Reflections on Bowling for Columbine (2002) in the wake of the Charleston massacre
By Joseph G. Ramsey1
When news of the latest white racist gun horror came up from Charleston, South Carolina this past summer, I happened to be teaching Michael Moore’s provocative 2002 film Bowling for Columbine. Once again, it seemed, Moore’s near-apocalyptic vision of an America armed-to-the-teeth and pushed-to-the-edge had proven prophetic. Once more, we were reminded—contrary to war-mongering media and ‘counter-terrorist’ state officials—that most of America’s terror is home-grown. Spangled with the patch-insignia of open white supremacy as he slaughtered nine people in a historic Black church, killer Dylan Storm Roof again restored to view the particularly vicious racist character of that American terror.
Having taught Moore’s movie at least a dozen times over the past thirteen years, it struck me that it was about time I wrote up my thoughts about why this work is one I keep coming back to, why it is consistently one that students respond to so strongly, and why I think it remains a vital (if imperfect) resource for radical educators and activists at this particular historical juncture.
The Problem Posed
Looking back across the thirteen years since the film collected the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2002, Bowling for Columbine seems increasingly prescient, just as the shooting at Columbine High School that prompted Moore’s film looks more and more like part of a trend that is here to stay. From the 2006 shooting at Virginia Tech that left 32 dead, to the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that killed 27, to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre that same year, which left 12 dead and 70 injured at a premier of The Dark Knight Rises, the shameful ‘records’ set by the Columbine killers have been broken time and again. According to a recent FBI study, 392 people have been killed by mass shootings in the United States between 2000 and 2013 (defined as a shooting of three or more people in a single, non-domestic incident). Meanwhile, total gun deaths per year (including homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths) in the USA overall climbed to over 32,000 in 2014.2 Compared to countries of comparable wealth and power, these numbers are essentially off the charts.
How to explain this nasty brand of ‘American exceptionalism’?
In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, US President Barack Obama led one wing of the chorus in asserting that “Every country has hateful or mentally unstable people…What’s different is that not every country is awash with easily accessible guns [the way the US is].” (Quoted in the Boston Globe, 6/20/15, A4). The recently acclaimed HBO documentary, Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014, effectively echoes Obama’s emphasis, closing its moving hour-long homage to the 8,000 American victims of gun violence in the Spring of 2014 alone, with a haunting, suggestive statistical pairing: approximately 88 people are killed by gunshots every day in the USA and there are 310 million privately owned guns in the country, (approximately 1 for every person living here). While Requiem steers clear of overt diagnosis or prescription, its isolation of these numbers effectively makes its case. A narrow focus on the human tragedy of gun murders on the one hand and the sheer fact of widespread gun ownership on the other suggests that the violence problem is at root a gun problem.3
And of course, on one level, how could anyone dispute the basic fact? You cannot have gun deaths without guns (duh). And the USA is awash in them.
On another level, however, such a theory of gun violence explains next to nothing. It describes the situation we are in, but without giving us a sense of how or why we have come to it. How has the USA come to the point that so many people feel compelled to own guns—and to use them—in the first place? Citing lax gun laws—or even the influence of the gun lobby—again does not so much answer as beg the question of why and how it has come to be that the US is characterized by such gun culture, laws, and lobbies. Nor does it help to explain the particularly traumatic form of the public mass (school, movie, church) shooting.
Liberal hubs like Daily Kos have brought Moore into the current fray—that is, when Moore has not interjected himself4 — citing his documentary as a pitch for greater gun control. But to frame Moore’s film as narrowly “anti-gun” is to miss the mark. More than merely anticipating the discussion and “debate” about gun violence that now pervades the American scene, Bowling for Columbine, at its best, insists on deepening, broadening, and radicalizing that discussion. Or, to put the point somewhat differently, Moore’s film provides opportunities for educators—and for activists—to tease out a radical, root cause social analysis in a popularly accessible way, if we are able to wade against the currents of liberalism and moralism, which also run through Moore’s work.
