Our Violent Inner Landscape
THE NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED Friday April 23, 1999
Monday night I got home from a long business trip. I was going to watch a video of the new British production of “Richard III” that someone had left me, but as I was turning on the television, I caught a spectacular explosion, some gunfire and a half-naked body darting across the screen. It was Rambo. I slumped on the couch and my road-frazzled nerves relaxed at last, adrift in a comforting sea of macho insanity. So much for “Richard III”.
What makes this a bit odd is that in 1992 my 18-year-old son, Galen, was murdered at the door of his college library, the random victim of a disturbed fellow student who had gone on what the newspapers referred to as a “campus shooting spree.” The weapon the killer used, a cheap, imported semiautomatic rifle, was similar to the weapons used at Columbine High School in at least this respect: It was inexpensive and readily obtainable by teen-agers.
Since Tuesday’s killings in Littleton, Colorado, much has already been written about the shameful availability of such weapons, about the horrific rise in the number of school shootings, about campus safety, about how we should monitor students more carefully, and about all the other steps we might take to avoid such incidents. We’re anguished, and we’re asking ourselves “Why?” over and over.
But I’ve been asking a different question. I’ve been asking what that Rambo movie did for me on Monday night. I mean, I’ve been there. I have intimate knowledge of that excruciating territory the parents of those children in Colorado are traversing. Yet, I am still capable of relaxing with an hour’s worth of some overmuscled action hero shooting up a town. It’s easy to talk about the prevalence of violence in our society, but it’s shocking to realize that that same violence is in me, somehow. Hard-wired.
Certainly, it’s my problem, one of a resplendent array, but I’ve got a feeling this problem is embedded in our culture, way beyond bad movies and cheap guns. It is as transparent as the air we breathe. It’s in our history. It’s in the myths we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we see it at all, we celebrate it. We relax to it. We’ve made industries of it.
As always, it is the kids who have that instinctive grasp of what the grown-ups are really saying, what the words truly mean, where the lies are. It might be the sickest kids, the neediest among them, who have taken our biggest lies and thrust them back at us, bloody and terrible.
I don’t know what to do about this problem. I’m not even sure what it is. I just keep thinking, over and over, that if I could find the answer to my Rambo question, I’d have a start on the bigger one.