Why Doesn't the "so-called Great White Father in Washington" Care about School Shootings?


No national tragedy can long pass without race and ethnicity creeping into the discussion. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the Terri Schiavo case is that somehow it hasn't become embroiled in some fight over The Sopranos vs. The Godfather as a proper signifier of Italian-American identity; at this point, the closest we're likely to come to that is whether Robert Loggia or Danny Aiello gets cast in the inevitable TV movie version of the story.

The recent school shooting in Minnesota is a different story on that score. Here's Clyde Bellecourt of the American Indian Movement, sounding a little too much like Russell Means as Powhatan in Disney's Pocahontas for comfort:

"From all over the world we are getting letters of condolence, the Red Cross has come, but the so-called Great White Father in Washington hasn't said or done a thing," said Clyde Bellecourt, a Chippewa Indian who is the founder and national director of the American Indian Movement here.

Skip the Amerindian angle for a moment and George Bush's apparent silence on the matter. It is interesting that the Red Lake school shooting–the second deadliest in history, as every news report has told us–hasn't ignited the same sort of moralistic, largely uninformed, and generally nauseating 24/7 "national conversation" that Columbine did.

Why? Part of it is that the War on Terror has a standing claim to media attention; Columbine occurred during a time when world affairs were pretty dead in terms of continuing news coverage. Domestically, the Schiavo case's denouement has been sucking up a huge amount of oxygen, partly because it raises issues that cleave neatly (if falsely) along Democrat/Republican, left/right, pro-life/pro-choice lines. In that sense, it's tailor-made for cable.

I suspect the location–a Minnesota Indian reservation–has helped to minimize the coverage some small bit, mostly by contributing to the idea, rightly or wrongly, that the school was somehow atypical from most public schools (whether it is or isn't, I've got no idea). That comports with Bellecourt's basic point, though not in the exact way he might think: That this took place on Indian territory displaces it as least a bit from the mainstream media. On the other hand, Columbine–which served upper-middle-class kids in the lily-white intermountain Rockies–was tailor-made for discussing what was supposedly wrong with American youth culture. The same meme runs through "new drug of choice" stories: Society really needs to examine itself when drug epidemics reach rich white kids. Lay on top of that the elaborate planning, Trenchcoat Mafia backdrop, the use of antidepressants by one of the shooters at a time when SSRI stories were relatively new in media circles, etc. and it's easy to see why the Columbine shooting was an incredibly rich social text that provoked an unending number of articles, panels, and more. (Note: There is a Prozac angle in the Minnesota shooting.)

But more than any of that, what might explain the differing reception is the general cultural climate. Columbine happened during the Clinton presidency, which was dedicated to handwringing over popular culture's excesses and purported effects on kids like no other administration. Bill and Hillary held seemingly endless White House confabs in which Rob "Meathead" Reiner and others blathered on about how many murders, rapes, and jaywalking incidents kids saw while watching the cereal commercials during the Power Ranger Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll Comedy Hour. And there was also a run of school shootings before and after Columbine that combined to make the incident seem, at first blush, as a dark, leading indicator of social pathology.

None of that was true, of course. But the moment of moral panic over youth culture and violence (and sex) has passed. This shooting even came on the heels of a new study talking about how much violence there is on TV blah blah blah that nobody, except for Hillary Clinton, really noticed. None of that makes the Minnesota shooting any less disturbing and tragic. But it does help explain why it doesn't seem to be as hot a story as similar incidents were in the past.

The Smoking Gun has posted a violent video created by and posted to the Web by the school shooter Jeff Weise. That's online here.