If Columbine was to be the Beginning of the New Normal, Then Bowling for Columbine needs to be Compulsory in our College Classrooms
By T.L. Dayen
Guns don’t kill people, people do. But guns don’t work without bullets, so ‘bullets’ kill people? But bullets can’t kill people without combustion, so ‘combustion’ kills people? But then again, combustion cannot occur without a trigger mechanism; so ‘triggers’ kill people? But wait a minute; a trigger can’t pull itself, so guns loaded with bullets triggered by combustion by people kills people? Now I get it. People with guns kill people! And if they’re not killing people with their guns, they are practicing how to kill people with their guns. They imagine and prepare for all sorts of scenarios of why and where to kill people with their guns. This is their Constitutional right! You can pry that gun off their “cold, dead fingers”; that is, if they haven’t killed you first.
Written and directed by Michael Moore, Bowling for Columbine was released in October, 2002. This documentary style film was tragically inspired by the 1999 massacre in Littleton, CO at Columbine High School when two students gunned down 43 people, killing 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves. Under Moore’s narration, the film not only explores factors that may have contributed to the Columbine massacre, but also goes deeper to address factors that may contribute to America’s unique “culture of violence” overall. Moore uses satire in much of the film to present his findings; perhaps in a way more engaging and digestible to the audience. For instance we hear the song “What a Wonderful World” played over a montage of pre-emptive, or non-defensive military campaigns that the U.S. has engaged in since 1953. Moore looks at our culture of violence as being perpetuated by a “culture of fear”, imposed on Americans by our military industrial complex, media institutions and politics.
The Columbine Massacre would be the first in a string of mass shooting massacres over the next fourteen years. In fact, by the time this film had been released just two months, an additional three more mass shootings had occurred in three different states taking a total of 26 lives. (Shen). Unbeknown to Moore at that time, between April, 1999 and December, 2012, this nation would see 29 mass shootings in 42 states taking the lives of more than 250 people. (Shen). In 2012 alone, we would see nine mass shootings in 29 states killing more than 60 people, culminating with the slaughter of 20 first and second graders at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, CT. (Shen). Since Dec.14, 2012, more than 3,360 lives have been taken by gun violence. (Kirk, and Kois).
Bowling for Columbine is a basis for analysis of this perverse phenomenon through theories of applied social science substantiating Michael Moore’s argument that a culture of fear is the impetus behind gun violence in America.
Applied Philosophy. Bowling for Columbine (BFC), uses “induction” (Rothchild, pg.2) to reach its assumptions that a “culture of fear” is the basis for gun violence in America. Moore presents a collection of facts, statistics and interviews to weave together a set of conclusions that when all things equal are considered, gun violence is unique to America because of our culture of fear.
(Table 1) 2012/2013
Gun Deaths Per 100,000 Reported Incidents of Crime
United States: 11,127 (3.601/100,000) 1st in crime 11,877,218
Germany: 381 (0.466/100,000) 3rd in crime 6,507,394
France: 255 (0.389/100,000) 4th in crime 3,771,850
Canada: 165 (0.484/100,000) 8th in crime 2,516,918
United Kingdom: 68 (0.109/100,000) 2nd in crime 6,523,706
Australia: 65 (0.292/100,000) (not in top 10 of crime)
Japan: 39 (0.030/100,000) 6th in crime 2,853,739
Sources: “Bowling for Columbine” and Maps of World
The U.S. is number one in gun deaths among other wealthy democratic nations. We are 96.6 percent higher in gun deaths than the country in second and 87 percent higher per capita. (Table 1). Moore concludes that neither wealth, freedom, nor the size of our population makes us unique regarding gun violence. In Table 1, we can also see the national crime rates of these countries Moore references in the film. Fear of crime and the need for self-defense is often the most compelling argument for the vigorous defense of gun rights in America. However, statistics as seen in Table 1 show no correlation between crime rates and gun deaths. For instance, Great Britain and Australia have less than 2 tenths of a percent difference in gun deaths per capita; yet Great Britain is second in the top ten countries of reported crime, and Australia isn’t even in the top 10. Canada has twice the number of gun deaths of Great Britain, yet nearly two thirds less reported violent crime.
