The appropriation by the US and its surrogates of universal arbitrage of right and wrong, and its own games of infantile omnipotence directed at rogue regimes, pariah states, outlaw governments on the international stage, have a curious echo of the mindless rage of the killers of Colorado.

By Jeremy Seabrook

June 1999

The shootings and suicide at Columbine High School in Colorado tear open the carefully crafted image of America as the supreme bearer of humanitarian values. Dramatic events - school-yard massacres, racist police murders, the Oklahoma bombing, the Waco siege, caught on camera by the ubiquitous media - might be expected to prompt a watching world to question more rigorously the right of the US to promote itself as saviour, model and arbiter of last resort of the fate of the peoples of the earth.

Not a bit of it. The same busy media which bring such graphic and intrusive pictures of shock and grief into every home, lose no time in constructing an explanation of the tragedy; an explanation which, of course, furthers no understanding, opens up no debate, provides no insight. For such objectives would be at odds with the higher need to justify the moral (as well as the undisputed material) pre-eminence of the US in the world.

To those who recognise the now-familiar process of putting Humpty-Dumpty together again, the recent anguish provoked by the events in Colorado will come as no surprise. The boys responsible for the tragedy, Harris and Klebold, will be pathologised, while American society will emerge blameless. No sense of the context in which such extremes of individualism are socially produced will disturb the outrage directed at the crazies, the loners and misfits, the followers of bizarre cults and actors-out of millennial fantasies. The psychological history of the killers was remorselessly investigated - Harris was full of hate, he had been rejected by the Marines, he was on a drug to control obsessive behaviour, he was addicted to a violent computer-game called Doom. Clearly, their disordered personalities are the root cause, and this exonerates the American way of life from any involvement in the carnage.

Indeed, by a strange twist, after the event, American society becomes the hero of the drama. The survivors comfort each other, spontaneous commemorative shrines are erected to the dead, tributes and garlands mount up, expressing the fundamental decency of lives shattered one spring day by the unsuspected evil in their midst. The perpetrators are placed at a remote distance from this sunny community - extremists, fanatics, weirdos, embittered individuals who were no good at sport and were ridiculed by the other students. Everything is calculated to deflect attention from the source of the sickness.

This is a common response to any event that impugns the integrity, virtue and values of the US. The same thing occurred after the Monica Lewinsky scandal: the aborted impeachment process was universally applauded as evidence of the soundness of US political institutions, proof that the wisdom of the people had prevailed. Not an outbreak of collective moralistic madness, not proof of a fevered trivialisation of politics, but a clear vindication of the judgment and sagacity of America.

So it was in Colorado. The lachrymose TV programmes about nurturing our children and good parenting, teaching them to avoid violence (what on earth have they been teaching them all these years?), the resolution that 'never again' will such occurrences tarnish the sweet heart of America - all this suggests the US is capable of being transformed by these sad lessons. One commentator on CNN declared this had been 'an earthquake in the emotional psyche of America' which would alter the nation forever.

Yet, like all other such paroxysms, this will doubtless pass. The horror will be forgotten, the inaptly-named entertainment industry will continue to exercise its fateful fascination over the minds of the young, the exigencies of a profit-driven market triumphalism will swiftly crowd out the moment of humanitarian introspection. And such happenings will doubtless recur.

In reality, of course, the slaughter in Colorado reveals much about notions of freedom and democracy in the US. For one thing, irrational cults of violent apocalypse are the easiest outlet for youthful revolt. The closure of meaningful political dissent cuts a majority of young people off from any alternative to the existing and pitifully narrow discourse.

They must find meaning in the chaos and incoherence of consumerism. They look to the entertainment industry, the morality of video-games, show-biz and criminal sub-cultures for some sense of purpose. Only within a prevailing culture of institutionalised meaninglessness may they seek the symbols, the inspiration to define themselves, to create some sense of an identity effaced in advance.

Nowhere is their potential for idealism, for collective struggle for social change - the age-old impatience of youth with the existing order - offered constructive possibilities. There is no alternative to the global market, under whose baleful influence they have come to a kind of maturity. There is no other morality than the Manicheism of good and evil, in which the US represents virtue, and anything that opposes so obvious a truth is the work of the Devil.

