Sixteen people were injured after a stampede broke out in New York City's notoriously congested Penn Station last Friday. Someone mistook the sound of a police officer using a stun gun for a gunshot, and that was all it took. So frantic was the scene at the Midtown Manhattan transportation hub that the commotion spilled onto the street, and then into the Macy's at Herald Square, across Seventh Avenue. Confused shoppers began to panic, and several tweeted that there was an active shooter in the department store.
“I think the equation is simple,” the filmmaker Michael Moore said Thursday night in reference to the incident. “It's the American equation: Dumb down the population; make them ignorant and stupid. Ignorance leads to fear. Fear lead to hate. Trump knew that part of the equation really well. Hate leads to violence, or to use your ballot as an act of violence against the people you hate."
Fear in America was a central theme Thursday night at the SVA Theater in Chelsea, where Moore and the Tribeca Film Festival hosted a retrospective screening of the Oscar winner's 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. The film was seminal in the way it addressed gun violence in America, examining the issue through the events leading up to and following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, which left 13 dead. The 15 years since the film's release have made up one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in the country's history, but what is most striking about watching Bowling for Columbine in 2017 is how little has changed. “We could release this film again this Friday, sadly, and it’d probably be every bit as relevant,” Moore said before the screening.
At the core of Bowling for Columbine is Moore's quest to discover why gun violence is a uniqely American phenomenon. Is it the country's history of violence? Maybe, but what about that of Germany or Britain, where gun violence is all but nonexistent? Is it the sheer number of guns Americans possess? That can't help, but Canadians own a lot of guns, too, and they don't often shoot each other with them. What about the influence of violence in U.S. videogames, movies and music? This, too, is prevalent around the globe. Nevertheless, many Americans pinned the blame for Columbine on singers like Marilyn Manson, to whom Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold listened. When Moore interviewed Manson, the shock-rocker touched on what has, over the course of 15 years since the film's release, calcified as the driving force behind the country's penchant for violence: fear. “Keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume more," Manson explained while discussing the utility of fear to corporate America.
The sense of fear created by the Columbine massacre was staggering. Metal detectors were set up in schools. Kids were sent home for dying their hair and wearing kilts to prom. One student in Illinois was suspended for pointing a chicken finger at a teacher as if it were a gun. Same goes for another who did so with a piece of folded paper. Rock concerts were protested. Videogames were outlawed. At the same time, America doubled down on its sacred right to bear arms. Charlton Heston even held an NRA rally in nearby Denver just weeks after the shooting. "From my cold dead hands!" he yelled as he held a rifle above his head.
We saw the same sense of panic as Y2K approached and, of course, after 9/11, maybe the greatest harbinger of communal terror in American history. So powerful was the fear stoked with care by politicians following the attack on the World Trade Center that 15 years later an enterprising reality TV star was able to manipulate it to become president. As Moore pointed out following the screening on Thursday, this presence of this fear, which he sees as now out of control, isn't incidental.
"I think that we've gone through 40 years of the country being dumbed down,” Moore says. “We defunded our schools. We've allowed them to go into an awful state. The arts have been canceled. Civics class is gone in a third to half of our schools now."
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He goes on to pinpoint blame on the Reagan administration and the destruction of the middle class, which, considering tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, destroyed the country's tax base. This meant there was no money to fund schools and other public programs, which he says leads to ignorance, which then leads to fear. Moore equates it to a kid who thinks there's a monster in the closet. The kid is ignorant. All a parent needs to do is open the closet door and turn on a light to show the child that there is nothing to be afraid of. Politicians like George Bush (or Dick Cheney via Bush) and corporations like Lockheed Martin want to keep the door closed and the light off, he says. They want to prey on a fear of some mysterious evil so they can control the hearts, minds and wallets of the American people.
This torch of hate may have begun to smolder during the Obama administration, but Donald Trump fed it gasoline and it is now, once again, a bonfire, Moore says. Trump used it to paint Obama as a Kenyan-born Manchurian president; he used it to flush into the mainstream America's deep-seated xenophobia; and he used it to portend doom and destruction should people not vote him into office. It worked, and now he is using it to inflate his own power to dangerous proportions. He has already sent 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria and dropped the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan. Many glorified him for this, and now Trump may truly understand the popularity of war.
Michael Moore was one of the only people to predict that Trump would win the election, and his tone once again was solemn on Thursday night. He's been tracking the forces that led to Trump since making Bowling for Columbine, and he knows there isn't much to be optimistic about now that the former Apprentice host is in possession of the nuclear codes. In the end, the fate of the country could come to down to how Americans choose to confront fear.
"More than likely there will be some kind of terrorist act in this country, and I fear that Trump will use that to such an awful extent," Moore said. "We have to fight that when it happens, and not be afraid to fight it."
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