What surprised me when I first saw Bowling in 2002, and what has kept me coming back to it ever since, is the way the film powerfully foregrounds key context for grasping violence in the USA, context that is too often foreclosed by mainstream ‘liberal-conservative’ back and forth about gun laws, gun lobbies, and mental illness. These include elements that Barack Obama—and maybe even Michael Moore himself these days—would prefer we not dwell upon, and that a film like Requiem for the Dead won’t go near.
Moore’s lively exploration does not simply fixate on bad US gun laws or the tragedy of lives taken too soon (though both get plenty of attention). He pushes further to link US gun violence (and gun culture) to underlying legacies and systemic problems: from the history of white supremacy, to the racialized post-9/11 paranoia inflamed by corporate media and politicians, to the long-standing normalization—indeed the sanctification—of American violence in the form of US militarism and empire. Just as powerfully, the film refuses to engage in demonizing or pathologizing the killers it considers, instead tying their violence to the pressures put on young people today and to the despair affecting so many US ‘post-industrialized’ working-class communities in the age of predatory capital’s devastating abandonment.
Granted, the film begins and ends by lampooning and lamenting America’s gun-excesses—from the absurdist starting point, where Moore receives a free rifle for opening a new account at a bank, to the bittersweet ending, where he shames K-Mart executives and then NRA President Charlton Heston for their complicity in the wake of recent school shootings. Still, the heart of the film beats deeper, reverberating radical suggestions that remain clearly implied, if never explicitly stated.
Put simply—and read against the grain—Moore’s film implies that what the USA has is not (just) a ‘gun problem’ but a white racist empire capitalism problem. The trends in youth gun violence are but a symptom of deeper malady.
Towards Mo(o)re Radical Questions
I often preface Bowling for Columbine by telling students that I find the film valuable more for the questions it asks than for any clear answers that it provides. This helps introduce Moore not as some authority on the question of gun violence, but as a fellow-investigator, authorizing the students’ own exploration and critical analysis of the issue at hand (including Moore’s probing but at times uneven account of it).
Certainly, the questions Moore asks remain pressing: Why is the USA such a gun-violent country? What accounts for America’s gun violence, for mass shootings, and school shootings in particular? Is it just a matter of lax gun laws? How have history, culture, politics, and economics created the current situation, including the infamous ‘gun lobby’ and the ‘gun culture’ it purports to protect? What can or should be done, and by whom?
Moore starts by taking aim at cliché answers spouted by pop-experts. He complicates or refutes prevailing ‘explanations,’ particularly those that would lay the blame for US gun violence on one or another form of ‘youth culture,’ from heavy metal music to violent Hollywood movies to video games. As he points out, such youth culture is tremendously popular in many other countries, without the associated gun violence. As he further implies, such anti-youth hostility may in fact itself be part of what pushes some young people over the edge.
More surprisingly, Moore also challenges the idea that access to guns alone can explain the gun death rate. Notably, he points out that Canadians have roughly the same number of guns per person as Americans, and yet lack anything like the gun-murder rate of the USA. As his hounding of NRA President Charlton Heston makes clear, Moore certainly does not dismiss the problematic implications of Americans having such easy access to guns and ammunition. But his focus is not so much on why it is dangerous for Americans to have guns lying around as it is on why it is so dangerous for Americans to have guns lying around. The difference is key: Moore is more interested in diagnosing the danger posed by American socio-psychology than he is on the dangers of guns per se. At its best, his film resists the (liberal) tendency to localize the gun problem as separate from the rest of American society from which it emerges. Here and elsewhere, as we shall see, the radical edge of Moore’s approach involves showing how what appears at first to be fundamentally at odds with “normal American society” is in fact an unacknowledged product of that society, its ‘mainstream’ ideologies, institutions, and practices.
