Deborah Orr: It's too easy to treat American culture as an aberration - we're just the same over here

Britain is keen to dissociate itself from its own problems with firearms - and with violence
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There is something faintly absurd about the worldwide propensity for commentators to pounce on US "spree killings" every time they happen along, and scrunch them into whatever miserable little ball of paper they personally believe is representative of What Ails America. The faint absurdity exists - according to my own miserable little ball of paper - because if any one thing Ails America, it is the country's general propensity to ignore everything that anyone says about or to it, unless it is advantageous, or at least nice. (Which is nothing more terrible than a sign of terrible insecurity and paranoia about being disliked.)

Finger-wagging about the nation's promiscuous love affair with firearms, and appeals for the latest atrocity to be the one that "turns the tide of public opinion", is more an exercise in European dissociation from what we devoutly wish to believe are outcroppings of a distinctively Stateside insanity, than a genuine attempt to "influence debate". We're broadly better versed in the sentimental intractabilities of American gun law than we are in how to record programmes on our own video recorders. But the keen interest in the subject that sporadically erupts remains entirely esoteric unless it is exercised within the US itself.

Which is why it is so odd that these horrible acts of lunatic mass murder, that all can see, and indeed vociferously insist, are the product of very specific local conditions, are always treated as urgent worldwide news events and talking points, even though, strictly speaking they are none of our business.

Partly, our distance is the very thing that makes forming an opinion so effortless. It is easy to comprehend that for those whose relatives or friends have been killed or injured this event is catastrophic. But it is not so easy to feel the real shock or empathy that is unleashed when something similar - Michael Ryan's Hungerford spree, or William Hamilton's Dunblane one - happens closer to home. It's easy to pontificate from afar about what spree killings in The US mean, precisely because the interest bestowed on them is so comfortably voyeuristic.

Certainly, there is a degree of polarisation in the firearms debate in the US that does indeed fascinate. The view that Cho Seung Hoi managed to kill 32 people on Monday because there were not enough gun-toting students around to take him out with a single bullet does indeed seem to be a fairly demented one. It's predictable and smug as well, to relate such a view to the thrust of recent US foreign policy, particularly in Iraq, and shake one's weary head about America's unshakeable faith in the idea that more violence is generally the answer. (Obviously, this view becomes less comfortable if one lets one's simple little mind drift off to tricky places like Darfur.).

Yet, there is also a barely acknowledged recognition that beyond the protestations of difference, discussion of US cultural dysfunctionalities is a grand and magnified way of talking about our own. A lot of the perennial points that are generally made, particularly by left-leaning types, about spree killings in the US can just as easily be applied to Britain. Social pressures, alienation, shallow consumer culture, media glibness, the narcissistic desire for attention and celebrity at any price, the influence of violent popular culture, and so on - all these are talked up as being a part of the great American mass-murder puzzle. The national attachment to guns is just the top-line concern in a culture that is widely seen as dangerously decadent.

Yet if we take a look at ourselves instead, it becomes apparent that Britain in particular is every bit as keen to dissociate itself from its own problems with firearms - and with violence - as it is to pass dissociated judgement over America's. Gun crime in Britain, assuredly held down by our own rather less ambivalent views about the dangers of firearms, remains largely concentrated in what we are pleased to call "the black community".

The level to which we are prepared to maintain the pretence that all this is none of our middle-class business has been sanctified by Tony Blair's pronouncement that this dark cultural phenomenon is not connected with wider British society. It instead resides in the particular impulses and choices of young black men who get involved with gangs.

This is not so very different to the US view that it isn't guns that kill people but the lunatics into whose hands they so effortlessly fall. Of course, you have to go along with the idea that psychotic murder sprees are of no more cultural significance than are the links between race, mental disorder, social deprivation, drug use and dealing, and hyper-masculinity, but if the Prime Minister, highly briefed as he is, can manage it, then I'm sure the rest of us can go along with that, too.

We dissociate the wider culture from other repeated and almost ritualised forms of violence as well. The scale, thankfully, may not be so grandly operatic, but mass killing combined with suicide is again a regular feature of British life, although here it tends not to be contained within the walls of a domestic setting, involving a man and his separated wife and children.

In fact, it could be argued that we have become worse, if anything, than better at dealing with intimate violence of all sorts. Look at our rising homicide rates. Look at our seeming inability to prosecute the vast majority of rapists. Look, at the intractable pockets of high male suicide that persist in certain parts of the country.

Again, our way of dealing with all this is very similar to America's way of dealing with its spree killings. We emphasise that these incidents are rare and isolated, and have nothing to tell us about the bigger picture of British life, of the way people respond to their anger or their resentment, when instead they really ought to be able to access the kind of support or guidance that might help them to contain their fearsome, fatal impulses.

I suppose the point is that while the almost limitless availability of firearms in the US is, of course, a huge reason for the prevalence of gun crime, the idea that restricting guns is the only way of solving the problem is comparable to deciding that the best way to stop a car from hitting your child is to get her to hold your hand when crossing the road forever, rather than teaching her how to negotiate the traffic.

It's so banal, pointing out that the broad common denominator when discussing murderous or suicidal violence anywhere, in this time or in any other, does not tend really to reside in the weapon used, or its availability, but in the age and gender of its perpetrator. Yet it should be of the utmost interest to all of us that in wealthy and sophisticated societies, in which civilian violence is never necessary, and almost always reviled, there is such a widespread desire to even define the problem, let alone look for positive ways of tackling it.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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