The proclivity of Americans to accept — perhaps even to prefer –
symbolism over reality and especially over hard thinking has hardly
disappeared. And to expect Republicans in Congress to do anything other
than to dissolve into a quivering mass of gelatinous goo when confronted
by a smarmy president and a couple of snap polls is still is probably to
expect too much.
Even so, I think it might just be possible that the murders at Columbine
High School in Littleton, Colo., could mark the beginning of the end of
the American peoples’ tolerance of vultures of every political stripe
who twist such sad occasions into an opportunity to forward their own
particular agendas. All the usual suspects have come forward to say it’s
the gun culture, TV, the movies, the Internet, secularism or whatever.
(My personal favorite was a poll that didn’t even include as an option
that the creeps who built the bombs, made the plans and did the shooting
were responsible for their own actions.) A few proposed laws have even
jumped preliminary hurdles in state legislatures.
The exploiter-in-chief, of course, was almost jubilant (things haven’t
been going so well in the jolly little war and it wouldn’t be seemly to
divert attention by pawing another intern) as he introduced his latest
gun-control fix. Moving in the direction of a society in which only the
police (and military, of course) have guns in the wake of a tragedy in
which the police waited three hours to go in made perfect sense to him.
What made even more sense, of course, was an
opportunity to revert to permanent-campaign mode, with a handy villain
to rail against and an opportunity to reward ideologues who had stuck
with him through the impeachment embarrassment.
But even as the media dutifully reported the initiative, they also
reported, even if only inferentially and indirectly, on the process of
political opportunism that soon overtakes the mourning in the wake of
tragedies. Even Government Radio — NPR, which actually does some of the
best reporting around if your ideological filter is in working order –
noted that the administration would have to strike while emotions were
still raw, acknowledging that the Clinton agenda relies much more on
emotion than on reasoned argument.
And unless I am misreading the responses of those I’ve talked to
personally and my impressions of the avalanche of media coverage, it is
just possible that the most exploitative of the political agendas are
falling on deaf ears this time. Indeed, even the exploiters seem only to
be going through the motions — more out of habit than passion –
believing they have to give it a try again but afraid that the people
are on to them, that neither gun control nor moral uplift gets many
American juices going beyond those of professional enthusiasts and paid
Yes, we’ve had the usual background babble about access to guns, the
dangers of the Internet, the degrading effects of a corrupt and violent
popular culture, the need to make parents care effectively. The usual
suspects have come forward with their pre-packaged solutions, kept in
ready on the shelf (or on a save/get key) for just such opportunities.
But there has also been more reporting on the phenomenon of political
vultures seizing on tragedies than usual. And a couple of issues have
arisen that were not only ripe for attention but actually seem
tangentially related to what actually happened in Littleton.
For example, a few stories have told of a preliminary effort to reassess
the SWAT team tactics that led to dozens of cops essentially standing
around for hours. A retired law-enforcement official who calls me
regularly has been bending my ear for some time about how stupidly many
(not all, of course) police forces use their SWAT teams and how
disconnected from reality most of the top brass are. Perhaps the issue
will get some attention now.
Beneath the media-generated heat, thousands of school administrators
and teachers are quietly reassessing just how they deal with kids who
are different. Sometimes it’s not so much a matter of having a perfectly
coherent overarching philosophy but simply paying attention and caring,
so you’ll have a better idea of when kids are going beyond normal and
usually healthy teenage rebelliousness and desire to be a bit different
into really dangerous waters.
And maybe, just maybe, some high school kids are quietly reviewing how
they have treated those who are different — geekier, less attractive,
less athletic, less experienced, less comfortable with people of the
opposite sex — and resolving to tone down the abuse. It’s difficult to
remember now, but before Littleton national statistics actually showed
declines in school violence over the last few years. That hardly reduces
the pain of parents and friends who have lost loved ones, but it might
raise healthy questions about whether this is really a national crisis
simply aching for the tender ministrations of passels of politicians.
It’s frustrating, of course, to be told that problems might better yield
to small-scale, thoughtful analysis based on local circumstances and
conditions than to a grandiose grand solution. It’s easier to want to
blame somebody or something, especially when the proper targets of
righteous anger killed themselves and are no longer visibly available.
Charlatans and demagogues feed on that frustration. And the timid
thinking congressional Republicans often don’t have the confidence
simply to ignore (politely, of course, without raising one’s voice) the
demands of various charlatans that we forge more chains for the majority
of Americans because a few among us are foolish or even murderous. But
it’s just possible that following the Littleton massacre
more people are on to them.