America's way of life and death

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American schools are scary places: more than 6,000 children were expelled for turning up with guns in 1996-97, the latest year for which figures are available. Last year 42 pupils were murdered at school, which is at least an improvement on the 52 deaths recorded in 1993-94. On Wednesday, the day after two teenage boys murdered 12 fellow pupils and a teacher in Littleton, a suburb of Denver, a bill to relax controls on people who carry concealed weapons was hastily withdrawn from the Colorado legislature. The National Rifle Association (NRA), due to hold its annual convention in Denver this week, showed less sensitivity, by refusing to move elsewhere.

Ever since details of the horror became public, there has been much soul- searching on the part of columnists and politicians; even President Clinton took time off from his day job, raining down arm's length destruction on Yugoslavia, to offer Americans his thoughts. "We have to ask ourselves some pretty hard questions here," he announced in a televised discussion with high school students. He then ducked the obvious question, which is why Americans insist on owning so many weapons. There are sufficient guns in the United States to arm every man, woman and child and still have some to spare; there must be quite a lot of individuals who are better armed than an entire unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Instead, Mr Clinton fell back on the old cliche of blaming the media. "What is the role of the larger culture here?" he wondered, suggesting that violence on television and the Internet might play a role in killings like the ones in Colorado.

There was general agreement that "something is terribly wrong in America", as the Denver Post put it, and some commentators linked the mysterious malaise to a decline in religious belief. "At Littleton", proclaimed the egregious Republican Pat Buchanan, "America got a glimpse of the last stop on that train to hell America boarded decades ago, when we declared that God is dead and that each of us is his or her own god who can make up the rules as we go along." Yet some of the people who deplored violence most loudly have a record of resorting to it fairly rapidly themselves - and that includes Mr Clinton. In a new book by his former spin-doctor George Stephanopoulos there is a description of the moment in 1993 when the President learnt that six American soldiers had been killed in fighting in Somalia.

"We're not inflicting pain on these fuckers," Mr Clinton declared, going red in the face and pounding his thigh with his fist. "When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers. I believe in killing people who try to hurt you, and I can't believe we're being pushed around by these two-bit pricks."

This is Old Testament stuff, in line with the President's enthusiastic support for capital punishment, and it sits oddly with his pronouncement last week that young people in America should look beyond their differences and emphasise what they have in common.

The connection between Christian fundamentalism and belligerence is neatly summed up by a car sticker popular among NRA members: "God, guns and guts made America great - let's keep all three." A Colorado congressman, interviewed on Radio 4's Today, refused even to countenance the idea that the availability of weapons was the cause of last week's outrage. Desperately trying to find other culprits, such as the break-up of the family, he suddenly put forward an argument that it is unfair to blame guns for the use someone puts them to - which makes a nonsense of America's draconian drugs laws.

Like guns, cannabis and cocaine are not dangerous in themselves. Yet their use is severely prohibited, even though it could be argued that they do far less harm than semi-automatic weapons. The American government's war on drugs is a costly failure (which has not prevented British governments rushing to copy it) and it seems plausible that many more lives would be saved by diverting its vast resources into an all-out attack on the possession of guns. This is about as likely as Mr Clinton deciding to devote his time to campaigning on behalf of female victims of sexual harassment.

But it says a great deal about the state of mind of a nation when it simultaneously glamorises deadly weapons and demonises harmless drugs such as cannabis. Hostile to pleasure, insistent to the point of lunacy on its citizens' right to possess the means to murder each other, the United States is indeed in a moral quagmire. It just doesn't happen to be the one that Mr Clinton, or his fellow exponents of the art of denial, believed they had identified last week.

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