BFC points out other false rationales for gun violence in America as compared to these countries. Moore indicates that the two young men responsible for the carnage at Columbine were known as “Goth’s”: a genre of music and fashion popular in the 1990’s that combined heavy metal and punk music that’s fans are characterized as “anti-social”, and identified by their black clothing; black eye, lip and pale face makeup. After the Columbine massacre, the media focused on the Gothic lifestyle and music like “Marilyn Mason” as a factor in what may have motivated the boys to violence. However, Moore also points out that Goth fashion and music originated in Europe, and that Germany had a larger Marilyn Manson and Goth population per capita than the U.S. at the time. While Goth may indicate the social dissatisfaction of a young emerging counter culture in the U.S., BFC argues that the statistics show there is no correlation between counter culture music and fashion and gun violence in America.
Violence in movies and games were also explored as a possible factor in increasing gun violence in America in 1999. Once again, the film points out violent American movies are seen and enjoy huge success all over the world. In fact, Asia and Japan created especially gruesome franchises such as The Ring, The Grudge and Saw. Violent video games continue to be implicated in the violent behavior of American youth even today, yet Moore reminds us that some of the most successful violent video games are made in Japan and widely played by their youth. So while the effects of violent movies and video games will continue to be studied, BFC argues there is no statistical evidence that specifically links violence in our entertainment media to the high level of gun violence unique to America.
Finally, in an interview by Michael Moore in the film with former National Rifle Association (NRA), Charlton Hesston, when asked why America has such a high level of gun violence, Mr. Hesston replies that it may be due to our nation’s “history of violence.” Moore counters this thesis with the fact that European nations have a much longer if not, more horrific, “history of violence” than the U.S. This could also easily be said of Asia.
Applied Psychology. BFC illustrates the “Justification Hypothesis” (Henriques, pg.166) as the unconscious process by which gun violence in America is perpetuated by fear. In the film, Moore attributes much of American’s fear to a “fear of the other”. The film uses a cartoon interlude called “A Brief History of the United States of America” that explores our sullied history with racism up to today, and a tenacious xenophobic fervor in America as collective “justifications” for apprehensive and defensive behavior. Gang violence in this country is also an illustration of the Justification Hypothesis; a reality within reality justified only by those within the “bubble” in order to make sense of the nonsensical. According to Henriques, humans do not justify behavior based on “objective reality”, but instead will “explain their behavior in a believable and favorable way” to others and to themselves.
While murder rates are high in gang infested urban centers, Moore points out that 90 percent of guns in America are owned by rural and suburban white people. It could be argued that people in gang neighborhoods may actually have reason to be “waiting for the bad guy with a gun”, but white suburbia is “looking for the bad guy with a gun.” This does not justify gang behavior however, because in most cases they would only need to travel a mile or two in any direction to find that their version of “reality” is a false impression compared to lives of the vast majority of Americans. But if gang violence is relatively sequestered to finite demographics, who are 90 percent of gun touting Americans afraid of? This is exactly the question asked in BFC. The film exposes the turning point of America becoming a “locked and loaded” society as being the civil rights movement. Moore cites statistics depicting the American gun sales and manufacturing phenomenon originating during this time, and sustained by the Justification Hypothesis theory that “the other is comin to getcha!” One fairly lighthearted example the film provides is the hyperbolic national hysteria over “Africanized Killer Bees”; playing news reels of reports indicating that the “Africanized Killer Bee” is much more “aggressive and dangerous” than its “European counterpart.” The film also points out this trumped up national threat has yet to manifest.
Applied Anthropology. BFC clearly demonstrates how the cultural institution of the news media has sensationalized violence in America to the point of creating a “business of violence” that requires fear to exist. It is also within this context that Moore does draw correlations between violence and the media; not as a causal affect, but that sensationalizing fear is profit motivated.
The film makes the startling point that while murder in this country has decreased significantly since peaking in the 1970’s, news media coverage of murder has gone up by 600 percent! Moore narrates the tragic story of a 6 year old boy who shoots and kills a class mate at Buelle Elementary in Moore’s hometown of Flint Michigan, not long after the Columbine massacre. News media from all over the country descended on the small town in droves to report endless hours of repetitive details of the heart-rending incident. The young boy was black. His mother was a welfare-to-work program single mom. The little girl was white. You get the picture. It was a “sensational” story; perfect for the endless loop of the 24 hour news cycle. But Moore points out, that while the incident may be newsworthy, so too were the circumstances surrounding the travesty. Eighty seven percent of the residents in Flint were at or under the poverty line. The highest cause of death in Flint was suicide. The high school football team was sponsored by the most affluent business in town – the funeral home. The boy’s mother worked 70 hours per week at two jobs. But social accountability stories don’t get the ratings.
