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A Violent Script That Defines Our Lives

March 01, 1997|BILL BOYARSKY

We think we are civilized. With just a bit of irony, we congratulate ourselves on living in the pop culture capital of the world. But on Friday, L.A. was just the vicious old Wild West, where punks are armed with weapons powerful enough to outgun the Los Angeles Police Department.

The opening minutes of the gunfight at the Bank of America branch in North Hollywood were one-sided, with every advantage going to the robbers. Police handguns were outmatched by the bandits' automatic weapons.

"We went in with our 9-millimeters and some shotguns," Det. Gordon Hagge said. "They had body armor. It stopped everything we had. This guy came out shooting with an AK-47 as if he didn't have a care in the world. Their ability to sustain their fire was everything. That's why the battle lasted so long.

"If you write anything," Hagge told me on a nearby street not long after the shooting, "say we were outgunned."


Outgunned and overwhelmed by a permissive, rootless society that glorifies violence on television and in the movies. Worse yet, it is a society that permits every vicious criminal and nut, their minds poisoned by Hollywood's glorification of killing, to get automatic weapons capable of firing armor-piercing bullets through cars and houses.

Death is cheap, plentiful, painless and often comic on the screen. It loses any meaning.

The movie and TV moguls, their lives far removed from the concerns of most people, justify their violence by invoking the sacred icon--art. They insist that the carnage on the screen doesn't cause violence.

I made that argument, myself, on a panel discussion a couple of years ago. My parents permitted my brother and me to watch and read everything. What was wrong with that? We didn't turn out to be violent.

Another panelist cut me to shreds.

His son was emotionally disturbed. Whenever the child happened to see violence on television, it upset him terribly. Maybe it didn't bother you. Maybe it didn't bother your kids, he said. But it bothers mine.

It would be an oversimplification to say that movie and television violence is the sole cause of tragedies such as the one at the bank. Even so, an uncounted number of people are profoundly affected by what they hear and see.

And for that minority of them who are violent, society has given them an outlet, a release, an easily obtained weapon--the firearm.

Not just a firearm, but a world-class automatic weapon that has no other use except to kill people.

So after submerging themselves in hours of televised brutality, probably stoking themselves with booze, drugs or both, the new American killer takes to the streets to act out what he has seen on the screen.

That's what these thugs were doing, dressed in black, in what the media called commando garb--an unfortunate violence-glorifying phrase that demeans the brave men who have served our country as commandos.

Then, their robbery having failed, the bandits brought the violence of television into quiet residential streets near the bank where most people's only contact with violence is courtesy of Hollywood.

Television became life.

" I could hear the shooting at the Bank of America," said Ken Ogger, who lives three blocks away. He saw and heard the helicopters from the police and television news. He went inside the house and turned on the television.

Feeling safe because the bank was three blocks away, "I thought I would just sit home with the dog and be quiet and watch." But the police had shot one of the bandits in front of his house.

"I ran into the laundry room and crouched down with the dog," he said.


There's a simplistic, but powerful, lesson for all of us in Ken Ogger's terror-filled morning: All these guns, all this movie and television violence, makes victims. Sometimes they're innocent bystanders, as happened in North Hollywood.

We know the solutions. In fact, they have been talked to death.

Some are unattainable, such as dealing with violence on the screen. The lure of big bucks is too great to reverse the trend.

Then there's gun control. It would help, no doubt, but the enactment of strict laws will continue to be stopped by gun advocates who wield great influence in congressional and legislative elections. We've nibbled at the corners, and cut down the gun supply, but the gun lobby is strong enough to prevent anything drastic--or really effective.

So in the end, we have to go along with Det. Gordon Hagge and the other cops who faced the bandits' superior firepower at the Bank of America branch.

They want more powerful weapons, .45s instead of 9-millimeter Berettas. "You've got to have knockdown power," said Hagge.

I agree. But that's sad. We just won an arms race against the Soviets. Now we're in one against domestic thugs. Too bad we can't live by a doctrine of personal and societal responsibility instead of wallowing around in our culture of violence.

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