Saturday will be the one year anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I am often confused as to how this country can tolerate the kind of violence and loss of life that makes the United States unique among all other advanced, industrialized countries. This goes beyond tragedies like Newtown to everyday occurrences like for-profit healthcare and mass incarceration. Newtown is just the culmination of everything that, at times, makes living in this country a traumatic experience.
There isn’t much that I can say or write that would make any kind of positive contribution to what happened in Newtown. I wrote letters to the senators of this State on the subject of gun control and they both responded with form letters proclaiming their allegiance to the Second Amendment. I have a young child and cannot even begin to envision what I would have done or felt had I learned that he was shot to death in school along with 20 of his classmates. It is beyond comprehension for me. But it’s also very much a reality. Parents share a bond just like soldiers on a combat mission share a bond — one of mutual experience, trauma and direction.
In 2003, the late Roger Ebert reviewed “Elephant”, a movie about the Columbine school shooting. In his review, Ebert shared an encounter he had had with a news reporter the day after the shooting occurred:
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.
Here is someone who is neither an “expert” in school shootings or a reporter to whom the public generally turns for “news”. Certainly, he isn’t someone who had his “report” blaming violent media for school shootings piped through the television sets of millions of Americans. He is simply someone who has a clear understanding of humanity and is not afraid to express his views on the subject.