Does America have a “Gun Problem” or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?

Reflections on Bowling for Columbine (2002), in the wake of Charleston and Chattanooga

When news of the latest white racist gun horror came up from Charleston, South Carolina last month, I was teaching Michael Moore’s 2002 film Bowling for Columbine.  Once again, it seemed, Moore’s apocalyptic vision of an America armed-to-the-teeth and pushed-to-the-edge had proven prophetic.  Once more, contrary to war-mongering media and ‘counter-terrorist’ propaganda, we were reminded: America’s terror is mostly home-grown. Draped in the insignia of white supremacy, Dylann Storm Roof shot to death nine African Americans in a historic Black church, restoring to view once more the racist character of that American terror. ((Even as I type this sentence, I am looking at today’s front page headlines: “Tennessee gunman kills four Marines” sits next to “Theater shooter convicted” a reference to James E. Holmes, who killed twelve in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. Holmes defense of insanity was rejected. Meanwhile in Tennessee the FBI “searches for possible terrorist ties” (Boston Globe 7/17/15, A1).))

Having taught Moore’s movie at least a dozen times over the past thirteen years, it struck me that it was about time I wrote up my thoughts about why this work is one I keep coming back to, and why I think that it remains a vital (if imperfect) resource for radical educators or activists today (despite the liberal limits of its creator).


Looking back across the thirteen years since the film collected the Oscar for Best Documentary, Bowling for Columbine seems prescient, just as the shooting at Columbine High School that prompted Moore’s film looks more and more like part of a trend that is here to stay. From the 2006 shooting at Virginia Tech that left 32 dead, to the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that killed 27, to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre that same year, which left 12 dead and 70 injured at a premiere of The Dark Knight, the shameful ‘records’ set by the Columbine killers have been broken, time and again.

According to a recent FBI study, 392 people were killed by mass shootings in the United States between 2000 and 2013, with the total gun deaths per year (including homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths) overall climbing to over 32,000 in 2014. ((Of course, one complicating aspect here is that of media amplification; the eye-ball hunting 24-hour news cycle’s credo of “if it bleeds it leads” may give us an inflated picture of how often such attacks occur.  It can be difficult to distinguish the actual gun violence trend from the trend in media coverage of gun violence, a theme that Bowling for Columbine is very much concerned with. For an insightful recent treatment of the media image vs. empirical reality of gun violence in the US see Chase Madar’s recent review in The Baffler, “Have Gun, Will Liberate.”))  The Washington Post recently reported that thus far in 2015 ((“There have been 204 mass shootings — and 204 days — in 2015 so far” by Christopher Ingraham, July 24, 2015)) there has been approximately one ‘mass shooting’ per day. Compared to other ‘Western powers,’ all these numbers are essentially off the charts.

How to explain this ugly American exception?

In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, US President Barack Obama led one wing of the chorus in asserting that while “Every country has hateful or mentally unstable people…What’s different is that not every country is awash with easily accessible guns [the way the US is].” (Quoted in the Boston Globe, 6/20/15, A4). The recently acclaimed HBO documentary Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014 echoes Obama’s emphasis, closing its hour-long homage to victims of gun violence with a suggestive statistical pairing:  there are 310 million privately owned guns in the country, (approximately 1 for ever person living here); and approximately 88 people are killed by gunshots every day. While Requiem avoids overt prescription, its narrow focus on the human tragedy of gun murders coupled with the sheer fact of widespread gun ownership leaves us feeling that the violence problem is at root a *gun* problem.

And, of course, on one level, how could anyone disagree?  You cannot have gun deaths without guns (duh).  And the USA is awash in them.

On another level though, such a theory of gun violence explains next to nothing.  It describes the situation we are in, but without giving us a sense of how or why we have come to it, without telling us what it means.  How has the USA come to the point that so many people feel compelled to own guns—and to use them—in the first place?  Citing lax gun laws—or even the influence of the gun lobby—again does not so much answer as beg the question of why and how it has come to be that the US is characterized by such gun culture, laws, and lobbies.  Nor does it help to explain the particularly traumatic form of the mass public (school, movie, church) shooting that has become so common. ((For a provocative and insightful analysis of recent mass shootings and their cultural reception, see Ingar Solty, “Dear Left, the NRA is Right—the Mass Shooter as High Achiever,” in Socialism and Democracy.  Vol. 6. No. 3. November, 2012.))

