Leading Article: No one should feel complacent about the Littleton horror

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THERE IS always a tendency for the British to react to horrors such as Littleton, Colorado with an air of "it could only happen in America". The instinctive response is to think that, with so many guns in the United States, it is not a matter of if, but when, the next high school will be attacked by resentful teenagers.

However, the killings in Dunblane and Hungerford prove that access to weapons is not restricted to America. Nor is British culture so different that similar events could not occur here. Although it is still too early to know why exactly Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ran amok, there is no reason to believe that the mass murder in Littleton had a single cause. What is clear is that it takes more than access to guns to make people kill.

America is full of opportunity for middle-class whites such as Eric and Dylan. It is therefore a testament to their frustration and hopelessness that they could not conceive of a satisfying future for themselves. And yet who can be surprised that they despised their community and rejected all that it - and nearby Denver - has to offer?

American film and television programmes constantly emphasise high-school stereotypes as perfectly formed, sexually satisfied and strenuously athletic. And yet, at the same time, among the heroes of contemporary youth culture are many outsider figures who reject the establishment. Neither of the boys fitted in at school, but by identifying with Hitler, and killing some of their classmates because of their race, they were taking the cult of the anti-hero to extreme and horrific lengths. America's entertainment industry peddles countless narratives and images of aggressive heroes. Though these do not celebrate violence, neither do they shy away from showing it as "cool".

For all that is peculiarly American about the Littleton murders, so much of it could have happened in Britain. The racism, the identification with an aggressive counter-culture, the peer pressure - none of these is foreign to our schools. The desire to copy the doomed fame of the killers could easily encourage resentment to spill over in violence in this country.

The clampdown on the possession of guns after the Dunblane massacre was welcome. It has surely contributed to the relative scarcity of shootings in this country. But, as the Brixton bombing has shown, in a world where nails, fertiliser and alarm clocks are freely available and recipes for bombs can be read on the Internet, there is little that can be done to prevent such violence. But we can start by redoubling our efforts to build a more inclusive society, by attempting to control the worst excesses of the Internet and, in the case of America, by moving towards a total ban on private possession of firearms.