If you want about as clear a demonstration as you're likely to find of the difference between truth and politics, go see Eminem's 8 Mile, filmed on location in Detroit, and then go see Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, which, despite the title, is set largely in Flint, Mich., and the white American and Canadian counties that border Detroit. Though Moore claims to have made a documentary, his examination of American gun culture presents viewers with a more heavily edited fiction than producer Brian Grazer's attempt to clean up Eminem. Whereas the rapper's movie reaches for the sort of truth mere facts cannot convey, Moore's film grabs viewers with the old demagogue's trick of using just as much factual information as is necessary to lead people toward false conclusions.
My beef with Moore is this: He has managed to make a movie about gun violence in America -- where 53 percent of the gun murder victims are black -- without interviewing a single black victim of gun violence, or even asking black community leaders, who have spent decades successfully trying to combat the problem, for their insights. Instead, to explore a phenomenon that has devastated inner cities and is a horror primarily in urban areas -- nearly 70 percent of gun murders take place in cities, according to U.S. Deaprtment of Justice statistics -- Moore has made a movie that takes as its focal point the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., a type of crime (five or more victims) that represented one-tenth of 1 percent of murders that year and that occurred in a white, prosperous, suburban community.
For his movie, Moore returned to the scene of a number of high-profile crimes, in addition to Columbine. He went to South Central in Los Angeles, to the very corner where the Los Angeles riots started in 1992 -- but didn't bother to ask that neighborhood's black or Latino residents about their lives. Instead, he stood on a street corner, accompanied by Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, who is also white, and said, in effect, Look how brave I am for coming here, and man, isn't there a lot of smog? He spoke to a white Los Angeles Police Department officer. He spoke at length with a young white teen in Oscoda, Mich., who openly admittedly to selling stolen handguns to the folks in Detroit (where 395 people were murdered in 2001) but did not interview any of the people who were on the buying -- and shooting -- end of the transactions. How can you make what is essentially a movie about murder without speaking to murderers?
I live in Washington, a city that used to be known, unappealingly, as the Murder Capital of America. In 2000, 242 people were murdered here, most with guns -- a far cry from 1993's 454 homicides but still an appallingly high number, and one that took an extraordinarily high toll on the city's families and neighborhoods.
Obviously, the Columbine attack shocked America in ways that the steady drumbeat of violence in urban centers no longer does. And perplexed by what happened at Columbine, Moore, who as a teen won a National Rifle Association marksman award, set out to explore America's culture of violence.
Though in general Moore is an unattractive narrator, both temperamentally and visually, even his least charitable critics will have to give him credit for approaching the issue with something akin to an open mind. Why, he asks, does Canada -- where kids watch the same violent dross on television and with 7 million guns for 31 million people -- not have the same gun-death rate we do? Does it have something to do with our history? Why do such countries as Germany and Britain, with their brutal histories of militarism, imperialism and massacres, not share our gun problem? Or Japan, which creates most of the violent video games on the market? Why is America such a violent place?
Moore ends up blaming America's culture of self-reliance and suggests, though never explicitly concludes, that gun violence in our country has something -- though what, precisely, is unclear -- to do with the legacy of slavery. There may be something to both these points. But rather than zooming in on and proving either of them, Moore again and again focuses on America's culture of fear, especially fear of young black men, and then blames American political discourse, big corporations and especially television news for creating a climate in which -- to judge by the people in his movie -- uneducated rednecks arm themselves to the teeth, lock their doors and prepare for an invasion by the black "hordes." And then he leaves it at that.
