Confronting Our Culture of Fear

Bowling for ColumbineAfter the first time I saw Michael Moore's latest flick, "Bowling for Columbine," my date and I went to get a bite to eat. "What'd you think?" she predictably asked.

"I think I need to take my parents to see this film," I responded.

I knew she and I were compatible, politically speaking. But from my dad's email imploring his kids to vote Republican in the 2000 election, I knew my parents and I weren't. And when I watched Michael Moore ride the welfare-to-work bus with the coworkers of the mother of the first grader who shot another first grader in Michigan, I knew who needed to see that slice of reality on the big screen.

So I gave my folks a gift that keeps on giving. Political dialogue.


I had been watching my parents' long slow tilt to the right with considerable concern. My father used to describe himself as a fiscal conservative but a social liberal, and Mom always insisted that society should protect the rights of those who couldn't protect themselves, particularly children. Growing up, I remember fierce arguments at the dinner table between my father and his conservative friends over whether or not society had a duty to help the weak and infirm. Whenever Dad insisted that a nation had some moral duty to take care of its poor and downtrodden, its incompetent and insane, they would retort that he was only espousing that in his own self-interest.

You see, my younger brother was born mentally retarded. Though he is a joy to be around, he will never be able to function successfully in society without some supervision. Not only that, but he had various serious birth defects which culminated in his needing expensive open-heart surgery when he was only ten years old. So from their neo-conservative viewpoint, my dad was asking for the taxpayers to pay for my brother's needs.

I was worried that my attempt to establish political dialogue with my parents might turn into an emotional quagmire.

So when my dad wrote that he was supporting G.W., I was surprised. After all, he had served on the board of a residential children's home for mentally impaired children through much of the Reagan-Bush years, and had frequently mentioned his firsthand experiences with how their federal budget cuts had nearly destroyed the system of social services in this country. So I knew I had to take them to see "Bowling for Columbine" when I saw Michael Moore expose how our increasingly callous treatment of this country's poor could lead to a welfare-to-work policy forcing a poor black mother to leave at 5:30 am to work a low-paying job serving food to rich white people in a distant suburban mall. And while at work, unable to pay for daycare, she would have to leave her son with family -- at the uncle's house where the son found the handgun with which he killed his classmate.


"Three, please."

Even as I ordered tickets I felt a pang of fear about my plan. I was worried that my attempt to establish political dialogue with my parents might turn into an emotional quagmire. We had a long history of such conversations dredging up familial issues. After all, in their eyes I am still their leftist radical son who was once missing and incommunicado in Nicaragua's war zone for a couple of months; and the same one who incessantly needled Dad about his investments in Enron years after I explained to him that they were bunch of Texas-sized crooks manipulating the energy market in order to create the California electricity price crisis. But at least we all pretty much agree on one thing: None of us care for guns.

My first experience shooting a gun came at age eleven. I took rifle training as a morning activity at a Catholic summer camp for boys. I learned gun safety, how to clean and handle a .22, how to shoot straight and even won a marksmanship award at the end of the class. Honestly, I mostly remember it as being more annoyingly loud than fun, but I had wanted to see what it would be like. But when my parents arrived to pick me up, it was clear that they wanted to hear nothing about that. Candle-making, hiking, camping, and even archery had been acceptable ways to spend my time. Not shooting a rifle.

gunsSo I figured that taking them to a movie that questioned U.S. gun policy would be somewhat acceptable. After all, what Coloradoan could forget Columbine? They were as shocked as anyone--the worst school shooting ever, right in nearby Littleton, a Denver suburb. Yet, like most Americans, they don't really remember the similar school shooting in Springfield, Oregon eleven months earlier. I do -- at the time I drove right by that school every day. Nor do people remember the 2000 Santee High School shooting that happened while I was at the nearby University of California in San Diego.

Yet the movie is really about the culture of fear, not merely guns or the Columbine shooting. When Michael Moore asks why Canada--a culture with guns as readily available as ours--doesn't have a similar spate of school shootings, he isn't exactly advancing the arguments of gun control advocates. But when he asks why the U.S. news media feeds on these events and contrasts the unlocked doors of Toronto and Windsor with the locked doors of Michigan, Moore is raising the right question: What are we so afraid of?