Report from Inside ‘Whacko’ White America
Moore opens with an exploration of his own Michigan roots, including a montage of hunting photos and marksmanship trophies, positioning himself—and thus his critique— as coming from inside “gun country.” As if to disarm skeptical viewers on the lookout for liberal elitism, Moore points out that he is from the same state as Charlton Heston and the Michigan Militia, that he graduated high school the same year as (Oklahoma City bombing suspect) James Nichols, and that he is—lo and behold— a long-time member of the National Rifle Association.
Nonetheless, NRA credentials in hand, Moore spends a good amount of time mocking the ridiculousness of his gun-country cousins, just as he directs considerable indignation at the NRA for its complicity and callousness in the wake of Columbine. Indeed much of this up-close-and-personal footage is so shocking, funny, or moving that it can become a barrier to closer, deeper analysis. The superficial viewer may be drawn to the bombastic NRA rhetoric of Charlton Heston or the whacky apocalyptic talk of James Nichols in a way that prevents us from scrutinizing more mainstream American idols and ideologies, such as, say, US imperial foreign policy since World War II, or the bipartisan ruling class assault known as “welfare reform.” (More about both, below.)
Such a tension between zany or personalized content (on the one hand) and more sustained radical analysis (on the other) runs through much of Michael Moore’s work, presenting radical educators with both opportunities and challenges. Approached uncritically, such freak scenes can steal the show, dragging discussion down to the level of personalized moralizing. But, approached in the right way, they can serve as the humorous hook that enables more penetrating social analysis—including analysis of how sensational attention to ‘extreme’ cases can marginalize serious social critique. The latter becomes particularly important when we consider that the practice of spotlighting “right-wing extremists” —and thereby blotting out radical critique of mainstream policies and institutions— is not some isolated peculiarity on Moore’s part, but is rather an enduring feature of US political culture writ large.
Read closely, Bowling for Columbine pushes beyond blaming “gun nuts” or the “gun lobby” for the violent horror show of American society. We may laugh when Moore gets Oklahoma City bombing suspect James Nichols—a man who sleeps with a loaded .44 magnum under his pillow and who takes an absolutist stance on the 2nd Amendment—to admit that, yes, “There’s whackos out there” —after all, who could be more of a “whacko” than him? But there is an uncanny, familiar quality to the Nichols brother’s reasoning. For if the surest sign of being a “whacko” is the fervent belief that “there are whackos out there,” then isn’t so-called “mainstream America” as “whacko” as they come? Isn’t the predominant cultural narrative of our society, fed to us by pundits and politicians alike, 1) that “There are whackos out there” and 2) that the existence of such “whackos”—ISIS being this year’s prime example—justifies an aggressive US military and police state, armed to the teeth and ready to kill? Isn’t this entire society, in a sense, taught to sleep with a .44 magnum under its pillow? Read against the grain of its zany laugh lines, Bowling suggests that “mainstream America” is not nearly so far from “whacko” James Nichols as it would like to think.5
Indeed, Moore interjects a short animated history of the USA—narrated by a Talking Bullet—depicting America as driven by the James Nichols mantra. (White) Americans here appear as a people driven to homicidal and even suicidal madness by their fear of the “other,” driven to stockpile arms and to commit massive violence out of a mix of racist paranoia, ignorance, and financial interest. Crucially, this cartoon history decodes America’s “gun culture” as deeply entwined with the country’s legacy of white supremacy, noting that Samuel Colt developed the repeating revolver in the wake of slave rebellions, that the NRA was founded the very year that the KKK was made illegal (1871) and that one of the first gun control laws passed in the United States focused on making it illegal for newly emancipated Black people to own one. Whiteness itself stands revealed as a socially accepted form of the paradoxical “Whacko” syndrome.
Once we grasp American culture more generally as steeped in fear and violence, the extreme actions of the Columbine killers no longer look so alien. Moore thus resists the urge to demonize or pathologize Columbine killers Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris as mental cases, preferring to examine how their actions are symptomatic of broader and deeper social maladies. Without in any way condoning these youngsters’ horrific actions, Moore makes a remarkable effort to try to understand what may have driven them to such murderous ends, considering the bullying, alienation, and fear of failure that haunts so many young people in the USA today. Perhaps the most poignant example of sympathy comes when Moore interviews ‘shock rocker’ Marilyn Manson, himself the subject of scapegoat smears in the wake of the Columbine massacre. Asked by Moore what he would have said to the two boys if he had a chance to speak to them, Manson replies (in full face paint) that he “wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they had to say. And that’s what no one did.”6 His sensitive eloquence refutes those who would fling Columbine blood at his stage.