Though liberals have doubtless cheered this movie in part for focusing on crazy white people with guns instead of the usual stereotypes about violent minorities, there is no way that a movie that so completely elides the devastating impact of gun violence on blacks and cities can arrive at anything like a reasonable portrait of America, let alone a valid conclusion about the causes of gun violence. There is a point at which an effort not to perpetuate offensive stereotypes turns into an impoverishing erasure of the facts. So here are some facts to chew on, courtesy of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the U.S. Department of Justice: In 2000, 16,586 people in America took their own lives with guns; 10,801 were murdered by others firing them. Despite making up only 12 percent of the population, blacks constituted 53 percent of the gun-murder victims or 5,699 people, in 2000. Young black men ages 14-24 make up only 1 percent of the U.S. population but around 15 percent of the murder victims. Nor are Moore's suburban white gun owners, no matter how ridiculous their fears, the reason that black Americans were six times more likely to be murdered than whites in 1999, and seven times more likely to commit homicides. According to Department of Justice statistics, 94 percent of blacks killed between 1976 and 1999 were killed by other blacks, and 84 percent of whites by other whites. And there is broad consensus among criminologists that a critical factor in both the rise in gun violence in the late 1980s and the subsequent decline in the 1990s was the increasing -- and then decreasing -- rate at which young blacks killed other blacks in the cities.
Indeed, though Moore does note that gun violence is down, he doesn't get into the issue of why. For a movie that's supposed to be concerned with getting to the bottom of things, he is awfully unconcerned with telling his viewers about the reasons -- such as the waning crack epidemic, changing demographics, changes in policing, the economic boom and, of course, gun control laws -- that caused gun murders to drop from 18,253 in 1993 to their present number, or what we can learn from the experience of the last decade to make sure that this rate keeps dropping. A decline in murders in New York City alone -- from 1,927 in 1993 to 643 in 2001 -- had, for example, a considerable impact on the declining national rate. Not a lot of those killers or victims were the sort of sports-hunters or militiamen Moore goes out of his way to interview and make fun of.
That similar outcomes -- death by firearm -- may have different causes in different parts of the country is a fact Moore never considers in his quest for a grand theory of gun violence. But gun violence in fast-growing new communities such as Littleton may well stem from somewhat different influences and pressures than, say, the murders that routinely take place about a mile north of my Washington apartment.
Columbine was the anomaly, not the norm. The dangers of focusing on the exception rather than the rule is that it keeps us transfixed on something other than the evidence in front of our own noses. Moore has fun in his movie laughing at the fears of a security salesman in Littleton who is showing off metal door grates. But I see more oppressive looking grates all the time in Washington -- they cover the windows of the public middle schools.
What if the problem with violence in the cities is less related to the big corporations Moore likes to shame -- such as Kmart, which Washington officials can only hope of luring to our metropolis -- than to problems with municipal governance? Or to crumbling, incompetently managed public schools? Or to the police who don't come when they're called, can't take an accurate report and don't follow up? Or to the housing markets that combine rents that are too high with too many abandoned properties? Or to the persistently jobless neighborhoods, bereft of business and industry alike? Or to drugs?
Yesterday I opened the crime report in the District Weekly section of The Washington Post -- one of the first pages I look at on Thursdays since being mugged last summer in front of my apartment building and becoming an entry on that page -- and read about a homicide on the 1300 block of Shepherd Street. I know that weedy, run-down section of the Petworth area because a few years ago, while reporting a story, I got to know a young Salvadoran former gang member who lived two blocks from there. We sat in his dimly lit, sparsely furnished living room on a tacky velveteen couch, eating Popsicles and talking about his history of violence and alcoholism, and how his younger brother taught him English, and how he virtually raised himself and spent so many years being suicidal that it wasn't until the age of 17 that he learned there were ways of living that didn't make you want to die all the time.
The real problem in America is not in our past but in our present, and in the way we either do or do not attempt to shape for ourselves a more harmonious future.
So I have a challenge for Mr. Moore: Bring your camera to Washington. I can show you the building on Girard Street where you can follow the path of a bullet from the front door to the neatly bored hole in the plasterboard 50 feet back, a relic from when a man was killed out front. The shrines to the recently dead that decorate certain neighborhoods, with their Moët bottles and teddy bears and giant Tweety Birds covered in indelible Magic Marker scrawls, will look great on the big screen.
Sure, it will be less glamorous to take on the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs over the more than 4,000 abandoned and neglected buildings that blight the city than it was to harass a stooped and elderly Charlton Heston at his Hollywood home. And it might not make you an international hero to challenge principals and teachers at persistently failing high schools -- you know, the kind where half the students drop out and the ones that graduate at, say, age 21, can barely read or do simple math. But in the end, it might make a hell of a lot more difference.
Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect associate editor.