Liberal hubs like Daily Kos have brought Michael Moore into the current fray, citing his “anti-gun violence” documentary to support the case for greater gun control. (Moore has also interjected himself.) But instrumentalizing Bowling in this way threatens to suppress what it was that made it such a vital intervention in the first place. At its best, the film insists on broadening and radicalizing the gun violence ‘debate,’ in ways that push well beyond Moore’s own liberal affiliations.

What struck me when I first saw Bowling in 2002, and what has kept me coming back to it as a teaching tool ever since, is the way the film powerfully reintroduces key context for grasping violence in the USA, context that too often falls out of the mainstream ‘liberal-conservative’ back and forth about gun laws and gun lobbies, elements that Barack Obama—and maybe even Michael Moore himself—would prefer we not dwell upon, and that a film like Requiem for the Dead won’t go near.

Bowling does not simply fixate on bad US gun laws or the tragedy of lives taken too soon.  It pushes further to link US gun violence to underlying legacies and systemic problems: from the history of white supremacy, to the racialized post-911 paranoia inflamed by corporate media and politicians, to the long-standing normalization—indeed the sanctification— of American violence in the form of US militarism and empire.  Just as powerfully, the film refuses to engage in demonizing or pathologizing the killers it considers, instead tying their violence to the pressures put on young people today and to the despair affecting so many US ‘post-industrialized’ working-class communities in the age of predatory capital’s devastating abandonment.

Granted, the film does begin and end by lampooning and lamenting America’s gun-excess—from the absurd opening, where Moore receives a free rifle for opening a new account at a bank, to the bittersweet ending, where he shames K-Mart executives and then NRA President Charlton Heston himself for their complicity in the wake of Columbine.  But Moore himself admits that his closing attempts to ‘make a difference’ (by eliminating bullets from K-Mart shelves etc) is really just picking around the edges.  Lacking a proposal to take on the systemic crisis he’s exposed, he turns to ways to ameliorate, rather than to cure.

And yet the heart of the film rumbles deeper, reverberating radical suggestions, even as the film-maker himself can’t bear to speak them aloud. Put simply, the film implies that what the USA has is not just a ‘gun problem’ but a white racist empire capitalism problem, the trend in youth gun violence being but a symptom of a deeper malady.

Towards Mo(o)re Radical Questions

Moore starts by taking aim at cliche answers spouted by pop-experts. He complicates or refutes prevailing ‘explanations,’ particularly those that would lay the blame for US gun violence on one or another form of ‘youth culture,’ from heavy metal music, to violent Hollywood movies, or video games. As he points out, such youth culture is tremendously popular in many other countries, without the associated gun violence. (As he further implies, such anti-youth hostility may, in fact, itself be part of what pushes some young people over the edge). ((Moore explores this issue in particular through his interview with South Park co-creator, and Columbine High School graduate, Matt Stone.  For a sharp critique of the culturalization and pathologization of mass shooters, see Ingar Solty))

More surprisingly, Moore then challenges the idea that access to guns alone can explain the gun death rate.  Notably, he points out that Canadians have roughly the same number of guns per person as Americans, and yet lack anything like the gun-murder rate of the USA. As his hounding of NRA President Charlton Heston makes clear, Moore certainly does not dismiss the problematic implications of easy gun access.  But his focus is not so much on why it is dangerous for Americans to have guns lying around as it is on why it is so dangerous for Americans to have guns lying around.  The difference is key: Moore is more interested in diagnosing the danger posed by American psycho-sociality than he is on the dangers of guns, per se.  Here and elsewhere, the radical edge of Moore’s approach involves revealing how what appears at first to be fundamentally at odds with “normal American society” is, in fact, an unacknowledged product or reflection of that society, its ideologies, institutions, and standard practices.

Report from Inside ‘Whacko’ White America

Moore opens the film with an autobiographical review of his own “gun country” roots, including a montage of childhood hunting photos and marksmanship trophies.  As if to disarm skeptical viewers on the look-out for liberal elitism, he points out that he is from the same state as Charlton Heston and the Michigan Militia, that he graduated high school the same year as (Oklahoma City bombing suspect) James Nicholls, and that he is a long-time member of the National Rifle Association.

