Treating the Symptoms
First of all, I should say that I've been arguing with myself for
a couple of months over whether or not to write this column; after
all, a site about goofy old movies is hardly the sort of place you
expect to find a cranky op-ed piece. But since every primate with
a stick and a stretch of dirt has found fit to hold forth on the subject,
I finally sighed with resignation, and with that exhalation, blew
the dust off my bully pulpit. This will meander quite a bit, for it
is a Big Subject, and I am currently studying to be a Cranky Old Man.
Bear with me.
I won't insult anyone by recounting the details of the Littleton
Massacre; if you've access to a computer, you've access to the news
media and the feeding frenzy that developed afterwards. The Littleton
Massacre is most likely going to be one of those iconic events, an
occurance that Changes Things. Possibly for the better, much more
likely for the worse. For the worse, because, sadly and predictably
1) The Authorities immediately began employing Quick Fixes, treating
the symptoms with draconian cures, and 2) the tragedy was immediately
seized upon by vultures with an agenda.
Among the quick fixes more at home in a dark satire than reality
were various school systems outlawing trenchcoats and black clothing
- first, assuming that homicidal miscreants have a uniform, and second,
that depriving them of that uniform renders them helpless, like Samson
shorn of his locks. The reason given for the trenchcoat ban is that
the coats can be used to conceal weaponry; although true, this ignores
the kid that stuck a rifle down his pants - do we now outlaw pants?
Not to mention the ever-popular backpacks...
Word has filtered out about suspensions and expulsions for the crime
of joking about the massacre. Gallows humor is one of the ways
the human animal deals with tragedy; it's not tasteful, nor necessarily
defensible, it's just a fact. It didn't take 24 hours for the
first Challenger jokes to surface. Needless to say, the Constitutional
implications of declaring one subject verboten can be alarming
- this is what the thin end of the wedge looks like. One girl was
disciplined for stating, in a class discussion, that she understood
why Klebold and Harris melted down. In addition, she was no doubt
hooted down by derisive classmates.
You see, we never, ever learn.
More astounding is the massacre being employed as the poster child
for our friend, The Flag Desecration Amendment, aka the Flag Burning
Amendment. Apparently more open displays of the flag and Pledges of
Allegiance would have circumvented the murderous rampage. This is,
of course, utter bullsh*t and leads me to the first of many digressions:
Those that pump endlessly for an amendment of this sort have always
missed the point completely - that the true marvel of the Constitution
and America is that such an act is even possible, much less sanctioned
by law. Face it - the only point to flag burning is to piss off
exactly the people it does. A more powerful political statement would
be to wash the flag, not burn it. But so help me, if I hear
this piece of drivel one more time: our fighting men died for this
Our honored dead did not die for a piece of cloth.
They died for a country, for a way of life, hopefully to makes things
better in a chaotic world. Do not tell me they died
for something I can buy at Walmart for $20, or you and I will have
to go round and round.
Bill Bickel, the guide for About.Com's Crime
site, once proposed a Constitution Desecration Amendment, a tongue-
somewhat-in-cheek proposal that would have outlawed such jiggery-pokery.
It was, of course, met cooly. For one thing, had such a thing been
enacted, we could have gone after everyone who voted for that last
abomination, the Communications Decency Act, and that includes our
Yes, it is Clinton that finally moved me to write, and his latest
two Band-Aids: 1) proposing a year-long study on the effects of advertising
for computer games, and 2) asking Hollywood to tone down the violence.
There. I feel much safer. Don't you?
Clinton's announcement of the advertising study included his reading
from several ads, including "More fun than shooting your neighbor's
dog", adding "it doesn't sound to me like these ads are
aimed at adults." Sadly, I have to report they are aimed
at adults - adults with very juvenile tendencies. This Band-Aid,
in particular, is slated to go nowhere very, very quickly, except
as a campaign feather for Gore's cap. The same day pundits were talking
about freedom of expression issues.
As a gamer myself, I have to say that the print ads for games have
been getting stupider and stupider, and actually offensive and disturbing
in a lot of cases. I'm a satisfied Voodoo 3D owner, yet I despise
their print ads, where a 3Dfx researcher appears at car wrecks and
operating rooms to take notes and make things "more realistic".
But also as a gamer, I have to point out why the gaming community
was so dismayed that they got singled out as the scapegoats
this time. First off, much was made of Klebold and Harris' love of
DOOM. I am not leaking any secrets, I think, when I say that
DOOM is so three years ago. Are there no Pentiums in
Colorado? Am I expected to believe these kids never heard of Quake
or Half-Life? Though it is troubling to find a favorite passtime
blamed for the worst incident of school violence in history, one gets
shocked into silence when what is held up as the culprit is a piece
of technology that damn near no one plays anymore. Add to that
the fact that more than once, when viewing a newscast that breathlessly
informed us of the cyberdemons that fed the murderous rampage, they
showed footage of Wolfenstein 3D, an even older game.
