By Aditi Kumar:
The following incidents took place in the recent past within an unbelievably short span of time:
• August 9, 2014: 18 year old Michael Brown is fatally shot by a police officer in the Ferguson suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
• October 24, 2014: 15 year old Jaylen Fryberg opens fire at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Washington, wounding and eventually killing five, including himself.
• November 11, 2014: 5 year old Laylah Peterson is gunned down by unidentified men while sitting in her grandfather’s lap in a home in Milwaukee.
• November 22, 2014: 12 year old Tamir Rice is fired at by two police officers for possessing a ‘gun’ – later revealed to be a toy. Rice dies on the day of shooting.
These are just facts about a few incidents that have made it across international waters. In the year 2014 alone, the United States of America has seen 253 shootings, a morbidly long list that has yet to include the murders of Laylah Peterson and Tamir Rice in its contents. Apart from this, 40 school shootings have taken place in the same year – some on the same day in different places, others within days of each other.
One wonders whom the issue rests with – the law enforcement offers with a penchant for shooting before speaking, or the civilians who have astonishingly easy access to firearms?
To understand this culture in North America, where despite the 175,000 background checks made on booming gun sales by the FBI, shootouts and fatal incidents involving these firearms continue to be commonplace, one has to spin the dial back to around 12 years before, to the release date of an Academy Award winning documentary – Bowling for Columbine.
Directed by Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko) in 2002, Bowling for Columbine starts off with a wry narration of a ‘typical’ morning in American society, before moving on to talk about the Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colarado. The 1999 massacre involved students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 13 people before committing suicide.
Moore does not fully focus upon who Harris and Klebold were. Instead, his main concern is how – and the ease with which – they were able to procure the weapons that allowed them to wreak such destruction. He tests this theory in different areas: a bank offering a free gun after a deposit, the local outlets providing live ammunition to anyone with a license, and so on.
Initially, he is convinced that such a situation exists in the USA alone. However, he is shocked to find that, in a ‘hunter nation’ like Canada for example, where the ratio of guns to an individual is dozen to one, the rate of gunshot deaths is actually ten times lower.
The documentary also explores different avenues, such as creating ironic, sharply contrasting scenes of Oscar winner Charlton Heston (Moses, The Ten Commandments) at a pro-gun rally for the National Rifle Association, with those of protesters in towns that he visited right after gun-related tragedies. It includes speech excerpts ranging from politicians to the poor African-American residents of Michigan – in this way, trying to gauge the real reason why people in America are so vehemently pro-guns.
From insistences of the country’s violent history to shock rocker Marilyn Manson, opinions in the documentary seem diametrically diverse. At one point in the film, Moore is forced to point out that something as absurd as bowling – which Harris and Klebold were required to undertake as part of their PE classes – could have lead to such tragedy.
When Marilyn Manson is interviewed by the director, he goes on record to say that even the President (Clinton, embroiled in the Kosovo conflict at that point) could be a role model for gun violence in the country. ”… the President was shooting bombs overseas, yet I’m a bad guy because I sing some rock-and-roll songs,” he acknowledges. “The media have all done such a good job of scaring the American public, it’s come to the point where they don’t need to give any reason at all.”
Continuous montages of prosecutors of Manson’s music, crime reporters, hysterical 911 calls – with an increasingly racial undercurrent, add credence to his statement.
The fear culture
In the end, the documentary seems to say that the society is so pumped full of information that it could cause utter paranoia – the apocalypse, the stereotypical ‘dangerous black man’, the 9/11 incident – that people consider it their basic right to arm themselves with dangerous weapons. More to the point, they may not always be rational, but their ‘freedom’ allows them to procure and use such firearms with terrifying ease. In his 1999 book ‘The Culture of Fear’, author Barry Glassner (also featured) names the following as ‘peddlers of fear’ – politicians, advocacy groups and the media itself.
This is supported by a disquieting sequence in Bowling – of safety videos, security machines installed in schools and dress codes imposed upon adolescents after Columbine. ”Our children had turned into something to be feared,” says Moore. ”One thing was clear. It still sucked being a teenager. And it really sucked going to school.”
It appears that the ‘peddlers’ have not changed their wares, and no one has learned anything from Columbine either.
In 2014, fanatical reports of the wrongdoings of the ISIS and the US’s ‘prompt’ responses continue to reach the ‘Home of the Brave’. No one wants to bring up the years of money poured into training the same militants against the Soviets – the plausible root cause of today’s Middle Eastern conflicts. The trend (depicted in a haunting montage set to ‘It’s a Wonderful World’) is traced in Bowling as well; from Iran to Chile, Vietnam to Iraq. No one points out the irony that massive weapons of mass destruction are aimed at innocent civilians in war-torn nations, while the President continues to haggle over gun laws in his own country.
Is it, then, any wonder that such high-running emotions should come to a bursting point? Are the trigger-happy gun users evidence of this? An unarmed boy is shot in Ferguson after an altercation, a child is killed by policemen when found handling a toy gun – but don’t TV shows from the same country tell us that protocols should be observed in such situations? Why was the gun’s safety catch not on in the first situation? Why didn’t the law enforcers approach the latter scenario with caution that they are supposedly renowned for?
Consider the school shootings as well. If people like Adam Lanza, the man responsible for the Sandy Hook tragedy, and Jaylen Fryberg from Washington were known to have been facing the problems that they did, how was it that such individuals were able to get hold of their weapons? If governmental law can prohibit something as harmless as Kinder Joy chocolate merchandise in the country, why not guns as well?
One begins to question the relativity of tragedy here – when starving children in third world nations and conflict zones are repeatedly bombed, killed, trafficked and abused, why does the media choose to create a hullabaloo only over a school shooting? But then again, tragedy is relative – and in this case, the really saddening fact would be that people with access to education and the freedom of having a choice, choose to use a firearm to end all arguments.
Questions are asked repeatedly and they can be answered with the same replies in different ways, but one thing remains certain – as politicians argue and journalists continue to write in varying tones of commendation and condemnation, the turmoil within the country grows with outrage and fear over the shootouts so far – in Ferguson, in Cleveland, in Milwaukee. And all everybody is waiting for is someone to reach another bursting point. Another gun shot.