Violence Imitates the Media
In this essay we explore the increasingly apparent connection between the violence brutalizing teachers and kids in our schools, and the violence which the media regularly serves us through films, TV shows, shock jocks, and other supposedly innocuous outlets. Is it any wonder that reporters and journalists are picking up the John Paul II phrase "culture of death" to refer to America's culture?
In the anxious hours following the Columbine High School shootings, America's television screens repeatedly showed a slow-motion film clip in which a black-clad, shotgun-toting boy bursts into a classroom and fills his fellow students full of buckshot. The gunman was teen idol Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of Titanic, and the clip came not from a surveillance camera but from Scott Kalvert's The Basketball Diaries, the 1995 movie said to have been a favorite of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the black-clad, shotgun-toting boys who strolled into their school one bright April morning and murdered a teacher, twelve of their classmates, and themselves, leaving behind 51 homemade bombs for the police to defuse. (Basketball)
Though The Basketball Diaries was promptly pulled from video stores by the studio that released it, the long-simmering debate over graphic portrayals of violence in the media had long since boiled over. Not that anything new was said-the only difference was the glib immediacy conferred by the shedding of blood. The argument itself remains as agonizingly familiar as a family quarrel: Did movies and television make us what we are today, or do they merely show us what we have become?
In the case of The Basketball Diaries, the thing speaks for itself. To watch that horrific clip is to know in your bones that Harris and Klebold must also have seen it at some point in their short, sad lives, and felt the dark urge to go and do likewise. Whether Kalvert and DiCaprio are thereby to blame for the deaths of 13 innocent people (not to mention whether they should be hauled into a court of law and sued for cinematic malpractice) is another matter. I suspect-I hope-they have spent more than a few sleepless nights asking themselves that very question, though I'd be surprised to learn that many other movie stars have lost sleep over the Colorado shootings. If they have, a hefty check made out to their friendly neighborhood gun-control PAC will ease the bite of it, for few in the entertainment business are prepared to seriously consider the possibility that they themselves might be at least as responsible for making the world a more brutal place as are Smith & Wesson or the National Rifle Association.
But it is not enough simply to say that violent movies drive young men mad, since people have been killing other people on the silver screen ever since The Great Train Robbery. Neither is today's violence uniquely explicit. When Lee Marvin hurls scalding coffee at Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat-and when, later...