Saturday, April 30, 2005

"Bowling For Columbine"

I just watched "Bowling For Columbine" and here are my thoughts.

I have to admit, I like Michael Moore. I'm no knee-jerk liberal either. I like to give everyone a fair say before I react. What is Michael Moore trying to say and what did I think?

I remember the massacre at Columbine High School, April 20, 1999, which left 13 students dead. I remember watching the news footage about it, seeing students crying outside of the school, the panicked faces of parents, and one student escaping out a window onto a ledge. I was a high school teacher in Los Angeles at the time which made it all the more vivid. A national debate was started: why did this happen? Or even more broadly: why do we live in a society where a disproportionate amount of people are killed by guns?

Is rock music to blame? Gangster rap? The NRA? Blacks? Our country's violent history? Loose gun control laws? A decline in church attendance?

Moore argues "no" to all of these for one simple reason: other Western countries have these same influences upon them but do not have over 10,000 homicides a year. So, Moore spends most of the movie on a quest to try to find what makes America different. What is the key element that makes us more violent than other countries.

The film largely argues that it is our culture of fear--perpetuated by the media--which produces such violence against one another. And, so a lesser degree, our government's aggressive attitude in the world community is echoed on smaller scales in our personal communities.

This film, I believe, would have been better if it would have stayed more focused on these answers. This seems to be what Moore really wants us to understand, and the films best moments are when he goes to Canada to discover their media does not pump its citizens full of fear. They do not even lock their doors at night. They own plenty of guns, but rarely ever kill each other. Dick Clark need not be bothered to hammer this point home. He is not part of the problem, but part of the system of problems. Carlton Heston, by Moore's own admission, is also not to blame. It is not the presence of guns in our lives that make us more violent, it is the presence of fear.

When George Bush won his re-election, I sat down to ponder this and brainstorm my thoughts. What came out was a litany on fear in this country. I had not seen "Bowling For Columbine" at the time, but this was the only explanation I could manage as to why Bush got re-elected. It seems obvious to me--and if I can see it anyone can--that we live in a scared society. Why did Bush get re-elected? It certainly wasn't because of his job approval. But it definitely was because no one in this country wants to change. We live in fear of homosexuals, terrorists, blacks, Hispanics, liberals, and tolerance. And this was never more true than in how people came out to vote for Bush to save them from their fears.

Along these lines, I believe one other element in our "fear factor" should be addressed. Among Western, gun-loving countries we are also the most religious.

Of the countries profiled by Moore in the movie, here's a breakdown of country's church attendance and also their homicide rate (murders, not just with firearms) and how much spent on military per person.

Germany: 5% / 960 (14th) / $470 (19th)
Australia: 16% / 302 (32th) / $577 (14th)
France: 21% / 1051 (12th) / $772 (10th)
United Kingdom: 27% / 850 (18th) / $527
Canada: 38% / 489 (26th) / $244 (30th)
United States: 44% / 12,658 (6th) / $953 (3rd)

I wonder if going to church contributes to the problem? Church, after all, is about division. People who go to church are going to heaven, and pleasing God. Others are not. I can see the fundamentalist thread and xenophobic attitude running through our society's common fears: fear of terrorism, homosexuals, minorities, etc. It's one thing to own a gun. It's another thing to own a gun and not be able to break bread with your neighbor.

However, I looked up one more statistic: perception of safety, and the results were surprising.

Australia: 64% of the people felt safe.
United Kingdom: 70%
France: 77%
Canada: 82%
United States: 82%

Now, wouldn't you think the countries with the most per-capita crime would have the population that feels the least safe? Or vice-versa? But the inverse seems to be true. Of the countries polled, America has the highest per-capita murder rate, but also felt very safe--the 2nd safest behind Sweden (85%). New Zealand had the lowest per-capita murder rate (45 murders, 55th place) and felt the least safe (62%)!

On the surface this statistic undermines Moore's biggest argument in the movie: that we kill each other because we're afraid of each other. Apparently American's are not afraid, but maybe that's only because we sleep with loaded .45s under our pillow. Maybe that's the attitude common in many military and police officers--they feel safe because they can lead out of aggressive action rather than defensive reaction. It is a guise of safety, and a gilded cage. But I believe our values and fears play themselves out in our actions. We vote down equal rights for people we don't want to understand, and--like our government--we use violence to solve our problems.

But, is there even a murder problem at all? I saved this question for last because it is the question that doesn't even get addressed by Moore. It is just assumed that since we had a school shooting we must have an epidemic on our hands. The United States ranks as the 24th most per-capita murders in the world. #23 is Bulgaria. Who has ever heard of Bulgaria's alarming homicide rate? And here's how we ranked with those other western countries in per-capita murder.

49th - Germany, .01 per
46th - United Kingdom, .01 per
44th - Canada, .01 per
43rd - Australia , .01 per
41st - France .01 per
24th -United States .04 per 1000 people

So, if we were a country the size of France, 60 million people, our murder rate would go from 12,600 to roughly 3,000. That's still high. Germany--Germany!!--has 82 million people and only 1000 murders a year.

While I enjoyed, and agreed with, most of his movie, Moore sometimes tends to do the same thing he is convicting the media of doing: pumping people full of fear. Do we live in a society where everyone sleeps with a .45 under their pillow? Where everyone locks their doors and hates blacks? No. But is that element of fear in our society? Are we an arrogant, ethnocentric nation that takes matters into it's own hands, reacting rather than processing information? Absolutely. And as I watched the movie all I could think about was my daughter, who will grow up in a country where she is at least 3x more likely to be killed than if she grew up in France, Germany, England, or Australia. Outside, it's America.