It's Too Easy to Treat American Culture as an Aberration - We're Just the Same over Here ; VIRGINIA MASSACRE

Article excerpt

There is something faintly absurd about the worldwide propensity for commentators to pounce on US "spree killings" every time they happen along, and scrunch them into whatever miserable little ball of paper they personally believe is representative of What Ails America. The faint absurdity exists - according to my own miserable little ball of paper - because if any one thing Ails America, it is the coun-try's general propensity to ignore everything that anyone says about or to it, unless it is advantageous, or at least nice. (Which is nothing more terrible than a sign of terrible insecurity and paranoia about being disliked.)

Finger-wagging about the nation's promiscuous love affair with firearms, and appeals for the latest atrocity to be the one that "turns the tide of public opinion", is more an exercise in European dissociation from what we devoutly wish to believe are outcroppings of a distinctively Stateside insanity, than a genuine attempt to "influence debate". We're broadly better versed in the sentimental intractabilities of American gun law than we are in how to record programmes on our own video recorders. But the keen interest in the subject that sporadically erupts remains entirely esoteric unless it is exercised within the US itself. Which is why it is so odd that these horrible acts of lunatic mass murder, that all can see, and indeed vociferously insist, are the product of very specific local conditions, are always treated as urgent worldwide news events and talking points, even though, strictly speaking they are none of our business.

Partly, our distance is the very thing that makes forming an opinion so effortless. It is easy to comprehend that for those whose relatives or friends have been killed or injured this event is catastrophic. But it is not so easy to feel the real shock or empathy that is unleashed when something similar - Michael Ryan's Hungerford spree, or William Hamilton's Dunblane one - happens closer to home. It's easy to pontificate from afar about what spree killings in The US mean, precisely because the interest bestowed on them is so comfortably voyeuristic.

Certainly, there is a degree of polarisation in the firearms debate in the US that does indeed fascinate. The view that Cho Seung Hoi managed to kill 32 people on Monday because there were not enough gun-toting students around to take him out with a single bullet does indeed seem to be a fairly demented one. It's predictable and smug as well, to relate such a view to the thrust of recent US foreign policy, particularly in Iraq, and shake one's weary head about America's unshakeable faith in the idea that more violence is generally the answer. (Obviously, this view becomes less comfortable if one lets one's simple little mind drift off to tricky places like Darfur.). Yet, there is also a barely acknowledged recognition that beyond the protestations of difference, discussion of US cultural dysfunctionalities is a grand and magnified way of talking about our own. A lot of the perennial points that are generally made, particularly by left-leaning types, about spree killings in the US can just as easily be applied to Britain. Social pressures, alienation, shallow consumer culture, media glibness, the narcissistic desire for attention and celebrity at any price, the influence of violent popular culture, and so on - all these are talked up as being a part of the great American mass-murder puzzle. The national attachment to guns is just the top-line concern in a culture that is widely seen as dangerously decadent. …