Nonetheless, Moore spends a good amount of time mocking the ridiculousness of his gun country cousins, just as he directs considerable indignation at the NRA for its complicity and callousness in the wake of Columbine. Indeed much of this up-close-and-personal footage is shocking, humorous, or moving, so much so that it can exert a kind of gravitational pull away from closer, deeper analysis.  The superficial viewer may cling to the bombastic NRA rhetoric of Charlton Heston or the whacky apocalyptic talk of James Nicholls as a bulwark against scrutinizing issues that strike at more mainstream American idols and ideologies, such as, say, US imperial foreign policy since World War Two, or the bipartisan ruling class assault known as “welfare reform” (more about both below).

Such a tension between zany or personalized content (on the one hand) and more sustained radical analysis (on the other) runs through much of Michael Moore’s work. And there are dangers here. Such freak scenes can steal the show, dragging discussion down to the level of personalized moralizing.  But approached critically, they can serve as the humorous hook that enables rather than disables more penetrating social analysis—including a meta-analysis of how sensationalizing extreme cases can stifle more serious social critique. After all, zooming in on “extremists” in such a way as to suppress consideration of the “normal” horrors presided over and prepared by mainstream American institutions (and often by Democratic politicians) is hardly unique to Moore; it is a mainstay of contemporary liberal ideology, a fact which makes Moore’s symptomatic sensationalism all the more crucial to unpack.

But what makes Bowling for Columbine worth close attention is that it does not rest with blaming “gun nuts” or the “gun lobby” for the violent horror show of American society, though the lazy or liberal might come away thinking so. We may laugh when Moore gets Oklahoma City bombing suspect James Nicholls— a man who sleeps with a loaded 44 magnum under his pillow and takes an absolutist stance on the 2nd Amendment— to admit that, yes, “There’s whackos out there,” —after all, who could be more of a “whacko” than him? But there is an uncanny, familiar quality to the Nicholls brother’s reasoning.  For if the surest sign of being a “whacko” is the fervent belief that “there are whackos out there,” then isn’t so-called “mainstream America” as “whacko” as they come?  Isn’t the predominant cultural narrative of our society, fed to us by pundits and politicians alike, precisely that “there are whackos out there” and that the continued existence of such “whackos”—ISIS terrorists being this year’s prime example—necessitates an aggressive US military and police state, armed to the teeth and ready to kill? Isn’t this entire society taught to sleep with a .44 magnum under its pillow?  Read against the grain of its laugh lines, Bowling suggests that “normal America” is not nearly so far from “whacko” James Nicholls as it might like to think. ((A similar moment, easy to laugh at but harder to own, comes when Moore interviews a number of troubled (white) young men in Oscoda, Michigan.  Informed by one young man that he was at one point ranked as the “#2” threat on the “bomb list” by Oscoda police, Moore asks the man if he knew who was “#1,” prompting the young man to admit that he felt regret, even years later, for not having made it to “#1.”  He “wanted to be #1 at something, even if it was the bomb threat list.”   It’s a moment we are meant to laugh at, and yet it’s one that we ought to recognize as pointing to a growing cultural tendency, namely the existential longing for officially recognized celebrity status in a late capitalist society increasingly bled dry of stable meaning or secure employment alike.))

Indeed, Moore interjects a brief cartoon history of the USA a bit later in the film—narrated by a talking bullet  —depicting white America as dominated by a version of James Nicholls’ mantra.  Americans here appear as a people driven to homicidal madness by their fear of the “other,” driven to stockpile arms and to commit mass violence out of a mix of racist paranoia, ignorance, and pecuniary interest. Crucially, this cartoon history decodes America’s “gun culture” as deeply entwined with the country’s legacy of white supremacy, noting that Samuel Colt invented the revolver in response to slave rebellions of the early 19th century, that the NRA was founded the very year that the KKK was made illegal (1871), and that one of the first gun control laws passed in the United States focused on making it illegal for the newly emancipated Black people to own one. White Americanness stands revealed as a normalized form of the “Whacko” syndrome, the spread of gun ownership as a means for controlling a potentially rebellious Black population.

Against such a backdrop, the extreme actions of Columbine killers—or the recent church murderer in Charleston ((We should recall that Dylann Storm Roof chose as his target the legendary site where Denmark Vessey is thought to have planned his ill-fated slave revolt of 1820.  As one of the Columbine survivors in Bowling recalls, the high school shooters killed at least one classmate “because he was black.”)) —no longer look so alien; their actions are symptomatic of broader, deeper social sickness.

