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Of Demon Snakes and Teen Shooters

So... now they're responsible, are they?

That's what CBS President Les Moonves would have us believe. He said so himself, just a few weeks ago, justifying his decision to pull a violent mob-themed show called Falcone from his network's fall lineup.

"It's not a question of defending ourselves," Moonves insisted. "It's a question of being responsible, responsible programmers, responsible citizens."

See, after Littleton, we're all supposed to be responsible now. That's what WB exec Jamie Kellner believes, explaining how it came to be that the network suits looked deep into their black hearts and decided to yank Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the second time in the five weeks following the shootings at Columbine High, lest the show offend anyone's delicate sensibilities. That's the same Buffy the Vampire Slayer that features a cute high school girl endowed with superpowers who each week slaughters a new demon with the help of her friends -- an adolescent witch, a teenage werewolf, a prom queen, and a class clown.

Nevertheless, execs felt that the viewing public, still coming to terms with the trauma of recent weeks, couldn't handle the horror of the horror show's season finale. "Our decision is also borne out of a deep sense of responsibility to The WB's loyal young audience," Kellner said.

Deep sense of responsibility? How about deep sense of fear?

The network's line of reasoning goes something like this: The episode is about kids fighting a demon mayor at a high school graduation. Real kids were going to graduate that same week. Obviously, this would have hit home for a lot of people. For, as anyone who has ever graduated from high school knows, demon-fighting is a common occurrence at high school commencement exercises, usually after the valedictorian gives his speech but before the diplomas are handed out.

Never mind that in the episode, a high school full of kids arm themselves to save everyone in their community and perhaps the world from the fires of hell. No, what the important was that kids were graduating from school, and somewhere, someone about to graduate might watch a kid brandishing a rocket launcher shooting at a 30-foot demon snake on a graduation dais and think to themselves, "Bummer."

The WB plans to air the shelved finale later this summer. Which raises an interesting question for master logician Jamie Kellner: If it was irresponsible to air the show in May, why would it be any less irresponsible to foist it on an audience still in the midst of some serious mourning in July? Or August? How do Kellner and Company know that airing the program, even after a few months, won't re-open the psychic wounds of the fragile American viewing public and send us all sobbing to our therapists? Why not do the socially responsible thing and cancel the highly popular and ad-lucrative program entirely? There's always room for another night of 7th Heaven reruns.

Maybe it's because the network's decision to yank the Buffy episode was nothing more than a cynical way to appease craven policy-makers so desperate to appear to be doing something about teen violence that they'll do just about anything -- except, of course, anything that makes sense.

That's Washington's response to any tragedy. Slap a banana clip full of silver bullets into the ol' Lawmaker and let fly with all sorts of way-out legislation.

Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman thinks that siccing the Justice Department on studios for "marketing violence" to youngsters may be a good idea. Lieberman, along with GOP Senator Sam Brownback, added language to the much-touted "Juvenile Crime Bill" that let Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to look at Hollywood's marketing practices. That move is backed by President Clinton, the undisputed champion when it comes to empty political gesture.

"It is in the public interest to know whether entertainment companies are making a killing off our kids," Brownback told reporters at a highly scripted, well-choreographed press event in Washington last month.

Senator Ernest Hollings, another Democrat, introduced something called the "Safe Harbor Bill," which would have banned violent programming from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. It was killed in committee, but, ever the showman, Hollings held hearings on it anyway. That's not all. Another bill would ban the filming of violent images on public property while still another would make it a federal crime to sell tickets to R-rated films to minors.

You can bet that each and every one of the proposed laws will do just as much to stop shootings such as the school boards that acted so decisively after the Littleton massacre by barring students from wearing trenchcoats to school.

Is our problem that a generation of kids have been mesmerized and brainwashed by a constant stream of insidious imagery from the media? Perhaps. Then again, Attila the Hun didn't subject his boys to marathon Doom death-matches before sweeping across Europe and laying waste to the Romans.

Maybe that's a silly example. Here's another one. One day, two high school boys murdered a classmate just to watch him die, and they didn't watch Walker, Texas Ranger or listen to Marilyn Manson before they did it.

No, they just read some German philosopher named Nietzsche. For the record, their names were Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The year was 1924.

Sounds like that Nietzsche fellow is trouble. Someone get Hollings and Lieberman on the phone!

Now Hollings and Lieberman aren't idiots. (Brownback will have to settle for the benefit of the doubt.) They're well aware their arguments are dubious, their positions tenuous and their proposals not even effective enough to be dismissed as quick fixes. So why are they out there anytime a TV camera crew is present?

Because it beats the truth: Sometimes, there are awful people out there capable of doing awful things. And they don't need an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to set them off. Just being looked at funny will do.

So the caring nurturers in Congress and the socially responsible network executives can only say this, once the microphones are turned off and the cameras are gone: You're fat. You're stupid. It's amazing you can even dress yourself in the morning. You need us to take care of you. That's why we have a ratings system for TV and the movies.

But a funny thing happens sometimes when you slap warning labels on things, like TV shows and movies and video games. First, they let the makers off the hook for the content, because, hey, it's got a rating on it. Second, no matter what people may say in public, a lot of them get a kick out of naughty, nasty, filthy, bloody things. But most of them don't actually try to repeat what they've seen.

If someone could show beyond a shadow of a doubt that stakings in American high schools have risen measurably in the three years since Buffy The Vampire Slayer went on the air, then maybe, just maybe, the critics have a point.

But the truth is, our reaction to the shootings at Columbine shows more about us that anything on the tube. It shows that we've become a nation of pansies, one whose government believes that we're incapable of differentiating between reality and fantasy.

We've become a nation where the solution to violence by children is the suppression of violent images, no matter the context. A nation where a network kills appropriate, even socially responsible, programming because of the potential bad press that might come from a crank who's never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer declaring that the WB is somehow culpable in the tide of youth violence because the show does contain some violence.

Did anyone consider that maybe, just maybe, the answer to this problem is not the suppression of popular culture? Perhaps we should address the fact that some people are so vacant of morality and personal responsibility that images projected on a screen could potentially push them over the edge.

TV should be showing more series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ones which show that violence has real-life consequences. But that's up to the people who hold the keys to the networks -- programmers like Les Moonves and Jamie Kellner. As long as they choose to be responsible and pull shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer off the air, there will be nobody to argue that in these times, pointing the finger at TV, movies, music, and videogames are silver-bullet answers to a complicated problem. Unless, of course, some kid comes to school and shoots the place up, all because he didn't get to watch the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

That would show 'em.

Additional contributions to this article by: Matthew Robinson, Ben Boychuk, Jason Snell.


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