Manson shows smarts along with sensitivity, offering Moore an alternative theory for who may have influenced Eric and Dylan to turn to violence to solve their problems: then President Bill Clinton, who was launching missile attacks on Serbia the very same day that that boys attacked their school. “Who’s a bigger influence [on youth], the president, or Marilyn Manson?” Manson asks, “I’d like to think me, but I’m going to go with the President.” Moore supports Manson’s contention by showing us two Clinton press conferences from April 20, 1999, just one hour apart. In the first, Clinton announces that the United States is bombing Serbia, “striking hard” at the enemy’s “regime of repression,” justifying an attack that—as Moore shows—would in fact level a number of civilian targets, including a hospital and a primary school. In the second, Clinton professes shock and horror at the news coming out of Littleton, Colorado, where bullets ripped through Columbine High. The greater, state-sponsored violence is endorsed without batted eye. The smaller scale horror of the school shooting fills those killer eyes with tears.
Here, in one scene, we strike upon two of the most radical aspects of Moore’s work: 1) his humanizing of those considered outcasts or monsters within dominant culture, and 2) his estranging of the ruling ‘common sense’ that allows Americans to accept and even to support the mass killing of people in one context while experiencing and expressing horror and hysterical sadness at the killing of people in another.
Crucial here is American ideology’s construction of a line between “us” and “them,” a line between those whom it is “OK” to kill and main and those whom it is not. Among the delusions of this procedure is not only the fiction that some lives matter more than others, but the fantasy that what is allowed on one side of the sacred line will stay on that side of the line, that what happens to “them” will not boomerang back on “us.” Michael Moore suggests that the Columbine massacre represents just such a boomerang.
Beyond the Innocence of Empire
The hypocrisy runs deeper than Bill Clinton’s bombing orders, of course. Bowling explores empire and militarism as a structuring presence in “normal American” life, reminding us, for example, that a quarter of the planes that dropped bombs on Iraq during the slaughter of the first Iraq War took off from Oscoda, Michigan, the location of a military base where Eric Harris lived with his bomber-pilot father for years before the massacre. Moore’s survey of the South Metro Denver area near the shooting includes not just golf courses and pristine white suburbs, but nuclear missile silos, bomb manufacturing plants, and—perhaps most soberingly—actual monuments to mass murder, such as Nixon and Kissinger’s “Christmas Bombing” of Vietnam in 1972. In particular, Moore lingers over the fact that the largest employer in Littleton, Colorado, where the Columbine shooting happened, was Lockheed-Martin, USA’s #1 arms manufacturer. Bowling asks us to consider whether or not kids in America might be influenced by the fact that their parents’— their country’s—idea of “going to work” involves manufacturing weapons of mass destruction or dropping them on people.
The nature of the ‘influence’ at work here need not be conceived of at the level of a simplistic ‘monkey see-monkey do’ theory of military mimicry. More reasonable is to understand USAmericans’ acceptance of violent responses to ‘problems,’ ‘threats,’ or ‘enemies’ as partaking of a similar structure, one grounded in an ignorance of history and an obtuseness to social context. Such a mentality makes violence—whether in the form of “crime” or of “terrorism”—appear as an inexplicable, terrifying, almost other-worldly presence, an alien entity incapable of being understood, an “evil” in need of annihilation. In this regard, Moore’s treatment of 9/11, years prior to his 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11, is particularly stunning.7
The film strips America’s 9/11 of its mantle of “innocence,” confronting us with the effects of US military interventions abroad, from the 1950s to 2001, as well as with the pervasive American ignorance to this crucial history. Most immediately, the montage of statistics and graphic images that fills the unforgettable “What a Wonderful World” sequence starkly contradicts the claims of a Lockheed-Martin representative Moore interviews in Littleton. The company rep claims that the weapons Lockheed builds and sells aren’t meant to be dropped on people, but merely to “defend us” from others who intend harm. Set to Louis Armstrong’s bittersweet classic, the post-WW2 montage makes mincemeat of the notion that US foreign policy has been “defensive” in this way, showing us, in two minutes, more footage of US-sponsored massacres—from Latin America to Southeast Asia to the Middle East—than most USAmericans have probably seen in their entire lives.