So gaming knew that it was being assaulted by people who didn't
know what they were talking about. How do you deal with that?
Especially when your attackers control the outgoing media, and by
defending yourself, you only look more guilty?
If there is one bit of comfort for gamers, it is this: for as long
as I can think back, there is always one thing the younger generation
enjoys that did not exist when the Ruling Generation Was Their Age,
and that thing always gets the nod as the One Thing That Will End
Civilization. From jazz to comic books to rap music, each has had
considerable forces aligned against it. Sometimes it retreats, but
it always comes back. All these things are still around.
And the reason why is simple: they were never the problem.
You see? We never, ever learn.
And now I hear that "Hollywood" has agreed to tone down
the violence, or something like. Oh, yes, I may sleep with all my
doors and windows unlocked tonight, so safe has the climate in America
Although reactionary pundits like to paint Hollywood as an evil empire
that delights in corrupting our children with non-stop parades of
violence, atrocities and alternate lifestyles, the truth of the matter
is, Hollywood has been in the hands of the bean-counters for quite
some time; it exists and excells in the very same Free Market that
those some pundits laud. Thus, the question that should be
asked, but never is - in fact, it took Divine Foole Frank Zappa to
finally drag it into the light:
WHY IS THERE A MARKET FOR THESE THINGS?
The customers of the gaming and entertainment industries vote with
their dollars, and if the Quakes and Natural Born Killers
did not make any money, we would live in a world of Barbie Fashion
Designers and Notting Hills. Both are billion dollar
industries: a lot of somebodies are buying these
things - far more than are killing people. I would
say that politicians never heard of "give the audience what they
want," but that would be begging several questions.
Then again, through my cynical fog cuts a ray of dingy sunshine:
as I write comes news that the Hyde Amendment, which would have made
it a crime to show or sell "explicitly violent material"
in any form to minors, has been defeated, with many crossing Party
Lines to vote it down. Sophomores everywhere mourn the fact that they
will still have to read Julius Caesar and Macbeth. The
occasional youth will still have to read A Tale of Two Cities
or The Red Badge of Courage. Students everywhere will still
have to study History and Current Affairs.
Because history is part of the problem, isn't it? Klebold and Harris
were also apparently obsessed by Adolph Hitler... that couldn't be
construed as the sign of a troubled youth, could it, oh gracious no.
Will we shut down the study of World War II now? Oh, of course not,
is the answer - that would be too extreme.
Here is a word to the wise: always take your thinking to the extreme.
Because somebody is going to.
The first lawsuit against Klebold's and Harris' parents was lodged
last week, a final, sour, inevitable late-20th-century twist on this
story. I can only imagine what is going on in the parents' head, and
Christ, it's not pretty. Where were they, during the marathon DOOM
sessions? The repeat viewings of Natural Born Killers? I know
it's not easy to communicate with teens; I was not the nicest person
to know in those days. But still...
Do I seem overly-bitter? More cynical than usual? Well, it could
be because, yes, I got burned again. I thought things were finally
going the right way. I thought we were going for the right bad guy,
at last: Guns.
Let us get one thing straight right away. I am not for Gun Control.
I am for melting down every f*cking gun that was ever made and
turning them into something useful, like nails or refrigerators. That,
however, is not going to happen, so Gun Control is a good substitute.
I was once certified to carry a handgun as a security guard. I have
used them, I know what they are, and how they work. I do not fear
them. I do, however fear the massive number of idiots I know to exist
in our world and that the ratio of guns to idiots in America is probably
on the level of 5:1.
In a surprisingly sane news story - CNN, I believe - it was pointed
out that other countries, such as Japan, have the same programming,
if not more extreme, than America's, and a goodly portion of the violent
video games are birthed there - yet you never see a Littleton playing
out. For each of these countries, various reasons were given for this,
from discipline inherent in the culture, to stronger family units,
but for each country so examined, there was another reason which did
not change: it was hard as hell to get guns in that country.
I am not questioning your right to have a handgun in your house.
