Reporters and anchors covering the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have frequently mentioned the disturbing similarity between images from the latest tragic event, during which seventeen people died, and those from the April 20, 1999, attack on Columbine High School in Littleton. But there's another tie between these tragedies beyond bloodshed and heartache. Politicians and stakeholders desperate to deflect calls for tougher gun laws are once again suggesting that violence in popular culture is more responsible for what happened in Parkland than are easily procured weapons. And as was the case after Columbine, one of the main whipping boys is actor Keanu Reeves.
Two days after the Parkland attack, during an interview on NPR, Representative Brian Mast, a Florida Republican who's happily accepted donations from the National Rifle Association over the years, tried to change the subject from gun control like so: "What do we do with the biggest pusher of violence? The biggest pusher of violence is, hands down, Hollywood movies [and] hands down, the video-game market. When you look at Call of Duty — when you look at movies like John Wick — the societal impact of people being desensitized to killing in ways that are different than how someone on the battlefield is desensitized is troubling, and very different."
Mast's mention of John Wick, a revenge flick with a high body count that stars Reeves as the title character, echoes the many post-Columbine attempts to suggest that killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were inspired by The Matrix based largely on its popularity at the time of the killings and their fondness for long jackets of the sort worn by Neo, the central figure portrayed by Reeves.
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Granted, Reeves wasn't the sole target of such accusations. After Columbine, fingers were pointed at video games along the lines of Doom, which boasts a first-person shooter format, musical acts including Marilyn Manson and Rammstein, and even other movies. Take this nonsensical rant from Jeff Sessions, the current attorney general but then a senator from Alabama, in which he complained that youths "are able to rent from the video store — not just go down and see Natural Born Killers or The Basketball Diaries — but they are able to bring it home and watch it repeatedly.... Many have said this murder was very much akin to The Basketball Diaries, in which a student goes in and shoots others in the classroom. I have seen a video of that, and many others may have."
Still, the idea that The Matrix may have influenced the Columbine attack is arguably the culture-war claim that's lingered the longest, in part because folks on opposite sides of the ideological divide have seriously considered it. Among the treatises about the subject that linger online nearly two decades after the horrific episode is a jeremiad from Michael A. Hoffman, who's been described as a conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier, and a salvo by progressive writer and onetime Denver radio host Bob Harris that appeared in the liberal bible Mother Jones. And in 2008, upon the release of the sequel The Matrix Reloaded, ABC News cited Columbine in a piece headlined "Does The Matrix Inspire the Disturbed?"
Thus far, Reeves has made no comment about suggestions that John Wick laid the foundation for Parkland, nor should he feel any obligation to do so. Such statements on the part of politicians such as Congressman Mast are transparent efforts to distract from the kinds of legislative actions that might actually have a chance to turn the tide against mass shootings, whether at schools or at theaters in Aurora.
And to paraphrase the inspirational survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, we call bullshit on that.