Suburbia is worried by more than guns

A year after the slaughter at Columbine High, middle-class America is questioning everything that it once believed in
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On Thursday - Maundy Thursday, as it happens - the United States will commemorate one of the more anguished anniversaries of the past decade: the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, which cost 12 pupils, one teacher and the two teenage gunmen their lives. The pupils and their parents, understandably, want to keep their remembering private and granted only one collective interview to reporters where they just hinted at how their lives, and their assumptions, had been changed by what happened on 20 April last year.

In the public forum the anniversary has offered a pretext for gun control advocates to revive the languishing gun debate. The tone was set last week by President Clinton, who travelled to Colorado's state capital, Denver, to renew the appeal for stiffer gun controls that has been a leitmotif of his presidency.

In particular, he wants the passage of legislation that would close the loophole that allows weapons to be sold at gun shows without the purchaser being subject to a computerised background check.

His call will be taken up this week by Democrats and big-city officials, who want to use the anniversary to push the gun law issue up the political agenda before the November presidential election.

In the wake not only of Columbine, but of the recent shooting of one six-year-old by another in a Michigan school, they see the issue as one that could tip wavering voters in their direction.

Yet for all the breast-beating about school shootings violence that will resound this week, gun control has little claim to be the true legacy of Columbine. Even this slaughter could not generate sufficient public outrage to persuade the US Congress to legislate.

Despite the vast publicity given to Vice-President Al Gore's casting vote in the Senate at the time, it actually counted for nothing, because the House threw the Bill out just weeks later. What is more, despite Mr Clinton's best efforts, the legislation has not been reintroduced.

There is not even much evidence of heightened public concern about gun violence. Although polls registered a spike to 66 per cent immediately after Columbine, the proportion of Americans favouring tougher gun laws is now back at 61 per cent, just 1 per cent higher than it was before Columbine. And that is not irrational: juvenile violence, gun violence included, has declined by 30 per cent in the past three years, and school shootings, however appalling, account for a tiny fraction of juvenile deaths.

As many children in America are killed by a parent or guardian on any one day as were killed at Columbine, and the trend in school violence - despite the perception - is down. Even with what seemed the shocking frequency of school shootings in the 18 months before Columbine, 106 shooting deaths have occurred on US school premises in the past five years. A child has a far greater chance of being struck by lightning, statisticians say, than being shot dead at school.

This is not to say Columbine has had no lasting effect on American attitudes, simply that it did little to change views about guns. Its far more enduring legacy is likely to be the profound self-questioning it provoked among America's hard-pressed, aspirational parents. As Mr Clinton said in one of his first reactions to the killings: "If it could happen in Littleton, Colorado, it could happen anywhere."

Littleton was "Anytown, USA". It was fast-growing, suburban, predominantly white, and attracted families who were on their way up. Many were stretched, for money and above all for time. In more households than not, both parents worked; the children were left to their own devices, which included not only their own rooms, but their own cars, their own computers, their own timetables and their own pursuits.

Everything in this suburban lifestyle - the dependence on cars, the long commutes, the social homogeneity, even the design of the residential areas themselves around uniform cul-de-sacs or behind high gates - is simultaneously a function of safety and show. Income brackets can be gauged at a glance from the size and style of the house and the cars in the yard.

Non-conformity is frowned upon; this is property-owning, church-going, lawn-mowing country, and immensely proud of it. Columbine injected some of the first slivers of doubt into that hitherto complacent world. The doubts touched on everything, from design of houses and streets that kept children out of sight and earshot, to the time parents spend with their children, to the hours they work at their jobs, to the pressures on suburban school pupils to succeed by conforming, and the gap between appearance and reality that was bridged by hypocrisy.

Out of Columbine came reports of how the few ethnic minority children were taunted, of swastikas daubed in cloakrooms that remained for weeks, of the persecution of misfits and an elaborate social hierarchy predicated on looks and sports prowess. Little of this was news to suburban school children past or present, who volunteered stories of their own high school days for weeks thereafter.

Within months of Columbine, some of the same critical sentiments found expression in the newly released film, American Beauty, which casts a scathing eye on just such aspirational suburbanites and won the Oscar for best picture.

The coincidence has reopened the ongoing American debate about suburbia: whether it is, as its critics maintain, stultifying, narrow and complacent, or whether it offers a quality of life - a house and a garden, clean air and safety - that is the closest most Americans will come to their "American dream".

As criticism of suburbia and its residents mounted in recent weeks, an unlikely alliance of academics, politicians and suburbanites emerged in defence of these largely anonymous tracts of housing where more than half of Americans now live. And along with the standard justification - that Americans like their suburbs - was a new one. The suburbs had changed since they were last under the spotlight; they were more lively and more "diverse".

To the extent that non-white Americans have also been moving out of cities to the suburbs, that observation is true. Also true is that the new suburbanites settle, by and large, like-with-like. Individual suburbs and quarters are neither racially nor economically mixed, and the pressure to conform remains.

That it is now open season on a subject so dear to American hearts as suburban life and values is the real legacy of Columbine, and one that will supply ample debating material for a long time.