It's a scary damn world. Even a rifle or shotgun for hunting (although
I prefer you eat what you kill). I question the necessity for multiple
firearms in a household, and I question the sheer mass of firearms
available through a variety of sources. One large chain of pawn shops
has turned over its handgun inventory to the local police. That's
Because playing DOOM didn't cause this - though the isolation
that comes from hours of playing didn't help. Violent Video
didn't cause this. Love of Hitler didn't cause this. What did
cause it is so complex, so bewildering that we cannot wrap our heads
around it. There is no one cause that we can boldly obliterate,
slap the dust off our hands and say, "There. That's that."
Overcrowded schools, the casual brutality of peers, alienation from
parents. As I said, it's Too Big. It's Life. And it's damned complicated.
Because you take any one of those things - DOOM, Natural
Born Killers, Hitler - out of the mix, and it doesn't really change
anything. Only the subtraction of guns would have actually
saved lives. Had Klebold and Harris been unable to procure guns, and
been held to their home-made bombs and perhaps, I don't know, crossbows...
the death toll would have almost certainly been lessened.
I commented shortly afterwards that it was only a matter of time
before the NRA made a statement to the effect that the other students
should have been armed. They did not disappoint - after an ill-conceived
call for an armed guard on the campus (there was one in place
at the school on the day of the shooting), our friends told us what
was needed: the teachers should have been packing heat.
I'm married to a teacher: I can assure you that every teacher I asked
found the notion morally reprehensible. It's a very American solution:
throw more of the problem at the problem. Some will point out
an inherent contradiction in my defense of violent games, my love
for first-person shooters (like Quake), and my anti-gun stance.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large,
I contain multitudes. And unlike (apparently many, including our lawmakers)
others, I understand the difference between fantasy and reality.
Now, since I do not fear either suspension or detention, let me say
this: like that unfortunate girl, I understand Klebold and Harris'
rage. I understand their pain. And I thank whatever Gods there may
be that I do not understand whatever it was that flipped that
final switch, that blurred that line between fantasy and reality,
between right and wrong. I know I'm not alone; I'm not the only geek
who was ostracized, chivvied and despised for what he was in high
school, and forced to find the comfort of his own tribe.
Yes, I was filled with rage. Yes, I had fantasies of violent revenge.
My salvation, however, came through words. I found I was good
with them (better than the trogylodytes I was sharing the building
with), and they became my release. In these times, they would have
also been my damnation, as there were at least two short stories in
which automatic gunfire echoed through school halls. In those days,
this would have been considered (poorly plotted) speculative fiction.
In these troubled times, it can get you arrested for conspiracy.
This has gone on far longer than I intended, and I haven't made some
points I intended to, but as I said, it is a Big Question, a problem
with more facets than a mirror ball. I should get down to making my
final points. First, though the frenzy is apparently dying down, the
massacre heavily scarred our school systems and the way we deal with
the people stuck within them. Like McCarthyites finding Communists
under every bed, a murderous conspiracy was being found (or manufactured)
in every school. My own wife, haunted by the footage coming out of
Littleton, became convinced that one of her problem students was a
prime candidate for hunting humans in the future. I can only repeat
what I told her: Klebold, Harris, and the others of their tragic club
are still aberrations, no matter how widespread the news media
has made the phenomenon seem. For every child that has taken a gun
to school and killed and maimed others, there are thousands, millions,
who have not, and will not, resort to this final extreme.
As a parent, I want my child to be safe in school, and that does
not mean armed guards and teachers packing heat. That is like
trying to render a mine field safe by adding more mines. But even
over and above this, I want my son to grow up enjoying the same freedoms
that I enjoyed, the freedoms that bind me more closely to this country
than any amount of political rhetoric or blind 'love it or leave it'
sloganeering. It is during times of crisis like this and other terrorist
acts that people are most likely to surrender their rights for the
privilege of feeling safe, and it is for precisely that reason that
during such times, we must be calm and do our level best to think
clearly, because, and here is our second Big Statement:
WHEN YOU GIVE AWAY A RIGHT, THE ONLY WAY YOU WILL EVER GET IT
BACK IS BY ARMED INSURRECTION.
History teaches us this, and I studied history before it became a
Dangerous Subject. So it is far, far better to never surrender rights,
at all. (And this is for free: whenever you hear a politician claim,
"We're doing this for the children," alarm bells should
be going off in your head)
One last bitter note, before we end everything on a sweetness-and-light,
yes-its-getting-better high: I note that in the aftermath of Littleton,
a series of crosses were set, one for each of the dead, painted pink
for the girls and blue for the boys. A furor immediately erupted,
because two of the blue crosses were for Klebold and Harris. These
were immediately painted black and set apart from the other crosses.
Even in death, they are ostracized and made monstrous.
You see, and history teaches this too, we never, ever, learn. Ever.