BFC also indicates that while crime has significantly decreased in America, the polls show that fear of crime has risen, and in tandem, gun ownership and gun sales. Moore interviews the Executive Producer of the massively successful 1990’s show, C.O.P.S., who tells Moore point blank that anger, hate and violence “does well in shows” even while he admits that the crimes and perpetrators given coverage on C.O.P.S. were not representative of the nation as whole. It just got the best ratings.
It is here we can see the Deterministic Theory of Karl Marx’s “Historical Materialism” on the critical role that social forces play on our culture; “The collective material actions of people in society [are] shaped by the interests of the dominant class [and] are responsible for the human condition at any point in history.” (Shultz and Lavenda, pg.21). Marx goes on to assert that “Progress comes only through revolution”; an overthrow of the dominant view to “make way for the new.” (Shultz and Lavenda, pg.21). It is our addiction to fear that has created a market for it, and the market feeds that addiction. The market simply fulfills need and desire without conscience. Break the addiction and you break the power of the market.
Applied Sociology. BFC exemplifies Gladwell’s “Broken Windows Theory” and C.W. Mills’ “Conflict Theory” as sociological factors in America’s unique culture of fear. Gladwell contends that the condition of our physical environments reflect the concerns and priorities of our community, as well as that community’s expectations of conduct from its members. For example, dilapidated neighborhoods in disrepair convey to its resident’s a lack of civil concern and the high probability that misconduct is likely to be overlooked or discounted. (Gladwell, pg.105). Moore draws this same inference with gun violence in the U.S. in as much as a nation so accepting of violence as a means to an end simply fosters a society that uses violence as a means to an end. The number of guns owned in America averages 88.8 percent of every 100 people compared with 33.86 percent of the top 24 richest nations in the world combined. (“International Firearm Injury Prevention and Policy”). What kind of message is a society sending to itself when its citizens own enough guns to provide a firearm to 88 out of every 100 of its people?
Moore points out that Littleton, CO. is home to the largest weapons manufacturer in the world, Lockheed Martin; the town’s largest employer with approximately 5,000 workers. In a conversation with the rocket missile facility’s Communications Director, Evan McCollum, Moore asks about a possible connection between the weapons of mass destruction built at the facility and the mass destruction that took place at the nearby Columbine high school. McCollum replies that he does not see the connection, as the missiles built at Lockheed are “designed to defend us” against those “who would be aggressors against us.” It is here in the film that we see the musical montage of “What a Wonderful World” mentioned in the introduction, chronologically revealing 16 pre-emptive, or non-defensive military intervention campaigns conducted by the U.S. since 1953; an average of nearly one every 36 months for 46 years up to April 20, 1999 when U.S. and NATO allies conducted the largest air strike bombing campaign in Kosovo, hitting a school and hospital. One hour after the strikes were conducted in Kosovo, 900 rounds of legally purchased ammunition were being fired at the students of Columbine high school; “The Home of the Rebels.”
Sociologist C.W. Mills speaks of a social “Conflict Theory” that results from social stratification, which is the grouping of individuals by social class or status. (Harrison, pg.105). A recent Brookings Institute study found that over the past 25 years of income inequality in the U.S., we are seeing “an increase in “permanent inequality” — the advantaged becoming permanently better-off, while the disadvantaged [are] becoming permanently worse-off.” (Debaker, Heim, and et al). Mills contends that indeed “in the U.S. a ‘ruling class’ exists”; a “power elite that includes top business executives, media moguls, and military and government leaders who dominate decision making in this country.” Also that this “Stratification negatively affects the thinking of members of the lower [non-ruling] class [and] may even be ‘dysfunctional’….if it fosters feelings of suspicion, hostility and disloyalty to society.” (Harrison, pg.105).