Sympathy for the Devil

Without in any way making light of the Columbine killers actions—indeed he includes poignant footage of the events and their aftermath —  Moore makes a remarkable effort to try to understand what may have driven them to such murderous ends, considering the bullying and the fear of failure that haunts so many young people is the USA today.  Perhaps the most poignant example of sympathy comes when Moore interviews ‘shock rocker’ Marilyn Manson, himself the subject of scapegoat smears in the wake of the Columbine massacre.  (Allegedly the shooters were fans of his music.)  Asked by Moore what he would have said to the two boys had he had a chance to speak with them, Manson replies that he “wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they had to say. And that’s what no one did.”)  His sensitive eloquence refutes those who would lay Columbine blood at his stage.

Manson also shows some smarts, offering Moore an alternative theory for who may have influenced Eric and Dylan to turn to violence to solve their problems: then President Bill Clinton, who was launching missile attacks on the former Yugoslavia the very same day that that boys attacked their school. “Who’s a bigger influence [on youth], the president, or Marilyn Manson?” Manson asks, “I’d like to think me, but I’m going to go with the President.”  Moore supports Manson’s contention by showing then-President Clinton giving two press conferences on April 20, 1999, just one hour apart. In the first, Clinton announces that the US is bombing Serbia, “striking hard” at the enemy regime, justifying an attack that—as Moore shows—would, in fact, level a number of civilian targets, including a hospital and a primary school.  In the second, Clinton professes shock and horror at the news coming out of Littleton, Colorado, where bullets ripped through Columbine High.  The greater, state-sponsored violence is endorsed without batted eye.  The smaller scale horror of the school shooting fills those killer eyes with tears.

Here, in one unforgettable scene, we strike upon two radical aspects of Moore’s work at once: first, his humanizing of those considered outcasts or monsters within dominant culture; second, his estranging of the ruling ‘common sense’ that allows Americans to accept and even to support the mass killing of people in one context while expressing horror and hysterical sadness at similar killing in another.

Crucial here is American ideology’s construction of a line between “us” and “them,” a line between those whom it is “ok” to kill and maim and those it is not.  Drawn from the toxic well of racism and nationalism, it is a line that depends on a double delusion: not only the fiction that some lives matter more than others, but the fantasy that what is allowed on one side of the sacred line will stay on that side of the line, that what happens to “them” will not boomerang back on “us.” ((For the latest mass monument to such racist-imperialist ideology, see last year’s Hollywood blockbuster, American Sniper (2014).))

It is Michael Moore’s suggestion that the Columbine massacre represents just such a bloody boomerang.

Beyond the Innocence of Empire

The hypocrisy runs deeper than Bill Clinton’s bombing orders, of course. Bowling explores empire and militarism as a structuring presence in “normal American” life, reminding us, for example, that a quarter of the planes that dropped bombs on Iraq during the slaughter of the first Iraq War took off from Oscoda, Michigan, the location of a military base where Eric Harris lived with his bomber-pilot father for years before the massacre.  Moore’s review of the South Metro Denver area near the shooting includes not just golf courses and pristine white suburbs, but nuclear missile silos, bomb manufacturing plants, and—perhaps most soberingly— actual monuments to mass murder, such as Nixon’s “Christmas Bombing” of Vietnam in 1971.  In particular, Moore lingers over the fact that the largest employer in Littleton, Colorado, where the Columbine shooting happened, was Lockheed-Martin, USA’s #1 arms manufacturer.  Bowling asks us to consider whether or not kids in America might be influenced by the fact that their parents’—and their society’s—idea of “going to work” is manufacturing weapons of mass destruction or dropping them on people.

The nature of the ‘influence’ at work here need not be conceived as a simple ‘monkey see-monkey do’ theory of military mimicry.  More reasonable is to understand USAmerican tendencies towards violent response to ‘problems,’ ‘threats,’ or ‘enemies’ as partaking of a similar reactive structure, one grounded in an ignorance of history and an obtuseness to social context.  Such a mentality makes violence—whether in the form of “crime” or of “terrorism”— appear as an inexplicable, terrifying, almost other-worldly presence, an alien entity incapable of being understood, an “evil” in need of violent annihilation.  In this regard, Moore’s treatment of 9-11 is particularly stunning. ((For my review of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 see Cultural Logic’s 2004 issue.))