Beyond refuting the idea of America the innocent, the “What a Wonderful World” sequence outlines a historical-causal chain that starts to make 9/11 itself intelligible, an outline that most Americans lack, and suffer for the lack of. One can hardly understand the readiness of certain elements within the Arab/Muslim world to be drawn into attacks on US targets without recourse to absolutist notions of “evil” unless one has some grasp of the events Moore reviews: the US’s role in overthrowing Mossadeq and re-installing the Shah in Iran, its role in supporting Bin Laden and like-minded Islamic radicals in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, its brutal attacks on Iraq both during and after the first Gulf War. Reframing 9/11 in relation to US regime-toppling, invasions, bombings, sanctions, and covert funding schemes that have in various ways worked to undermine democracy and inflame fundamentalism, the film presents what generally appears within official US ideology as an attack on “our way of life” as rather an expression of that way of life. What those in the biz call “blowback.”
Inflaming the Wound: the problem of the media
As pervasive as violence in the USA is, the problem is distorted and even inflated by the corporate mass media, with its commercial motivations, its mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads,” and its systematic decontextualization of the violent events it can’t stop covering. As an expert Moore interviews points out, even during periods when violent crime is decreasing, US media coverage of violent crime continues to climb at a dramatic rate.
Bowling thus explores the role of mass media—in particular of corporate news media—in inflaming a fearful and even paranoid mentality among USAmericans. Marilyn Manson again serves as our unlikely guide, denouncing what he calls a “campaign of fear and consumption”: commercial media prey upon public fears, keeping people glued to their tubes and consuming products as the “solution” to their never-ending (media-amplified) anxieties. Within this basic framework, Moore spotlights the particular ways that anti-black racism and demonization of the poor structure and fuel this continual campaign of fear, a fear that stokes not only individual consumer spending on guns and home security systems, but also government spending on military contracts (and, we should add, increasingly militarized police). Thus do corporations and politicians alike profit from the very fears they help induce.
Crucial here is Moore’s examination of the show COPS, a vanguard program when it comes to the business of criminalizing and demonizing Black and Hispanic, poor and working-class people. (As others have long noted, poor whites also feature prominently in the show, a point that gets skirted a bit.) Certainly, the idea of blaming such a show for spreading racist images of Black and Brown people is hardly new. Still, in interviewing the producer of COPS—a self-identified “liberal”—Moore reaches beyond the usual low-hanging fruit. Pitching the TV exec a catchy idea for a show called “Corporate Cops,” which would feature camera-accompanied police going after white-collar corporate criminals, Moore is told that while the producer would like to see such a show made, it isn’t feasible; it won’t make for good television. Why not? Moore counters. Surely millions of Americans would love to see the boss busted on TV after a hard day at work, right? Because, the producer adds, the police don’t go after corporate criminals aggressively in a way that would make for good live action. As he points out, the cops treat people who steal $60 worse than those who steal $60 million. The latter they are likely to treat with patience and respect; the former they will chase down, slam to the ground—maybe even shoot dead.
The interview moves us from blaming the disproportionate criminalization of poor Black and Brown people on racially biased media to blaming this slant in media on the class-biased nature of the state itself. Without letting the networks off the hook for cashing in on sensational images of racialized violence, Bowling thus presents us with the possibility that US media images are less the cause than the effect of a police system that tolerates and enables the abuses committed by the rich, but wages televised war against the poor. Showing such “criminality” stripped of context, the media keep up a steady drum beat of fear, disdain, suspicion, and hatred towards those who are not rich and white, teaching Americans to view the world through the eyes of cops. But the state is calling the tune.
