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When the losers of America take to the killing floor

WHEN THE bustling regularity of a city day was interrupted by the hollow crack of bullets, swiftly followed by the screams of sirens, no one had to apply much imagination to guess what had happened. Yet another American had snapped, taking out his frustrations in the first best way that came to mind: with a gun (or two, or three).

The slaughter in the Buckhead commercial district of Atlanta last week was the worst mass killing in that city's history. Twelve people were dead; nine in the labyrinthine office complexes of the wealthy business district; the other three, the gunman's wife and children, in a southern suburb. Another 12 people were in hospital, seven of them in critical condition.

In its suddenness, its scale, and its very deliberate choice of target, the mini-massacre in Atlanta recalled the carnage at Columbine High School in Colorado three months earlier, when 12 children and a teacher were shot down in cold blood, and many more injured, by two senior pupils . At Columbine, as in Atlanta, the perpetrators committed suicide rather than face the consequences of their actions. And in both cases they left writings exuding bitterness about the way their world had treated them.

This, though, is where the similarities end. While the killings at Columbine High at once became the pretext for weeks of collective introspection and what seemed a perpetual national memorial service, the killings in Atlanta are already fading from public view. A cursory vice-presidential visit may be all that bereaved Atlanta families can expect in terms of national recognition.

It is not that Americans have suddenly lost their macabre penchant for mourning: the public response to the death of John Kennedy Junior showed just how ready they are to wallow in vicarious grief. Rather, they have weighed the two mass shootings differently: in the one they saw lessons, in the other an aberration - and therein lies a tale.

The killings at Columbine High School in Littleton shocked first of all because children murdered children and because school, any school, is supposed to provide a safe haven. One of the killers was 18 and legally an adult, the other was 17; but in the eyes of America they were juveniles. It was a slaughter of innocents by innocents gone astray, and America wanted to know why.

They sought the reasons in broken families - except that the killers' families were not broken. They sought the reasons in soulless suburbs, except that Littleton was by all accounts a community-minded kind of place. They sought the reasons in material ambition and spiritual neglect, and struck a guilty chord that resonated in suburbs across the land. They blamed violent videos and Hollywood-inspired perversion, and - of course - some of them blamed guns. But they did not reach any especially salient conclusions.

The Littleton killings shocked America for other reasons, too. They shocked because the slaughter was so deliberately planned, with the home-made bombs and booby-traps, the warnings to friends and the ruthless targeting of the sporty elite. They shocked because practically every American has his or her own experience of high school, the years between 14 and 18, when fitting in or standing out is the standard of success. In the wake of Littleton, every American seemed to have a tale to tell of scarring social failure and taunting that teachers tolerated as a rite of passage.

Then there was the uncannily familiar context. Littleton was a clinically tidy, predominantly white suburb much sought after by parents wanting peace and security for their children. The school, with its academic record and sporting prowess, was part of its attraction. This was a place for winners on their way further up, not for losers scratching a living. As President Clinton said, voicing - as so often - the inner feelings of Americans, if such a tragedy could happen in Littleton, it could happen anywhere.

When complete outsiders sent flowers or wrote notes of condolences to the next of kin, and when they watched the first funerals, often in tears, they were weeping for their cherished dream of America, and for themselves.

How different, to the American eye, were the shootings in Atlanta. While the white establishment saw Littleton as familiar territory, it sees Atlanta as "other". It is a city which - unjustly perhaps - already had the wrong kind of reputation even before the unsolved, and mishandled, Olympic Park bombing three years ago.

As a majority black city that is flourishing, Atlanta is often lauded for its success in attracting black professionals from all over the United States. But that praise also masks elements of condescension that help to ensure that its known problems remain untackled: its poor city planning, its daily gridlock, its de facto segregation into white and black districts, and its persistent violence. While overall crime in the city has fallen recently - as it has elsewhere in the US - the number of murders has actually risen.

For America, a new murder in Atlanta - or two, or 12 - was not the same as a murder - or 13 - in Littleton. And nor was the killer the same. Mark Barton, we learned even before his capture and suicide, had a criminal record and a dubious past that may have included the murder of his first wife and her mother. Stable family relations were not his forte: his second marriage was already on the rocks.

More to the point, Mark Barton was a risk-taker, and a misguided one at that. He had left a job as a chemist to take up electronic day trading, a pursuit openly derided by the salaried classes as gambling, and - even as the United States seemed awash with cash - he failed to make money. Mark Barton of Atlanta, in short, was what every American strives not to be: a loser on all fronts. As such, he drew scant sympathy; his victims, tarnished by their association with day trading, with Atlanta, and with him, fared scarcely any better.

Yes, there are differences between the killings in Littleton and Atlanta. But America is wrong to beat its breast so fervently about the first, while averting its gaze so speedily from the second. When guns are within reach, the mix of family instability, misguided risk-taking and thwarted ambition is just as pernicious as the murderous fantasies of two embittered adolescents. If boom turns to bust and America remains as callously unforgiving of its losers as it is today, and as incurious about what ails them, it could have many more Mark Bartons to contend with, and not just in Atlanta.