The film strips America’s 9-11 of its mantle of “innocence,” confronting us with the effects of US military interventions abroad, from the 1950s to 2001, as well as with the pervasive American ignorance to this crucial history. Most immediately, the montage of statistics and graphic images that fills the unforgettable “What a Wonderful World” sequence starkly contradicts the claims of a Lockheed-Martin representative that Moore interviews in Littleton. The company rep claims that the weapons Lockheed builds and sells aren’t meant to be dropped on people, but merely to “defend us” from others who intend harm against us—thus they could not, of course, be teaching kids to resort to aggression.  Set to Louis Armstrong’s bittersweet classic, the post-WW2 montage makes mincemeat of the notion that US foreign policy has been “defensive” in this way, showing us, in two minutes, more footage of US-sponsored massacres—from Latin America to Southeast Asia to the Middle East—than most Americans have probably seen in their entire lives.

Beyond refuting the myth of America the Innocent, the “What a Wonderful World” sequence outlines a causal chain that starts to make 9-11 itself intelligible, an outline that most Americans lack, and suffer for the lack of.  One can hardly understand the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon without recourse to absolutist notions of “evil” unless one has some grasp of the events Moore reviews: the US’s role in overthrowing Mossadeq and re-installing the Shah in Iran, its role in supporting Bin Laden and like-minded Islamic radicals in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, its brutal attacks on Iraq both during and after the first Gulf War. Reframing 9-11 in relationship to US regime toppling, invasions, bombings, sanctions, and covert funding schemes that have in various ways worked to undermine democracy and to inflame fundamentalism, the film presents what official US ideology presents as an attack on “our way of life” as rather an expression of that so-called way of life.  What those in the biz call “blowback.”

Inflaming the Wound: the problem of the media (and the state)

As pervasive as gun violence in the US is, the problem is distorted and inflated by the corporate mass media, with its mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads.” As an expert Moore interviews points out, even during periods when violent crime has been decreasing (by 20%), US media coverage of violent crime continues to climb at a dramatic rate (by 600%!). The disconnect between reality and broadcast perception is alarming. ((Again, I refer to Chase Madar’s insightful review of this topic at The Baffler.))

Bowling thus makes much of the role corporate news media play in inflaming a fearful, even paranoid, mentality among USAmericans. Marilyn Manson again serves as our unlikely guide, denouncing what he calls a “campaign of fear and consumption.”  Commercial media prey upon public fears, keeping people glued to their tubes and consuming products as the “solution” to their never-ending (media-amplified) anxieties. Within this basic framework, Moore spotlights the particular ways that racism and demonization of the poor structure and fuel this continual campaign of fear, a fear that stokes not only individual spending on guns and home security systems, but also government spending on military contracts (and, we should add, increasingly militarized police). Thus do corporations and politicians alike profit from the very fears they help induce.

Crucial here is Moore’s examination of the show COPS, a vanguard program when it comes to the business of criminalizing and demonizing Black and Hispanic, poor and working-class people. ((As others have noted, poor whites also feature prominently in the show, a point that often gets skirted.)) The idea of blaming such a show for spreading racist images of Black and Brown people is hardly new. Still, in interviewing the producer of COPS—a self-identified “liberal”—Moore reaches beyond the low hanging fruit.   Pitching the TV exec a catchy idea for a show called “Corporate Cops,” which would feature camera-accompanied police going after white-collar corporate criminals, Moore is told by the producer that while he’d like to see such a show made, it “won’t make for good television.”  Why not? Moore counters.  Surely millions of Americans would love to see the boss busted on TV after a hard day at work, right? Because, the producer adds, the police don’t go after corporate crooks aggressively in a way that would make for good live action.  As he points out, the cops treat people who steal $60 worse than those who steal $60 million.  The latter they are likely to treat with patience and respect, whereas the former they will physically assault and slam to the ground—maybe even shoot dead.

The interview moves us from blaming the disproportionate criminalization of poor Black and Brown people primarily on racially biased media to blaming this slant in media on the class-biased nature of the state itself.  Without letting the networks off the hook for cashing in on sensational images of often racialized violence, Bowling thus presents us with the possibility that US media images are less the cause than the effect of a police system that tolerates and enables the abuses of the rich, but wages televised war against the poor.  In showing such “criminality” stripped of context, the media effectively help the state to encourage more fear, disdain, and victim-blaming towards those who are not rich and white, teaching Americans to view one another through the eyes of the cops.  But the media is dancing to a tune called by the state.

Returning to Flint: Historicizing Homicide

Nowhere is Moore’s criticism of both the state and the news media more acute than near the very end of the film, when he returns to his own hometown of Flint, Michigan, to cover yet another school shooting, this one the youngest yet in US history.  Moore explores the social-economic forces that set the stage for tragedy, while condemning the commercial media for its systematic neglect of the context that makes such violence legible.