Returning to Flint: Historicizing Homicide
Nowhere is Moore’s indictment of both the state and the news media more acute than near the very end of the film, when he turns to cover a recent school shooting in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Moore powerfully explores the social-economic forces that set the stage for youth gun violence, shaming the commercial media for its systematic neglect of the context that makes such violence legible.
While the mass media descend on Flint, anchoring themselves to the site of the shooting at Buell Elementary, holding ribbons for the young white victim, six-year-old Kayla Brown, Moore puts the killing in fuller context. After paying tribute to Kayla’s memory, his camera wanders down the road, away from the immediate scene of the crime. He links the seven-year-old boy killer’s act to facts the mass media ignore: his being left alone at his uncle’s house (where he found the gun that he took to school without his mother’s knowledge); his mother’s eviction from her previous apartment for lack of rent money; her taking an early morning bus to work two jobs out of town; her poverty wages at Dick Clark’s “American Restaurant”; the privatized “welfare to work” program that compelled her to wage-labor in the first place, a program being pushed and profited from by corporations such as…Lockheed Martin. The Buell Elementary school shooting thus comes to stand not as an example of bad behavior or poor parenting, but of racialized class exploitation that separates mothers from their children in order to produce cheap wage labor for corporations and their celebrity collaborators—kids be damned. “Welfare reform” (signed into law, we should recall, by Democratic President Bill Clinton) stands revealed as a regime of child neglect, as deadly for communities as it is profitable for the likes of Dick Clark and Lockheed.
Moore adds a brief social history of Flint, Michigan, picking up threads he had woven through his breakthrough film Roger and Me (1989) more than a decade earlier. The scene of the crime in Flint, as Moore recasts it, extends not just to the household of the boy-shooter’s mother, Tamarla Owens, but to the doorstep of the then-largest corporation in America, General Motors, a company that in the 1980s shuttered the factories that sustained whole communities, creating massive unemployment and poverty in order to make a bigger killing someplace else.
In this way, Bowling for Columbine historicizes the homicide, showing how economic devastation and social despair have brought a once hopeful and prosperous city to a state where shootings are the leading cause of death, and the local high school football stadium is sponsored by a funeral home. Moore closes the film by shaming Charlton Heston and the NRA for rallying nearby in the wake of the school shooting, even laying a picture of little Kayla by Heston’s clubhouse door inside the actor’s Hollywood mansion, a final shot of celebrity shame. More radical than its maker, Bowling suggests that the death of Kayla Brown should to be laid at the foot of corporate America, and those who serve it.
Moore, though, won’t quite utter such a fundamental point aloud. Nonetheless, it would not be too much to say that Bowling for Columbine lays responsibility for both the Columbine and the Buell school shootings at the foot of militarized, racist American capitalism. The particular causal chain that pulls the trigger varies in each case. But the kids in the post-industrial wreckage of Flint, Michigan and in the booming family-friendly suburb of Littleton, Colorado alike stand linked, to each other, and to a system that has dealt them death so that others may profit.
I like to ask my students after viewing the film: “Where ought Moore to have delivered the portrait of slain Kayla Brown?”
Conclusion: confronting America’s home-made monstrosity
The American children who open fire on their peers, classmates, teachers, and neighbors offer us the opportunity and the impetus to grapple with a contradiction at the heart of the USA. For what are these “whacko” youth doing but applying the approved and honored teachings and techniques of American society…just in the ‘wrong place’ and against the ‘wrong people’? In ‘monstrously’ directing the kind of mass violence that official American ideology incessantly sanctions—so long as it is directed abroad (or against officially designated ‘terrorists’ abroad or ‘criminals’ at home8)—these kid-killers confront us with the possibility that America will never be safe so long as it continues to traffic in mass destruction and racism as national religion and big business. That no one can be truly secure when the social safety net is stripped away, inducing an atomized war of each against all. Not only because terrorists from elsewhere will seek revenge, but because home-grown wannabe American snipers see enemies around every corner, and because a system that treats the poor like criminals, will ultimately compel some to fill the coffins set before them.
