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Sunday, February 01, 2004

Arts & Letters

Columbine in Karystos

Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, the Academy Award-winning documentary on the 1999 Columbine High School slaughter in Littleton, Colorado, came to Karystos in November 2003. Karystos doesn’t have a cinema, but the Yiokaleio Pneumatiko Kentro Karystou — which houses a library and the town’s small museum — has a theater equipped with a seating capacity of 200-plus, a screen, and a projector. Once a week on Wednesday evenings (when the shops don’t reopen), from November through much of the winter, the cinema club screens a film there. As there are no other cultural activities in Karystos — unless one counts the two nightclub-bars, neither of which ever has live music — not to mention southern Evia as a whole, I expected the theater to be packed. I also expected it to be freezing (I’d been warned that the heat, which is never enough in a country where everything is built to ward off even an idle thought of Sahara-like temperatures, left warmth to be desired). But the theater was neither cold nor packed; indeed, the forty or so of us who attended the screening could probably have toasted almonds on the radiators.

A good crowd, I was told — that, and the same crowd. I’d expected to see the Karystian bourgeoisie I’ve never encountered in my four-odd years here, but instead recognized a pharmacist and a kiosk-owner, a few municipal employees, some people from the now-defunct environmental movement, and one teacher — come to think of it, the Karystian bourgeoisie. No one I greeted had seen Moore’s documentary before (I asked), and I was curious about their reactions; I thought I was also curious about whether anyone in the theater could possibly grasp the film the way Americans did, or comprehend Columbine the way Americans did, which is to say fear that it that might happen again, anytime, anywhere, and especially in their home towns. I came to my senses before the film began, when for some reason I began to reflect on the fact that no one in Greece has ever heard of “zero tolerance,” the phrase repeated over and again in Columbine’s aftermath, which defines how US schools go about saving themselves from any threat (perceived or real) from their own gun-toting, bomb-smuggling, knife-wielding students: bag and backpack searches, frisking, metal detectors, private security agents, hotlines (for students to denounce anyone they suspect of troubled spirit or murderous intent), and, of course, dress codes that, in places and among other things, prohibit wearing trenchcoats.

The print was terrible, faded and strung through with green and blue spaghetti trails. The sound was low. There was an intermission, which began when the first reel ran out and the second needed to be threaded. Michael Moore’s irony did not translate. The only visible audience reaction to anything was a collective gasp at the statistic on annual gun-related murders in the United States.


I grew up in New Hampshire, and I grew up with guns. Like Michael Moore, I was a National Rifle Association (NRA) member in high school, and I competed in shoots; like Michael Moore, I wasn’t a bad shot. Unlike Michael Moore — who never makes clear in Bowling for Columbine why he is still a dues-paying member — I haven’t contributed a cent to the NRA since I was seventeen, although I admit to having had a rifle when I lived in the Catskills and to wishing I’d had one when I later lived, for the short while that seemed an eternity, in the Rockies. I didn’t hunt, which means that the rifle in the Catskills had — and this now seems entirely incredible to me, at this distance and in this place — one purpose, and that was to allow me, if necessary, to shoot another human being. I target-practiced. I hoped no one would ever break into the house while I was in it. Two years later, above Nederland, Colorado, when an armed man framed by his pickup’s spotlights banged on the door in the middle of the night and threatened to shoot my dog and my sister’s dog and seemed ready to do worse, I resolved to move to Boulder, which I did — before someone machine-gunned the armed man’s house, probably for having shot a pet dog. That his wife and child survived, lying on the floor, is miraculous; he, of course, wasn’t there. No one seemed to think any of this out of the ordinary.