While the mass media descend on Flint, anchoring themselves to the site of the shooting, holding ribbons for the young white victim, six year-old Kayla Brown, Moore puts the killing in fuller context.  Paying tribute to Kayla’s memory, his camera then wanders down the road, away from the immediate scene of the crime. He links the seven year-old boy killer’s act to facts the mass media ignore: his being left alone at his uncle’s house (where he found the gun that he took to school without his mother’s knowledge); his mother’s eviction from her previous apartment for lack of rent money; her being compelled to take an early morning bus to work multiple jobs out of town; her poverty wages working for Dick Clark’s American Restaurant; the privatized “welfare to work” program that compelled her to wage-labor in the first place, a program being pushed and profited from by corporations such as…Lockheed Martin.  The Buell school shooting comes to stand not as an example of simply bad behavior or poor parenting, but of racialized class exploitation that separates mothers from their children in order to produce cheap wage labor for corporations and their celebrity collaborators—kids be damned.  “Welfare reform” (singed into law we should recall, by Democratic President Bill Clinton) stands revealed as a regime of child neglect, as deadly for communities as it is profitable for the likes of Dick Clark and Lockheed.

Moore then adds a brief social history of Flint, Michigan, picking up threads he had woven through his breakthrough film Roger and Me (1989) more than a decade earlier.  The scene of the crime in Flint, as Moore recasts it, extends not just to the household of the boy-shooters’ mother, Tamarla Owens, but to the doorstep of the then-largest corporation in America, General Motors, a company that in the 1980s shuttered the factories that sustained whole communities, creating massive unemployment and poverty in order to make a bigger killing someplace else. Moore historicizes the homicide, showing how economic devastation and social despair have brought this once hopeful and prosperous city to a state where shootings are the leading cause of death, and the local high school football stadium is sponsored by a funeral home.  Though he closes the film by shaming Charlton Heston and the NRA for rallying nearby in the wake of the school shooting, Moore’s more radical insight is that the death of Kayla Brown is to be laid at the foot of corporate America, and those who serve it.

Moore does not utter the fundamental point aloud. Nonetheless, it would not be too much to say that Bowling for Columbine lays the blame for both the Columbine and the Buell school shootings at the foot of militarized, racist American capitalism.  The particular causal chain that pulls the trigger varies in each case.  But the kids in the post-industrial wreckage of Flint and in the booming family-friendly suburbs of Littleton alike stand linked, to each other, and to a system that has dealt them death so that others may profit.

Conclusion: Confronting America’s Home-Made Monstrosity

The American youth who open fire on their peers, neighbors, classmates, and teachers offer us the opportunity and the impetus to grapple with a contradiction at the heart of the USA. For what are these “mad” youth doing but applying the approved and honored teachings and techniques of American society…just in the ‘wrong place’ and against the ‘wrong people’? In ‘monstrously’ mis-directing the kind of mass violence that official American ideology incessantly sanctions—so long as it is directed against officially designated ‘terrorists’ abroad or ‘criminals’ at home— these kid-killers confront us with the possibility that America will never be safe so long as it continues to traffic in fear, mass destruction, and racism as national religion and big business, so long as it continues to strip the social safety net, inducing an atomized war of each against all.  Not only because terrorists from elsewhere will seek revenge, but because home-grown wannabe American gunslingers see enemies around every corner, and because a system that treats poor people like criminals will ultimately compel some to fill the coffins laid before them.

Such monstrous massacres stand revealed in Moore’s account as symptoms of a deeper malady. And this deeper malady cannot be dealt with by addressing issues of gun laws or domestic policies alone.  It rather calls for dismantling an empire that makes not only murderous weapons but the ideologies that justify their use as common here as the air we breathe.  It calls, too, for challenging a capitalist disorder that puts the profits of corporations ahead of the needs of families, children, and communities, as well as a media-police state that makes our social atmosphere so toxic. Revealing Americans as both the perpetrators and the victims of the violence of empire capitalism, the film offers a rare chance to clear the air. More than just another anti-gun diatribe to arm liberals in the face of conservative extremists, Bowling for Columbine sketches the basis on which we might unite to dismantle the bloody system that rules in our name.

Whether such a revolution can be accomplished with or without guns is another matter.

Joe Ramsey is a teacher, writer, and activist residing in the Boston area. He is co-editor of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of marxist theory and practice, as well as a board member at Socialism and Democracy, and a contributing editor to Red Wedge magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Joseph.