Jonesboro massacre: 'Not here' - the mantra that everyone in rural America is chanting in disbelief

NOT HERE. This is the mantra being spoken in Jonesboro in the aftermath of Tuesday's Westside carnage. This kind of horror belongs in the urban wastelands of Chicago, Los Angeles or New York City. But not in our town, not in rural and suburban America. How, then, to explain the fact that the three fatal school rampages that have shaken this country in five months have all been in not-here places?

In Pearl, Mississippi, last October a 16-year-old boy first stabbed his mother and then went to his school and opened fire on nine classmates, killing two. In Paducah, Kentucky, in December three students were shot by a fellow pupil in a school corridor.

Hunting may offer one explanation. Pearl, Paducah and Jonesboro are all in areas steeped in hunting as a family way of life. In the South, almost half of all households have guns compared with 36 per cent in the country as a whole. One teacher from the Westside school actually expressed the hope this week that Tuesday's shooting should not become a rallying cry for stronger gun laws.

Increasingly, however, it is impossible to ignore the media factor: children no longer need to live in gang-infested ghettos to become soaked in a culture of guns, violence and casual death. Television, cinemas and video shops have broken down the insulation of rural America from the violence of the big cities.

We do not yet know what films Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, liked to watch. But we do know something of the viewing habits of Michael Carneal, the boy accused in the Paducah killings. In police interviews, he made specific reference to a 1996 film starring the Titanic blockbuster's Leonardo DiCaprio. Called The Basketball Diaries, it was no ship-born romance.

Carneal said that when he mowed down his peers as they formed a prayer circle before heading for their classes, he was re-enacting moments from that film.

The Basketball Diaries depicts a school athlete, played by DiCaprio, descending into a life of drugs and despair. In one specially grisly dream-like sequence, DiCaprio strides into his classroom, wields a rapid-fire rifle and guns down class members along with his teacher.

It has been famously suggested that the average American child witnesses 8,000 murders and a 100,000 acts of violence on television before he or she reaches adolescence.

"Now you have the movies and cable and the Internet in rural areas," Brian Levin, a New Jersey criminologist observed yesterday in USA Today.

"Evil has a nice direct marketing pipeline to rural areas that it didn't have in decades past. Today you'd have a hard time telling where a kid is from."

It is shocking that two so young as Golden and Johnson could now stand accused of a massacre like that at Jonesboro. But consider what distractions were offered to them growing up in this scruffy patch of rural America: firing off guns with dad at the weekend and watching murder and mayhem on the video recorder. Combine the two influences and what do you get?

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