The US’s peculiarly ordinary gun “culture” — forgive the euphemism — is the subject of Bowling for Columbine. Moore, in his transparently hokey way, tries to get to the bottom of American gun violence by homing in on what went wrong after two teenagers calmly, strangely, went bowling at six o’clock in the morning on the day (the anniversary of Hitler’s 110th birthday, if that has any relevance) they’d set aside to kill a lot of people, most of them fellow students. What happened at Columbine — what went wrong — is hard to watch: the film includes video footage of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold creating mayhem. Before turning their guns on themselves, they’d shot 36 others, 13 of whom died; as the footage reveals, there seems to have been an equal “split” in the shooting — both boys are firing — and no one in particular (contrary to initial press reports) seems to have been singled out. How indiscriminate the two teenagers were is probably best underscored by the fact that they’d planted two propane bombs in the school cafeteria, set to go off at 11:16 am: if they’d blown, most of the four-hundred-odd students in the cafeteria would have died. When the bombs didn’t go off, Harris and Klebold — who had gone outside to wait for the explosions and perhaps to wait for and open fire on survivors — went back into the school and began shooting (the propane bombs were among their targets, but remained unexploded). Within twenty-odd minutes, the shooting stopped, and, before high noon, Harris and Klebold were also dead. Their booby-trapped bodies, and the other bombs they’d planted, considerably slowed the rescue effort.

What occurred at Columbine in less than half an hour might, in the end, remain an inexplicable — or a random, “insane” — act of violence, but Bowling for Columbine suggests worse. As long as it’s possible to buy ammunition in a barbershop and shopping malls, be given a rifle as a reward for opening a bank account, get hold of guns at any age and without a license at gun shows, join private militias, view being armed as an inalienable right, consider stalking-and-shooting games great (and necessary) entertainment, support the NRA, turn a blind eye to an environment in which Rocky Flats, Lockheed Martin, and NORAD prosper or once prospered, allow the largest weapons manufacturers to mask the use of their products with contributions to anger-management programs, live in gated communities or dull suburbia, and watch news programs that focus on violence and fear rather than news, Moore initially contends, bad things are bound to happen. Or, he then asks, are they?

The Canadians, Moore discovers, also have guns, and the Japanese watch extraordinarily violent videos: Canada and Japan’s homicide (read: gun-related murder) rates are negligible in comparison with those in the US. Suburbia is both weird and dull, Moore points out, but seems not to understand that weird and dull suburbs exist throughout the developed world, which is perhaps why South Park and The Simpsons are popular internationally (an uncertain measure of self-deprecating, middle-class consciousness?). Moore’s cross-cultural, cross-national comparisons are limited, which grates a bit, for Europe is more like the US than either likes to admit: Canadians aren’t the only ones who have weapons and choose not to use them on one another particularly frequently. Greece has the longest hunting season in the European Union for good reason, as those who hunt (read: those with guns) exert powerful interests here, as they do in France and Germany, Italy and Spain, Great Britain, throughout the EU. Countries other than the US also manufacture arms and munitions, France and Russia being the US’s major competitors in the field, and a lot of people raise disenchanted teenagers and hold crummy, or lucrative, jobs in defense industries the world over. Personal weapons aren’t terribly hard to come by, either, just about anywhere in Europe if the buyer doesn’t have a criminal record: it’s possible to buy a gun and ammunition here in Karystos at a store that sells kitchen appliances, CD players, and woodstoves — there are no Wal-Marts — as well as at stores that sell combat and hunting apparel. “Violent” videogames and lyrics are omnipresent: preteens here, too, listen to, and understand the words of, Eminem and Marilyn Manson (who was scapegoated by some for the carnage at Columbine and who gives a compassionate, articulate interview to Moore in his film).

As Moore unravels the weirdness (which he says) envelopes the ordinary in America, he makes the point — however weakly — that that “ordinary” also exists outside the US, but without (the same) effect. So, Michael Moore asks in his own quirky way, if the US leads in homicide rates and gun-related homicides by a large margin in the developed world despite the fact that individuals own guns in many countries, watch the same programs, listen to the same music, play the same videogames, work in similar industries, live in similar communities, what, then, stands between the US and the rest? His answers? The NRA, and the way (local) news is presented. Both become the film’s bogeymen.