Such monstrous massacres stand revealed in Moore’s account as symptoms of a deeper malady, a malady that cannot be dealt with by addressing issues of gun laws alone. It rather calls for dismantling an empire that makes not only murderous weapons but the ideologies and the inhumanity that enable their use as common here as the air we breathe. It calls, too, for the overturning of a capitalist order that puts the profits of corporations ahead of the needs of families, children, communities, as well as the unplugging of a police & media state that chokes off breath and thought alike. Revealed by Moore as both victims and perpetrators of the violence of empire, USAmericans are offered a rare chance to clear the air. More than just another anti-gun diatribe to arm liberals in the face of conservative extremists, Bowling for Columbine sketches the basis upon which Americans might unite to dismantle the bloody system that rules in our name.
Whether such a revolutionary change can be accomplished with or without guns is another matter.
1. This article is revised from an essay that was originally posted at Counterpunch.org.
2. Of course, one complicating aspect here is that of media amplification, as the eye-ball hunting 24-hour news cycle’s credo -“if it bleeds it leads”– may give us an inflated picture of how often such attacks occur. It can be difficult to distinguish the actual gun violence trend from the trend in media coverage of gun violence. For an insightful treatment of the perception vs. reality of gun violence in the US, see Chase Madar, “Have Guns, Will Liberate: Inside the civic theology of arms-bearing,” The Baffler, vol. 28 (2015), http://thebaffler.com/salvos/have-guns-will-liberate.
3. The conservative counterpoint dwells on the need to address (or at least to police) issues of mental illness. For a critique of this one-sided focus, see Arthur Chu’s thoughtful essay in Slate, “It’s not about mental illness: The big lie that always follows killings by white males.” As Chu writes, “The reason a certain kind of person loves talking about ‘mental illness’ is to draw attention to the big bold scary exceptional crimes and treat them as exceptions. It’s to distract from the fact that the worst crimes in history were committed by people just doing their jobs – cops enforcing the law, soldiers following orders, bureaucrats signing paperwork.… We love to talk about individuals’ mental illness so we can avoid talking about the biggest, scariest problem of all – societal illness. That the danger isn’t any one person’s madness, but that the world we live in is mad.” www.salon.com/2015/06/18/its_not_about_mental_illness_the_big_lie_that_always_follows_mass_shootings_by_white_males/. See also Ingar Solty’s brilliant 2012 provocation, “Dear Left, the NRA is Right: The Mass Shooter as High-Achiever: Historical-Materialist Considerations on the Resistible Fall of James Holmes and the Pathologization and Culturalization of the Cinema Massacre in Aurora, Colorado,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 26 (3)
4. See for instance the discussion of Michael Moore’s Twitter comments here: www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/22/1395147/-Michael-Moore-Tweets-Out-To-Every-Racist-War-Mongering-Pseudo-Christian-Right-Wing-Gun-Extremist
5. A similar moment, easy to laugh at but harder to own, comes when Moore interviews a number of troubled (white) young men in their late teens or early twenties. Informed by one young man that he was at one point ranked as the “#2” threat on the “bomb list” by Oscoda, Michigan police, Moore asks the man if he knew who was “#1,” prompting the young man to admit that he feels regret, even years later, for never having made it to “#1.” He “wanted to be #1 at something, even if it was the bomb threat list.” It’s another moment we are meant to laugh at, and yet it’s one that we ought to recognize as pointing to a growing cultural tendency, namely the longing for celebrity status as an existential trait in a late capitalist society increasingly bled dry of stable meaning or secure employment alike.
6. See Moore’s interview with Manson at www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYApo2d8o_A .
7. For my review of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, see Cultural Logic’s 2004 issue.
8. Of course, with initiatives like the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force, we see a coming together of these two figures of “threat.”