After the movie, I took my parents to a coffeeshop to discuss it. The coffeeshop was in the same suburban strip mall so we could walk. Yet even walking around the corner made my parents uncertain of themselves. It was a cold night, and there were patches of ice on the sidewalk. My parents are growing old, and I've watched them grow increasingly more fearful over the years. It's quite reasonable to be afraid of slipping on the ice as you get older and your bones get more brittle. Fear changes behavior. I don't ski as many backcountry passes as I did before one of my friends was caught in an avalanche.

So naturally two of the first issues to come up were guns and fear. My parents may watch a lot of television, but they don't care for the local news leading off with murders. As a result they were particularly eager to talk about the clips of the Columbine coverage and were perfectly happy to condemn the news media for their habit of circling violence like sharks. The same disgust was present in both their voices when I asked about what they had thought about the clip of Charleton Heston speaking at a Denver pro-gun rally just ten days after the tragedy. And as with me, Mom was particularly moved by how a welfare mother taken away from her child and forced to work by the state contributed to a school shooting.

But when I brought up the fact that welfare-to-work policies and gun rights were key planks of the Republican party platform and pointed out the links between George W. Bush and NRA political action committee money the tone of the discussion changed. "Bush wasn't elected with NRA money. The NRA will give their money to anyone who espouses their line," Dad claimed. "Republican or Democrat."

Who benefits from the media manipulation of fear, and why?

As usual, Dad was wrong on the facts. According to campaign expense documents filed with FEC, the NRA's political action committee spent nearly $2 million in supporting Bush's 2000 campaign, and also spent another $212,000 on negative campaign ads against Gore. In 2000 the NRA spent another $1.3 million supporting Republican Senate and House candidates but spent only $236,753 to elect Democratic candidates. In the 2000 elections over 93 percent of all reported NRA political dollars went to elect Republicans. In other words, the Republicans are espousing the NRA line a whole lot more than the Democrats -- particularly G.W., who garnered roughly twice as many NRA dollars in support of his campaign as did all the rest of the Republican federal candidates combined.

However, I didn't have those facts on hand in the coffeeshop, and so I let the matter of political allegiances drop after planting the seed. We returned to the safer discussion of the media's role in promoting a culture of fear. Both my father and mother asked me about several sequences they hadn't really understood, for example asking me who Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Marilyn Manson were and why on earth anyone had thought they would have had any connection to the Columbine shootings. I explained that after Columbine fingers had been pointed at Parker and Stone's South Park animated cartoon series and Marilyn Manson as a "shock rocker" as possible contributing causes for the shooters' behavior. This led Dad to redefine the media's culpability as glorifying and promoting violence, as opposed to a culture of fear.

The distinction between a media that promotes fear and a media which promotes violence is important, however. As Mom reminded Dad, "Bowling for Columbine" makes the point that Canadian youths watch just as many violent movies, play the same violent video games, and have access to guns in the home just as their U.S. counterparts do--but don't seem to go on school shooting sprees. Conservatives who want to censor movies and television for violence are missing something in that reasoning. The better questions to ask are why we as Americans keep allowing ourselves to feel fear in times when crime rates are dropping? Who benefits from the media manipulation of fear, and why?


bombs in BaghdadThe United States has just launched a war in Iraq based on fear, and most of the rest of the world thinks we've gone crazy. As far as anyone who takes a level-headed approach to it can tell, it is uncertain whether Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction. It is clear that the Iraqis did have them in past; past United States administrations sold the Iraqis the supplies to make them and the Iraqis did use some chemical WMD. Yet the allegations made by the Bush administration have not yet been borne out by the evidence and reports from the U.N. weapons inspection teams. Nor has the Bush administration presented any solid evidence of a connection between Hussein and bin Laden--in fact, bin Laden's words point to the opposite.

Meanwhile, the leaders of countries who behaved rationally and demanded some modicum of evidence before voting to authorize the war are pilloried in the U.S. media as "cheese-loving surrender monkeys" and "Saddam's sausage-loving goosesteppers." Despite the fact that the American public wanted him to convince our longtime European allies before launching a preemptive war, Bush went ahead and declared war without presenting any evidence good enough to convince our allies.