The NRA wields the power of a big business lobby, and its actual business is — for lack of a better term — ideology. Its premise is that every citizen of the US has the right to bear arms, and the organization represents itself as (and is) the umbrella group for everything firearm-related, including the interpretation of the Second Amendment. It offers training and education for gunholders of all types, including “recreational” ones; it supports sales at gun shows (which, after Columbine, came under attack for not restricting the practice); it organizes gun clubs; and it also has an institute for legislative action, which works to ensure that neither state legislatures nor the federal government impinge upon the average citizen’s access to and right to have weapons. The organization is rah-rah and basks in patriotic gore. Most important, it holds that every citizen should be able to defend his own home and family. Its members — some of whom tell Moore that they train with guns to “defend” and “help” people, protect themselves, and “cut out the middleman” (read: law enforcement) — by and large agree.

In 2000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 28,663 Americans died by gunfire — 16,568 in firearm suicides, 10,801 in homicides, and the rest in unintentional or “unknown intent” shootings. Since 1960, more than a million Americans have died from firearm suicides, homicides, and accidents: that’s about a tenth of Greece’s population. According to GunCite’s website, 39 percent of US households now possess firearms. There’s not a doubt that gunholders in the US have a tendency to shoot others and themselves in astounding numbers, and unless the population at large is disarmed, there’s no way of telling if murder and suicide rates would dramatically dip. No one will ever know whether Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would have made Columbine infamous had they not had guns. I, personally, will never know whether my former (and long-divorced) sister-in-law, my friend D (a childhood sweetheart), another friend M, or one of my husband’s cousins would be alive today, but I do know that they wouldn’t be dead of gunshot wounds if they hadn’t turned guns on themselves or been murdered by those who trained weapons on them and pulled the trigger.

Guns, guns, guns: Americans are armed to the teeth, Moore claims, not only because they have a right to guns and a right to use them, but because they live in what has come to be termed a “culture” — again, this word — of fear. Local news programs in the US draw in viewers with a sensationalism that creates apprehension and panic: remember Y2K and killer bees? Moore asks, only to point out that there are also killer escalators, dangerous pills, undiagnosed mental disorders, unknown and unidentified assailants (usually of other races); in places where the murder rate fell by 20 percent, coverage of violent crime rose by 200 percent. The list goes on; most absurd, gun sales soared after September 11, as though the US were about to be invaded rather than invade (and occupy).

The problem is, the “culture” of fear doesn’t have much, indeed anything, to do with Columbine (Moore has obviously never watched Greek news), although it was clearly reinforced by what happened there. Maybe what Moore is trying to argue is that the link between fear and easy access to firearms is what makes the US so extraordinarily violent. I think the jury is out on that point, however; it will probably return only if we begin to ask more basic questions than Bowling for Columbine does — those about the decline of civic consciousness, or the fate of the nuclear family as it fissions, or social anomie, or the dearth and death of what was once called community (in which people participated and which they held dear) and, before that, the common weal.


A few days after Bowling for Columbine left Karystos, I passed by Dina’s kiosk to ask her what she thought of the film. “It’s nothing I didn’t know,” she told me. “But it’s a film Americans need to see. Violence is their problem, after all.”

She’s right, and she’s wrong. She’s right because the children of Karystos and the surrounding villages are not searched when they go to school, because they don’t carry guns, make bombs, wave knives, threaten one another or their teachers with weapons; and the only two known murders in living memory on southern Evia took place in Myloi over two generations ago. Hunters tend to be hunters, whose greatest crime is shooting any bird that flies, including those on endangered-species lists. There are no cries for gun clubs or shooting ranges locally, and in Greece there’s no Second Amendment, which means no one ever debates the right to bear arms. It would seem ludicrous if they did, despite the fact that Greece is a small country with sometimes wartorn and at other times threatening neighbors: Greeks trust their army, believe in those middlemen.

Dina’s wrong, however, in that violence is not just an American problem: it affects the rest of the world. While it might not matter (to the world) how often and how brutally we turn our guns on one another and on ourselves, our propensity to do so speaks volumes on how quickly and thoughtlessly we’re likely to turn them on others. The ante has been raised in the “culture” of fear by the department of homeland security, codes orange, constant warnings of threats by omnipresent terrorists (but never our homegrown boys), and the language of dissimulation that persuades what is obviously a large part of the American electorate that the Bush administration is liberating Iraq. Americans support their troops, believe in those middlemen, too, at least abroad. Like the NRA says, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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