Inside the Culture of Fear

“The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it
in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”


Ray Bradbury, 


April 20, 1999.

It seemed like an uneventful Tuesday morning for most people in Columbine, Colorado, United States. The sun was shining, the sky was blue. People were off to work. Kids were in school. And the President was dropping bombs in Kosovo, setting the record for the worst bombing in NATO’s war against Yugoslavia.

At 11:17 a.m., two students at Columbine High School planted their makeshift bombs. When the bombs failed to explode, they returned with their guns. Using bullets they bought at a local K-Mart, they killed 12 other students and a teacher, and injured 24 others, before pulling the trigger on themselves.

The aftermath was fear. Gun sales skyrocketed across the country, as people became more hell-bent on protecting themselves and their families. And worst of all, the entire tragedy roused a wave of copycat shootings around the world, some even deadlier.

The media pointed fingers at who were to blame for the shooting, most notably, rock musicians and video game developers. Particularly, the shock-rocker Marilyn Manson became the subject of intense protests, as the media wrongly reported that the perpetrators were fans of his music.

Why is gun violence so rife in the States? Were music and video games really to blame? The filmmaker Michael Moore sought to answer these questions in his documentary Bowling for Columbine, the title referring to the false media reports that the perpetrators went bowling before the Columbine tragedy took place.

Moore argues that what makes the gun violence rate in the States so uniquely high is their culture of fear. Whenever acts of violence occur, the media and the government heavily capitalize on the people’s fear and paranoia, leading them to buy more and more guns.

Moore suggests that if Marilyn Manson were to blame for the shootings, the media might as well blame bowling, or the President for dropping bombs overseas.

In the documentary, Moore interviews Manson (or Brian Warner, as is his real name) about his opinions on the tragedy. As a side note, it’s interesting to know that the whole point of Warner’s Marilyn Manson persona is to represent everything that society fears, to criticize what society does wrong.

In a mere 3-minute scene, Manson similarly discusses the culture of fear that runs deep in society. He said, “I definitely can see why they would pick me, because I think it’s easy to throw my face on a TV. In the end, I’m sort of a poster boy for fear. Because I represent what everyone’s afraid of, because I do and say what I want.”

Manson remarked that because of how the media reported the Columbine tragedy, everyone suddenly forgot about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and everyone forgot that President Clinton was dropping bombs in Kosovo.

When asked by Moore whether he knew that Kosovo experienced the worst bombing earlier on the same day that the Columbine tragedy happened, Manson responded, “I do know that and I think that’s really ironic, that nobody said, “Well, maybe the president had an influence on this violent behavior.”

He adds, “But that’s not the way the media wants to take it and spin it and turn it into fear. Because then you’re watching television, you’re watching the news; you’re being pumped full of fear. And there’s floods, there’s AIDS, there’s murder.

“You cut to commercial, buy the Acura, buy the Colgate. If you have bad breath, they’re not gonna talk to you. If you got pimples, the girl’s not gonna fuck you. It’s a campaign of fear and consumption. And that’s what I think that’s it’s all based on, is the whole idea that: keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume.”

Of course, it’s more than tragic that acts of violence like the Columbine shootings happen all around the world. It’s important to realize how the media machine works, especially in how it covers stories like this.

Notice that media reports are very rarely multi-dimensional, in that they don’t usually cover complicated factors such as the perpetrators’ mental state or their environmental influences. Regarding the Columbine tragedy, it’s rarely discussed that one of the perpetrators was clinically psychopathic, and the other was severely depressed.

Rather than helping you understand the situation, they make you afraid of everyone around you. They make you feel as though violence is everywhere.

In the documentary, Moore also interviews Dick Herlan, the former producer of a TV show called Cops, where it features videos of criminals being chased down.

Herlan admitted that doing a show about understanding why crimes happen is a lot harder than doing one about chasing criminals down. “Anger does well. Hate does well. Violence does well,” he said. “Tolerance and understanding, and trying to learn to be a little different than you were last year, does less well.”

Moore further backs his argument by comparing the gun violence rate in the States with that in other countries. Germany, where they had more Marilyn Manson fans per capita, had a rate of 381 gun-related deaths per year. Japan, where most video games came from, had 39. Canada, known to be one of the most gun-loving countries, had 165. Meanwhile, the States reported a staggering 11,127.

Moore learned that the media reports in other countries tend to be not as fear-mongering as in the States. As a group of interviewees in Canada said, “Every time I turn on the TV in the States, it’s always about a murder here, a gunfight, hostile position. I just think the States, their view of things is fighting. That’s how they resolve everything.

“And Canada’s more just like ‘Let’s negotiate, let’s work something out,’ where the States is ‘Well we’ll just kill you and that’ll be the end of that.'”

Anyway, the reason why I’m sharing all of this is because as artists, the foremost thing we have to do is tell the truth. It’s our responsibility to portray the world as it is, in that it’s more complicated than being able to squarely put the blame on other people and things. 

It’s in our human nature to resist uncertainty. And that’s where our fear of the world comes from, because the world is far more complicated than we’re tempted to think. And of course, that’s how the media feeds on our fear, by giving us concrete, one-dimensional and black and white answers.

Artists don’t feed on people’s fears. They lead them towards empathizing, without endorsing any violent acts. They guide them towards understanding why people act the way they do. 

As folk musician Woody Guthrie wrote, “The worst thing that can happen is to cut yourself loose from the people. And the best thing is to sort of vaccinate yourself right into the big streams and blood of the people. To feel like you know the best and the worst of folks that you see everywhere, and never to feel weak or lost, or even lonesome anywhere.”

Whenever you encounter someone intriguing, try doing something different. Your first instinct would likely be to pass judgment on them, to classify them as good or bad. Try thinking a little deeper and try understanding why they are the way they are — what was their childhood probably like? What are their insecurities? What are their desires? What do they value?

The more we try to understand other people, the less likely we are to give into our fears, our hatred and anger. And knowing a person well, as Steinbeck put it, “never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.”

Going back to the Columbine tragedy and why it happened, we may never truly be able to pinpoint a single cause. But at least we understand that there are no simple answers to it. 

When Michael Moore ended his interview with Marilyn Manson, Moore asked him, “If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine and the people in that community, what would you say to them if they here right now?”

“I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” Manson responded. “I would listen to what they have to say. And that’s what no one did.”

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