Shooting at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut, USA was terrible. There are no two ways about it. And especially for the parents of the little children, my heart goes to them and I will always remember that ‘no parent should have to bury their child’.
What has followed in the media, both in the US and everywhere else in the world, is a bit different. In his new autobiography “Joseph Anton”, Salman Rushdie, the award-winning British Indian writer, describes his life in hiding, under 24-hour protection of British secret forces, for nine whole years following the issuance of a fatwa, an Islamic law ruling calling for his death, issued in 1989 by Ajjatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the Supreme Leader of Iran. Rushdie very succinctly describes how, in our age of fast changes, when no topic remains in the center of attention for long, people got bored with his life story after less than three years. While initially the British government ceased diplomatic relations with Iran, he soon became a nuisance to British businessmen keen to do business in this oil-rich country, to diplomats, keen to build bridges to this former British sphere of interest, and to journalists, who consider any news, to which they cannot add anything, old news. To maintain that the news is the situation itself, being forced to indefinite hiding, fearing for his life after a certain old man in a certain distant country asked any Muslim in the world to kill the author because he allegedly offended Islam by his writing, was deemed boring. Everybody already heard about it. ‘Tell us a new story’, the media implied, ‘or, be so kind, and get lost’.
The same principle, of course, prevails when reporting about any world news these days. Firstly, in our day and age news, especially TV news, are only good, if they are sensational. Nobody is very interested in in-depth analysis of global geopolitical affairs, or anything too complicated or too long-lasting. I believe that even people who consider themselves educated and well-informed would struggle to name at least two current civil war conflicts in Africa, where tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians, naturally including little children, are continually killed or misplaced. That doesn’t sell the paper, doesn’t increase the audience reach.
Killing 26 children and teachers in a US primary school does. It is a simple piece of news, sensational, you can frame it well into sound bites. In the US, the President goes on national TV, with his speech carefully written by his professional speech writers, and increases voter preferences by ‘almost crying’ in front of the cameras. Perhaps I am too cynical but I cannot shake the image of Mr Obama standing in front of a mirror, trying the gesture of wiping the corner of his left eye over and over again, until his media consultants tell him he got it just right and can ‘go live’ with it.
In Europe, both the media and the public opinion - which is mostly formed by media as very few Europeans have actually had enough sustained exposure to any Americans to be able to claim that they know them - are ready with their verdict. It all happened because of the preposterous American insistence to carry guns. How backwards, to claim that in our modern society the citizens of any country should have the right to carry weapons to protect themselves. How typically arrogant and how American!
Even in the US, as there were no more news to report about Adam Lanza, his mother, brother, father, and size of the family weapon arsenal, so the news was quickly becoming old, the media debate has moved on from the horrific act itself to the battle between protagonists of gun control and the pro-gun activists and lobbyists. The gun control camp has started to push for a legislative action. Let’s ban the guns in this country and leave it to the police to protect the society. The pro-gun camp is pushing back, waving the Second Amendment over their heads and citing their citizen liberties and ‘the American way of life’ as main arguments.
This debate is old and political, dividing the society pretty clearly along party lines. The American Democrats have predictably taken the gun control stand, the Republicans strongly support the right to carry guns. Folks take it very seriously. In our post-communist society with a fairly shallow political culture and general disdain for politicians, it would surprise most how deeply and passionately Americans can feel about their country politics, and how they become and remain life-long supporters of one or the other party, as if there was no alternative. I have many American friends in London, and I know many of them for years. In the build-up to the US presidential elections, or any major international event, such as the Iraq war, the Republicans and Democrats among them can barely speak to each other about politics and almost never agree about it. I even had to chase friends back to the dinner table as they were leaving their half-eaten Thanksgiving turkey, because the fellow dinner party guests started talking politics.
But that was a small detour. The fact is, that despite the media framing of the topic, the gun problem in the US is not nearly as alarming as we are lead to believe. As of 2009, the United States had a population of 307 million people and, based on production data from firearm manufacturers, there are roughly 300 million firearms owned by civilians in the United States (predictably, twice as many Republicans as Democrats admit to owning a gun). An astounding figure, really. It means that every granny and baby has got a gun to shoot at random, and every criminal, psychopath and drunk, too. Now look at the statistics of the school shootings committed with these guns over recent history. On 14 Dec 2012, Adam Lanza killed 26 people and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, in April 2007 Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 at the Virginia Tech massacre, in 1999 fifteen were killed at the Columbine High School in Colorado. In fact, altogether 256 were killed at various school shootings across the entire country since 1982. That is in 30 years. In most of the cases, the loss of lives was limited to the perpetrators killed by police or committing suicide. Obviously, every life counts and this is a very bad statistic. But in Europe, which prides itself on far stricter gun controls, 160 were killed at school shootings in the same period (that includes Anders Breivik’s killing of 69 young people at the youth camp on Utoya island in Norway last year).
Clearly, this frames the whole ‘Americans going crazy with their free guns’ picture slightly differently… Not to mention, because that would be a cliché, that over 35,000 people get killed in the US every year in traffic accidents or that some 70,000 deaths a year are linked to alcohol in the US alone. You could also consider that while European countries boast about the strict gun control laws at home, many of them rank among the top ten biggest arm exporters in the world. That is the case for Germany, France, UK, Netherlands and Italy.
But how do you make news of that?