After the Columbine tragedy, one faction held guns responsible for the slaughter, and another blamed the culture. Since the guns question has been debated into the ground, I confine myself here to the culture question.
The culture that was blamed for Columbine was never clearly defined. Its nature was suggested by terms such as “the ‘60s,” “liberal,” “permissive,” “sex and violence,” and “Hollywood, television, and video games,” and it was the media that bore most of the complaint. Hollywood was told to clean up its act, and theater owners were urged to enforce the ratings system, to avoid exposing young people to sex and violence.
Then along comes the Midwest assassin, who earlier this month killed a black man and a Korean-American man and wounded nine other blacks, Asians, and Jews (coming out of a synagogue). This time around, nobody is blaming the culture–at least, not the culture that supposedly caused Columbine.
The Midwest killings were categorized as “hate” crimes. Hate crimes include crimes not only against blacks, Jews, and Asians but also against gays, “the government” (Oklahoma City), and the technological age (the Unabomber). They are not crimes against an individual known personally to the perpetrator or against whom he has a grievance. (If a man shoots his brother-in-law that is not called a hate crime, although there is probably hate involved.) They are crimes in protest against the culture, intended to make a statement of their hostility to the culture.
Of course, nobody can blame the ‘60s culture or Hollywood for these crimes. The ‘60s’ slogan was “Make love, not war,” and the Hollywood culture is a culture of acceptance–of blacks, Jews, and gays. In fact, it is that very culture of acceptance that infuriates these madmen.
The Columbine killers, on the other hand, shot people they knew, some of whom they had real or imagined grievances with. But they also fancied themselves as Nazis. They were making a deadly statement against the American dream, of respectable, middle-class, suburban life. To that degree Columbine was also a hate crime.
A ccording to one poll, in the two weeks bracketing the Columbine incident, the percentage of Americans who thought that the country was on the wrong track rose from 49 percent to 60 percent. This remarkable swing is commonly attributed to shock over the shooting. While I can understand the national bewilderment the event caused, I cannot understand why it should be interpreted as a judgment against the way the country is going. Two estranged young men who acquired Nazi attitudes–which they certainly did not get from Hollywood–made a deadly protest against the way the country is going. This is not a sign that something is going wrong, except for the ready availability of guns.
If you compare the murders linked to hate crimes with the murders linked to street crimes, the most obvious thing you notice is how the number of street killings dwarfs that of hate killings. But despite this, street killings do not cause revulsion against the way America is going, though they may more legitimately raise a question about the media than hate killings do because they more resemble Hollywood depictions. Most cinemaland murders are committed by bad guys whose motives are pragmatic, not symbolic. Also, these murders are marked by indifference: The perpetrator does not value life, and he feels neither guilt nor glory at having killed someone. The hate killer values life and thinks he is committing a great deed and making a grand statement when he kills.
Despite these similarities, one should be cautious about assigning Hollywood responsibility for the culture in which street crime flourishes. The screen is not the only place–and probably not the most influential place–where young people acquire ideas of what is acceptable behavior. They learn these ideas at home, in school, at the shopping mall, on the street corner, and everywhere else where they observe life and people. Young people in the ghetto don’t have to go to the movies to hear shooting. What they see on the screen seems real to them because it conforms to what they see in life. Otherwise it would have no more effect on them than seeing the feud and swordplay between the Montagues and the Capulets.
When I was a boy in Detroit we used to go to the movies on Saturday afternoon and watch the violence between cowboys and Indians. We knew it wasn’t real. Though we played cowboys and Indians in the street, we did not kill any real Indians. The reaction of Native Americans to those movies may have been different.
There is something in American attitudes that condones or glorifies murder, at least more so than in other countries. If we want to change that attitude, Hollywood should not be the main place we look. (Remember, most of the rest of the world watches Hollywood movies without engaging in orgies of violence.) We have to try to do something about the real world in which children are growing up. The crucial part of that world is the home where parents relate to children. What to do about that, I don’t know. Probably there is little that public policy can do. But the fixations on the media and on the ‘60s culture do not help in the search for remedies.
It would also help our thinking if we could avoid the “sex and violence” mantra. Sex on the screen, or the abundance and explicitness of it, has only a distant connection, if any, with the homicides that worry us. Context isn’t everything, but it’s worth noting that the TV channel that shows the most violence is the History Channel, with its endless replaying of World War II: I have not heard anyone say that is an encouragement to crime.