Violence is at home in the heartland

Published May 3, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Contrary to what you may have concluded from television coverage of Oklahoma City, violence has always been perfectly at home in the American "heartland."

There has been a lot of malarkey about the innocence of this "heartland," proving perhaps that a tyrannical two-coast mentality has affected the media brain. Or perhaps showing that our formal news media have been infected by tabloid journalism and talk radio with their exhilarating contempt for fact.

My own hunch is less cosmic in scope. I suspect a lot of the news people simply were seduced out of their wits by the word "heartland," which they have worked half to death since the bombing. I can understand television's doing that.

TV news people nowadays have to be faster on the draw than a Hollywood Wyatt Earp.

A moment's hesitation in TV news and you are dead in the worldwide competition to spread the word faster than a speeding bullet.

For a reporter without a millisecond to think a word like "heartland" is a godsend.

It instantly suggests goodness. Say it to the camera and the audience is bathed in warm imagery.

"Heartland." It makes you think of cocoa at bedtime and of quilting bees, and never mind that you don't like cocoa and don't know what a quilting bee is and that, given your druthers, you would probably pass up the quilting bee and stay home to watch Homicide.

TV fellow says "heartland," you think of a calm, dreamy place where folks talk about things like their druthers. Where they actually call each other "folks" and quote folksy poets like Edgar A. Guest to remind you that it takes a heap o' livin' to make a house a home.

Maybe out there in that sweet-smelling, ever-loving heartland, the high school lad still buys his date a chocolate malt on Saturday night and settles for a good-night peck at the door.

Once you say "heartland" the idea of innocence follows with leaden-footed inevitability, and suddenly, in its desperate need to get the story out in a millisecond, television has trapped itself in romantic fiction.

With its repeated suggestions that we should be shocked because this dreadful bombing has violated an innocent "heartland," television adds to the onslaught of ignorance.

Newspapers I read and movies I saw when young always painted the American heartland as the home office of violence. John Dillinger was one of its more famous citizens. Pretty Boy Floyd was another. So were Bonnie and Clyde.

They were American gangsterdom's big newsmakers in the 1930s.

You visualized them armed to the teeth, speeding along primitive two-lane highways, pausing in some failing town long enough to knock over a bank and kill indiscriminately, then disappearing back into an endlessly flat, bleak landscape.

One of American literature's crime masterpieces, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, is a true story of a Kansas family murdered by two drifters.

Its horror rises partly from Capote's power to evoke a menacing loneliness in the prairie landscape and partly from the same elements present in the bombing story: the indiscriminate murder of innocents, including children.

Is it worth noting that Oklahoma is next-door neighbor to Texas, which would surely take offense if its reputation for violence were besmirched by TV poets praising its innocence.

All this territory was once popular with the Comanche Indians, famous in film and bad history for treating the white man cruelly.

Ian Frazier's indispensable book, The Great Plains, says Comanches, in fact, killed relatively few whites, except for Texans _ easily identifiable then as now, says Frazier _ whom they seemed to despise with a special passion.

Oklahoma itself of course was born in sorrow, its so-called "Indian territory" being where the government herded Indians who obstructed the white man's will.

When it was found that a lot of these Indians were sitting on underground lakes of oil, they had to be undone again, though with more subtle violence.

Something awful was done in Oklahoma City. No doubt of that. It's a violent place, that heartland. Always has been. Don't let the television dumb us down on that point.

New York Times News Service