Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine examines the culture of guns and violence in the United States in order to obtain insight into how massacres like the Columbine incident were socially possible, and, more generally, why the United States has an enormously higher rate of gun-related homicides than any other industrialized nation. Among the many possible causes he examines, the two that emerge most prominently are the widespread accessibility of semi-automatic arms and ammunition, and a pervasive culture of fear, paranoia, and distrust. His presentation is not, as some critics have argued, a simple-minded argument for gun control. In fact, his discussion of gun usage in Canada undermines standard gun control apologetics, evincing a much more thoughtful and nuanced analysis than his critics accredit to him.
Moore begins his exploration of America’s penchant for gun violence by lining up the usual suspects and interrogating them. Sometimes this involves interviewing actual people, such as James Nichols, who gives the standard extremist arguments for the indiscriminateright to bear arms and explosives, though stopping short at allowing private ownership of nuclear materials since “there are a lot of nuts out there.” The silence that follows, with Nichols’ face showing no appreciation of the irony of his statement, could not have been better scripted. The cold realism becomes more unsettling as Nichols shows Moore the loaded .44 Magnum he keeps under his pillow, and points it to his own forehead. Moore also interviews young people in the area of Flint, Michigan to learn their shockingly casual views on the use of guns and explosives. Naturally, Moore is looking for extremists, not to hold them as representatives of the population at large, but to pose the question of how such people can regularly emerge out of a seemingly normal society.
Other suspects are not humans, but inchoate cultural influences which Moore attempts to formulate into potential causes of gun-related violence. Easy access to guns and ammunition, which in Midwestern states are sold even at K-marts and Wal-Marts, seems to be at least a material cause. Moore’s eventual confrontation with K-mart’s corporate leadership manifests his conviction that ammunition should not be cheaply and easily accessible to youth. Despite his sincere activism in the areas of restricting the kinds of arms available to the public, and the ease with which they may be purchased, Moore is not “anti-gun” in the sense of wanting to outlaw personal ownership and use of firearms, as is done in many other industrialized countries.
The United States has a per capita gun fatality rate hundreds of times higher than other industrialized nations. This fact provokes Moore to examine what is so different about the U.S. that might account for this. He dismisses out of hand the notion that the United States has a more violent history than other nations, pointing out the genocides and atrocities performed in the twentieth century by Germany, Japan, Britain and France. Breakdown of the family is also a weak cause in his view, since divorces in Britain are much more frequent. A likely reason appears to be that most of these nations have much stricter gun control laws, so that lower gun violence is simply a consequence of having fewer guns.
Contrary to the picture that militant gun advocates might want to paint of him, Moore dares to contradict the idea that gun violence is proportional to gun ownership. Venturing into Canada, he learns that millions of households possess guns, yet homicides of any sort are rare, even non-existent, in most parts of the country. Pursuing the implications of this unexpected discovery, Moore looks for cultural differences that might account for the disparity in gun violence rates. First, he debunks the American misconception that Canada is racially and ethnically homogeneous with a trip through Toronto. People of non-European races find they are much more accepted in Canada than in race-conscious U.S.A. Canadians are exposed to the same movie and video game violence as Americans, and as much as they enjoy fictional blood and gore, Canadian teenagers speak with a lighthearted spirit and convey none of the angst and frustration that might lead to a violent disposition. Moore learns another tidbit exhibiting the easy-going ways of Canadians: most of them leave their front doors unlocked at home.
Just as he doubted whether James Nichols really kept a gun under his pillow, Moore cannot resist seeing for himself whether Canadians really leave their doors unlocked. He ventures into many houses without knocking, even in densely populated areas. When the residents see him, they are not the least bit startled, flustered, fearful, or angry. In fact, they tend to be chatty and amiable. Still not convinced, Moore decides to examine a Canadian “slum,” only to find that government-funded cooperative housing is quite safe and clean. Canadians are not fiercely divided against one another, racially or socially, nor do they instinctively respond to strange or unexpected house calls with fear and anger. It is tempting to conclude that they live in a state of naiveté, but one counter-example seems to disprove this, and at the same time, point at the heart of the matter.
Moore asks a woman who leaves her door unlocked if she has ever been burglarized. With an easy smile that has to be seen to be felt, she says, oh yes, once when I was at home, someone came in and vandalized the house. Yet she continues to leave her door unlocked without reservation. There is no speech about how a burglarized home makes one feel violated and unsafe; the fetishes of property and security have little importance to this woman. Even after facing an actual burglary, rather than an imagined potential threat, she adopts nothing of the defensive, fortress mentality widespread among Americans.
