this article was first published in print. He is a friend of, and occasional contributor to Swans.

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Published February 3, 2003
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