A secondary insight into this sad affair was provided, perhaps unwittingly, by a CNN Business Report on 29 April. It was stated that in the volume of the booming sales of metal detectors and scanners, schools in the US now spend more than airports. A spokesman for the Security Industry Association declared proudly that in New York schools, in one-third of which metal detectors have now been installed, 'there have been no shootings in school for a year'. The implication is that school massacres, like all social tragedies, are good for business and enhance the economy.

And the people of America are ceaselessly told that whatever is good for the economy is good for them. This, no doubt, helps to explain why the US accepts with equanimity the fact that in 1995, there were 35,563 shooting deaths, of which 15,835 were homicides, 18,503 suicides and 1,225 fatal accidents - a casualty rate that corresponds to a medium-scale war.

Which brings us to another elided connection. That this act of sterile and macabre heroics should have occurred on Day 30 of the Strike Against Yugoslavia (as the media, in keeping with other video-game wars, have called it), is not entirely fortuitous. For it is in furtherance of the myth of the goodness of America (and the West) that NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) was impelled to mount its crusade against Serbia, or more precisely, since the US can see only individuals, Slobodan Milosevic.

The appropriation by the US and its surrogates of universal arbitrage of right and wrong, and its own games of infantile omnipotence directed at rogue regimes, pariah states, outlaw governments on the international stage, have a curious echo of the mindless rage of the killers of Colorado. When the US sets out to 'punish' Saddam, Castro, Gaddafi or Milosevic, it creates demons, conjures forth monsters and aliens against whom it must unleash its military power; and is unable to understand why a whole world does not bow down in grateful recognition of its providential intervention.

In the same way, when the society which projects itself outwardly as the incarnation of wisdom and truth, suppressing its own contradictions and imperfections, also provokes acts of 'gratuitous' evil and epic wrongdoing, it is compelled to repudiate these as exotic and imcomprehensible aberrations. The truth is, these are not aberrations in a state which imprisons 1.2 million of its own - mainly poor and black - people, and locks up tens of millions more in the ghettoes and carceral suburbs of its cities; which has fostered the decay of social hope, the disgracing of public purpose (except for 'defence'), has reduced the aspirations of humanity to the making of money and to the pursuit of an individualism so extreme that those individuals no longer acknowledge the legitimacy of the society they inhabit, but see it only as an obstacle to their own personal self-aggrandisement.

The arguments provoked in the US by the Columbine killings about gun control reflect this lack of balance, and the absence of insight into the social dynamic that produces such events. The Far Right claims that controlling guns will not control the crazy individuals who abuse them. The slightly less Far Right, that is, what passes for liberal opposition, declares that gun sales should be restricted - limited, incredibly, to the sale of one gun per person per month!

No one has spoken of gun control over NATO, whose firepower has been increased every few days since the attack on Yugoslavia. Even as the 'humanitarian mission' intensified, exacerbating the refugee crisis it was intending to forestall and, predictably, hastening the Serb onslaught on Kosovo, the gloating and exultant NATO spokesman assures that 'NATO does not target civilians, but cannot exclude harm to them'; the implication being that the Serbian people all deserve to suffer for their support of the demon Milosevic. Some humanitarianism.

The inability of the US to view its own society critically (and too many able, accomplished and talented people have been suborned by high rewards into a collusive denial of the blemishes in a system which grants them so prominent a place in it) naturally clouds its perception of a world it aspires to govern. Indeed, we have only to look at the record of the skills and brainpower, the think-tanks and centres of excellence, the concentrations of expertise and know-how which have been brought in by the US to anticipate events, to understand and explain the world, to see their utter failure.

The International Monetary Fund foresaw nothing of the Asian crisis in 1997, a somnolent CIA was taken by surprise by the Indian nuclear testing at Pokhran in 1998, and now, the embarkation of NATO on its mission with so little thought for the people it was supposed to be 'liberating'; into what, precisely, have they been liberated? Into scenes which the media describe as 'the Third World on the doorstep of Europe'. Such spectacles should be contained where they properly belong.

Imperial powers are always thus. Their wealth and might conceal their faults from themselves. Inflated with arrogance and pride, they universalise their values, diffuse them unthinkingly at home and abroad, and are without insight into the extremism and violence they engender in the process; indeed, they demand the tribute of the world which they compel to emulate the truths they embody, no matter what destruction they sow, both within their own heartland and in the territories they wish to subjugate to their limitless power. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.