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An Englishwoman in Washington: The American nightmare

A week before April's tragic shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, I sat in the library of Congress on Capitol Hill, listening to the leading lights of the religious right bemoaning the moral collapse of American society and arguing for a 'cultural renewal'. Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Moral Majority, even doubted whether renewal was possible. American culture was so 'irretrievably defective' that 'we need to find a way to insulate ourselves from it, lest it overwhelm and destroy us'.

At the time I dismissed these comments as the sad rantings of a defunct movement, embittered by its failure to gain support even during the impeachment fiasco. But in the days that followed the Columbine tragedy I heard remarkably similar words about the defective nature of American culture repeated across the political spectrum.

The shock and sadness with which all of us responded to the shootings at Columbine High School soon turned into something else. As everybody began to ask how this could have happened, a profound sense of anxiety seemed to sweep the nation. The shootings were discussed not as a tragic but freak event, or as the crazy act of two demented adolescents. Instead, they came to be seen as an expression of something deeply wrong with American society.

President Clinton set the tone for this soul-searching when he addressed the nation on the day of the shootings. He said it was time for America 'to wake up to the dimensions of this challenge', for if this could happen in Littleton, Colorado 'it could occur in any community in America'. In the subsequent days the press and TV commentators followed his theme, concluding that every school in America was a potential Columbine. And while everybody acknowledged that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had pulled the triggers, the blame for the killings did not simply rest with them. In some strange way we were all vaguely responsible, because the shootings were the result of a degenerate or defective culture. Columbine, we were told, was a sign that modern society has lost its way.

Predictably, nobody could quite agree on the source of the sickness. The right blamed the absence of 'moral and ethical values' as well as 'the removal of religion from our public schools'. The more liberally inclined talked about an entire generation that has lost all vision and sense of purpose. Therapists told us that we had forgotten how to listen to our children, while various Washington lobbyists blamed the internet, Hollywood, the media, or guns, depending on who they worked for. But while the source of the malaise was disputed, nobody questioned that a deep cultural flaw had been exposed. For a moment at least, the tragic events in Colorado brought about a rare public expression of national self-doubt in the world's superpower.

The mood was not lifted when reports trickled into Washington about how the rest of the world viewed the killings as a sign of an American malaise. In more normal times Americans would not give a damn about what the rest of the world says about them. But with the nation feeling so vulnerable the criticisms poured salt on to an open wound. The Pope called for a new moral vision for America, while the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shibum came right to the point: 'America, the gun society, is sick.' Perhaps most painful for the political elite were the taunts from the Serbian news agency Tanjug, describing the killings as 'another manifestation of how profoundly disturbed American society is'.

Vice president Al Gore compounded matters when he addressed the memorial service in Littleton the Sunday after the shootings. Without actually pinpointing what was wrong with American society, he called upon all Americans to let the calamity 'inspire national redemption'. He added that 'all of us must change our lives to honour these children'. What exactly we were meant to do, or change, was never explained.

Eventually, the moment of anxiety passed. Within about 10 days politicians settled back into their pet campaigns, calling for controls on the internet or controls on guns, and most people fell back within the familiar battle lines of American politics. But there remain lingering remind- ers of the deep-seated self-doubt that Columbine brought to the surface. One little-noticed but important change has been the policy shift adopted by the Clinton administration in the wake of the tragedy.

You might have thought that, with the nation grieving and all sections of the media calling for urgent cultural renewal, Clinton would have seized the opportunity to do something at home to rebuild the nation's morale. But in the week of the shootings White House aides announced the reverse. They let it be known that the president had decided to downgrade his favoured domestic social agenda, and instead to make his policy on Kosovo the defining feature of his presidency. Clinton is said to believe that Kosovo poses epic choices that will guarantee him a place in history.

It seems that while the president can offer little hope of taking society forward to the people of Littleton or anywhere else in the USA, he can at least grasp moral certitude in the far-off Balkans. There, we are told, he sees the choice as 'between civilisation and barbarism on a world scale'.

Helen Searls

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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