A preemptive war can only be justified out of fear. Such fears can be legitimate, as in the case of my parents being worried about slipping on the ice. Or they can be fictitious, created by media machinations. If we do not yet have any solid evidence of an active Iraqi WMD program, the case for this war can only be made through trumpeting up fear of what might happen if they did. Similarly vacuous machinations are at work justifying this preemptive war via a fear of terrorism. Polls show that the American public believes that the weakest part of Bush's case for war with Iraq concerns the alleged connection between Hussein and bin Laden. Although after 9-11 the U.S. news media and the Bush administration have constantly bombarded the U.S. public with fear-mongering terrorist alerts and foreign policy reports, most of us seem to be smart enough to figure out that only some of the fear is legitimate while much of it is overblown. For example, last year an American had a far greater chance of living in poverty (approx. 12 percent) than dying in an act of terrorism (approx .0025 percent). Yet in Bush's warped calculus of fear that translated into declaring not only the war on terrorism but also a war on Iraq -- while simultaneously declaring the war on poverty over.

The United States has just launched a war in Iraq based on fear, and most of the rest of the world thinks we've gone crazy.

Americans today are suffering from habitual fear. We are in the habit of being afraid, in the habit of living in a culture where fear determines where we get off the freeway, how late we stay out at night, whether we live in the suburbs or the inner cities. Too many of us make decisions based on fear out of habit, not out of any legitimate consideration of risk--and the media and the current political climate play up this culture of fear.

It is not only American politicians who trumpet fear: British prime minister Tony Blair, when asked why he is so committed to supporting the war on Iraq which his own party has voted against, candidly replied "I know many of you find it hard to understand why I care so deeply about this. I tell you it is fear." It is through exploiting the culture of fear that Bush and Blair have tried to persuade their publics and the world to support this preemptive war on Iraq.

The right antidote to fear is to address it with courage, sympathy and understanding. My parents didn't quite understand why Michael Moore chose to interview a Lockheed executive in front of a missile assembly line at their Littleton plants for the local employer's reaction to the Columbine tragedy. Somehow, the fact that the U.S. has pursued a policy of threatening the world with nuclear destruction for the past 50 years escaped their notice. Nor could they understand why Moore included clips from a Littleton Economic Development video promoting the city's business climate.

It wasn't easy to explain the connections, but neither is it easy to explain them away. Mutual Assured Destruction, as our mad post-WWII nuclear strategy was known, is essentially a calculus of fear. As Americans we effectively said to the world: You should be afraid to attack us preemptively because we will retain enough capability to destroy you as well. Fear was routinely the motivating factor in our attempts to influence behavior; similarly, fear was also the motivating factor in virtually every postwar U.S. administration's attempts to keep the American taxpayer paying for more and more Lockheed-built missiles. Weapons such as the nuclear missiles Lockheed builds in Littleton are the basis of Littleton's wealth. When Reagan proposed Star Wars, Littleton cheered. When the Berlin wall fell and people were debating how to spend the 'peace dividend,' Littleton fretted anxiously. When Bush the elder revived Star Wars and the Patriot missile program, Littleton cheered again.

Moore's point is that war is good for some local economies. Peddling fear is big business in America, and not just for the media.


I'll readily confess I have not been out in the streets much with the activists who oppose this war in Iraq. I used to do much more of that, and seeing such numbers of likeminded people was how I used to draw strength and comfort in the face of tyranny. But of late I've been trying instead to set up political dialogues with those I disagree with in order to determine why they persist in their political follies. We need to convince some of them that the values they hold are really fundamentally at odds with the greedy and fearful men who now run the United States. So please consider taking a conservative friend or relation to see "Bowling for Columbine" or rent it and watch it with them. Engage them in dialogue about their fears.

There was at least one more important question from my parents about "Bowling for Columbine." Why did Michael Moore focus on the fact that the killers went to bowling class before the massacre? I believe the answer is simple only on the surface: Since there are so many red-herrings in the search to understand the causes of violence, why not propose bowling? As Moore himself sardonically suggests, isn't it just as likely that bowling is as responsible as shock rock or violent movies? For my parents, Michael Moore's attempts at seeing the humor in the situation left them a bit puzzled. I think that is a good thing. Because in truth what Bowling for Columbine shows us is that bowling isn't the problem. The culture of fear is.

Tim Rohrer is a writer and academic researcher from Boulder, Colorado and a member of the anti-violence poetry collective Colorado 911.

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