Violence: we have met the enemy

The talk casually turned to recent movies, as casual talk often does. I applauded "The Winslow Boy," a high-minded drama with a dash of humor and romance that's devoid of gratuitous sex and violence. A wife and mother in our little pod of chatterers dismissed it, saying only half-jokingly, "Why would we want to see that?"

Hollywood violence is on the minds of our president and Congress. Legislation is being considered. A commission will study whether violent movies target teens in the way that tobacco ads have. It's likely to linger as a public issue right through the November 2000 election.

That can be a good thing, if it stirs deliberate, deep, thoughtful debate. Can government play some role in restricting the violence on movie, TV, and video-game screens - especially violence seen by children - without trading away too much of Americans' rights of free speech? After the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., it has to be thought through.

And it's worth asking if schools and churches - and especially the entertainment industry itself - can do more, too. A lot of those Hollywood executives are parents; we have to pray there's some real soul-searching going on there. Announcements that several violent TV shows and film projects either have been canceled or postponed indicate that may be happening. And on Tuesday, the National Association of Theater Owners declared it would do more to strictly enforce its ratings system and keep children out of R-rated movies. Maybe that'll help a bit.

Keep it coming. But there's still a missing player needed to solve the puzzle of violence. He's no farther away than the end of our own noses. As "Pogo" used to say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Shortly before the Columbine massacre, I saw "The Matrix." It's a science-fiction thriller with superb special effects and some intriguing thoughts about the nature of reality. But since Columbine, all I see now is a trench-coated Keanu Reeves, a machine gun in each hand, spraying the most Hollywood bullets since outlaws "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and their V-8 Ford were nearly disintegrated in a hail of hot lead. I wish I hadn't seen it.

Will my taste for film violence return? I hope that, at least, my selectivity will go up a notch. My wife didn't see "Saving Private Ryan." She chose not to have its graphic images of soldiers dying in World War II in her thought. I saw "Ryan" and thought it gave me fresh insight into both the courage and the horrors that wars call forth. I feel we each made thoughtful decisions.

And every day brings new ones. The clever teen-oriented TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" had been building to a final episode that included violence erupting at a high school graduation ceremony. The producers didn't air the episode, saying they wanted to wait for a while.

A friend, a fellow fan of "Buffy" who eagerly had anticipated the finale, understood immediately that they'd made a good decision.

"That's all right," she said. "I can wait."

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