This leads to Moore’s most compelling point, which is that American society, aided and abetted by its media and politicians, subsists in a climate of fear and distrust. He chronicles the phenomenon of “white flight” to the suburbs, and the racial and social tensions it implies. He depicts the sensationalism of the news media regarding violent crime, and its needless fear-mongering on health and security issues. What emerges is a picture of a xenophobic society, where the “others” may include fellow Americans who are of the wrong ethnic, social, religious, or political background. After 9/11, the bunker mentality comes out in full force, and the nation embarks on a paranoid policy of “hit them before they hit us.” This attitude is the complete opposite of the Canadian woman’s response to a burglary, and evidences the essential cowardice of certain Americans, and any people who would attack the innocent in order to protect themselves from a potential danger. These pseudo-patriots equate aggression with bravery, but if they were truly brave, they would not be so fearful of their own security. A brave person is not afraid to face life’s risks, but too many Americans are obsessed with minimizing even the remotest risks in pursuit of the chimera of absolute security, hence the overkill of using strategic bombers against low-tech terrorists.
Moore does not call any of his fellow Americans cowards, as I have done, but he does describe many of them as edgy, fearful, and deeply divided along social and ethnic lines. Disagreement is often perceived as a personal attack, and this defensiveness is carried over to issues of property and personal security. Moore explores these divisions in his study of a six-year-old girl killed by a handgun in Flint, Michigan. The boy who accidentally killed her had obtained the gun from his mother’s house. This boy was often unsupervised at home because his mother had to work long hours at a distant worksite in order to meet the state’s “workfare” program. Working below subsistence wages, the mother’s plight is a symptom of a heartless society that forces a single mother to work two jobs rather than raise her own son. That Canada can afford to support its less fortunate, while the U.S. cannot, is utterly implausible. Programs like “workfare” arise from a misanthropic mentality that abolishes any sense of fraternity across economic classes. Instead, it patronizingly pretends to help the lowly when it really serves to increase the profit margins of the businesses that use this cheap labor. Forcing a single black woman away from her son to perform an inane job serving food to affluent white people in order to pay her imaginary debt to society is an example of capitalist ethics gone mad, not to mention evidence of latent racism.
While the Flint woman’s predicament casts into sharp relief the divisions and antipathies permeating American society, Moore is not content to preach, but insists on action. He pursues Dick Clark, the celebrity who owns the restaurant where she worked, and asks him if he knows about the workfare program’s social impact, citing the Flint case in particular. Moore speaks calmly and politely, but Clark responds as insulated Americans typically do when confronted with the unpleasant: he closes the door and drives away.
Discouraged, but not defeated, Moore decides to confront the supreme gun advocate Charlton Heston himself. Truthfully, though disingenuously, presenting himself as an NRA member, Moore is able to obtain an interview with Heston in his Beverly Hills home. The actor is set at ease when his interviewer describes himself as an advocate of the right to bear arms, and he is willing to candidly answer questions about why the U.S. has severe problems with gun violence. Heston offers two possibilities already discussed in the documentary: that the U.S. has an exceptionally rugged, violent history, and that other nations possess much stricter gun ownership laws. Moore points out the violent histories of other nations, and the widespread gun culture of Canada. Heston briefly alludes to ethnic divisions in the U.S., but wisely decides not to pursue that line of thought, and instead notes that Canada does not have an especially violent past, so his first argument still holds. Heston makes a valid point, since Moore has failed to consider that other industrialized nations either have a violent history and strict gun control, or, in Canada’s exceptional case, a non-violent history and liberal gun ownership. Only in the U.S. does there exist the lethal combination of a violent history and widespread gun possession.
Moore concludes by questioning the appropriateness of holding NRA rallies in the aftermath of local gun tragedies in Columbine and Flint. While this is certainly much more provocative than the rest of the interview, there were many ways Heston could have chosen to defend this position. Instead, he walks away without speaking, and does not turn when Moore tries to show him a picture of the girl who was killed in Flint. The coldness of his response, without so much as a word of refutation, combined with the image of him slowly walking away across his palatial estate, creates an unsettling image of indifference and a perverse unwillingness to see any unpleasant realities that are not easily reconciled with one’s worldview.
Without intending to do so, Clark and Heston have demonstrated one aspect of Bowling for Columbine’s thesis, which is the American desire to insulate oneself from other social groups and their perspectives. Moore does not resort to ad hominem attacks, but respectfully asks these men to defend or reconsider their position on social issues. The mere asking of the question is sufficient to identify Moore as an adversary, and cause these men to withdraw into their gilded cocoons. Moore, on the other hand, has gone out of his way to interview some highly unsavory individuals, and give them the opportunity to air their views in his documentary. Even in his dealings with the K-mart executives, he was much less confrontational than he might have been, and he expressed his gratitude when K-mart made policy changes that exceeded his expectations. The documentary itself is a step away from our fractious tribal culture, as this odd, unattractive man fumbles his way around, asking naïve questions to the most diverse people, many of whom we might avoid on sight. Without Moore’s willingness to engage other people and let them speak for themselves, we might never emerge from our defensive aggression, and we would never learn that Marilyn Manson is actually a quite reasonable human being.
[And how great is the Ramones’ version of What a Wonderful World!]
See also: Fahrenheit 9/11 | The Passion of the Christ
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