BFC looks at the 250 percent rise in military militias in the U.S., specifically in Michigan where civilian paramilitary activity is especially high. These groups represent a growing ‘uneasiness’ in America that our “power elite” may not have our best interests at heart, and in fact, may have malicious intent. Moore interviews Terry Nichol’s, cousin of Timothy McVee who bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building; the worst act of domestic terrorism in our history. While he claimed to not subscribe to the deadly terrorism wrought by McVee, he did confess his firm belief that a “government overthrow” should be carried out through violence if necessary, should that government become “tyrannical.” However, in this country, many believe that everything from income taxes to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), is an act of government tyranny. Anti-government conspiracy theories are gaining considerable support among the U.S. citizenry. According to a recent PPP poll, over 50 percent of 1000 respondents could NOT affirmatively say that they did NOT believe a secret power-elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government or One World Order. (“Conspiracy Theory Poll Results”).
Applied Political Science. BFC reveals the use of “fear” by powerful interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) to influence politicians and the political process for their own economic gain. Moore reminds America that the NRA conducted “rallies” in Littleton, CO. and Flint, MI. within days after each of the tragic events wrought on these communities by gun violence. Actual footage of these “rallies” in the film shows former NRA President Charlton Hesston revving up the audience with slogans like, “they can pry my gun out of my cold dead hands.” Moore points out that evidently the NRA felt it was necessary to inform their members that no tragic massacre from gun violence, no matter how heinous, could be allowed to affect any public policy on gun ownership whatsoever; that anything less than zero tolerance for any legal interpretation of “the right to bear arms” that may include regulation or oversight is an infringement upon their Constitutional rights – period! The NRA capitalizes on senseless killing to actually encourage new membership into its ranks – “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The premise of the NRA is that if everyone owned and carried a gun, we’d ALL be “safe.”
The truth is, with the number of firearms owned in this country, gun and ammunition clip manufacturing is one of the most lucrative industries in the nation. In fact, according to the Violence Policy Center of GunPolicy.org, just 22 firearm manufacturers gave nearly 39 million dollars to the NRA from 2005 to 2011; that’s over 6 million dollars per year from just 22 of its “members.” The NRA claims to have approximately 3 million members. Combine these annual dues with gun manufacture donations and you’ve got one of the most powerful and influential lobbies in Washington D.C. In the same way the NRA wields their propaganda scare tactics on their members that any reasonable gun safety policy is an infringement upon the 2nd Amendment, the NRA uses their money to pressure law makers with promises of “smear campaigns” come election time, should they support any legislation that would regulate the sale, purchase or use of firearms in this country. The recent gun debate in America after one of the worst gun massacres in this country at Sandy Hook Elementary school could easily be basis for an entire paper, but suffice it to say – they won – for now.
The political dichotomy of the NRA is perhaps most troubling, because its influence over our lawmakers, and its members, is neither “normative” nor “empirical”. (Spragens, slide 8). The empirical evidence against the NRA’s position on gun ownership in this country is overwhelming. The statistics of gun violence in America are quite clear and indisputable. However, they also seem to prevail against the normative argument; that the untethered access of paramilitary weaponry in this country is an unethical and immoral threat to the national domestic security of our citizens. Perhaps this is because their trump card on both fronts is “fear” which is neither logical nor reasonable especially when you’re dealing with self-preservation – of your “profits.”
There are two facts about guns in America that will never change; Americans will continue to own and use guns, and Americans will continue to die from them. These are the facts, and again, they will never change. What can change however is the pathetic timidity with which Americans address the very real and present danger of unregulated gun ownership in this country. It is said that over 90 percent of Americans agree that we should have more thorough background checks on gun purchases, and that the streets of America are no place for the same caliber of weaponry and amo that is afforded our police and military. But reasonable people have many issues and concerns regarding American public policy, while those in opposition to reasonable “gun” concerns care only about guns. They have no other issue other than the absolute “‘un-infringed’ right to bear arms.” Until reasonable Americans meet this challenge with the same fervor and passion, these “extremists” will continue to win the argument – because that’s the only argument they’re making, and they’re getting good at it.
Michael Moore appeared on MSNBC Reports on March 22 where, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre of Dec.14, he said of his film BFC, “On a personal level I feel like I’ve failed. I made that movie to try and stop this madness.” The courage it took to make BFC is the same courage we 90 percent of Americans need to muster unless the “wild west” is what we’re now willing to call home. One thing’s for sure, whether it’s the “other”, the zombie apocalypse, losing a congressional seat, losing profits or losing 2nd Amendment rights, FEAR is the one element driving every argument, or excuse.
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