The Last Word: 'A Nation Of Chihuahuas'

Michael Moore's brand of comedic activism has become legendary. His 1989 debut documentary "Roger and Me," where Moore unabashedly stalks General Motors chairman Roger Smith to ask about factory closings in his hometown of Flint, Mich., was a muckraking classic with a satirical twist. His latest documentary, "Bowling for Columbine," tackles the subject of rampant gun violence in America, a problem highlighted by the recent gruesome string of sniper killings in the Washington, D.C. area. It has already broken box-office records on both sides of the Atlantic and won a special jury prize at Cannes. Currently in London performing a one-man show--the stage features giant photos of famous politicians in their youth--Moore spoke to NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell. Excerpts:

BROWNELL: Your latest movie, book and show focus on America, yet there's an obvious resonance here in Europe.

MOORE: I think that Europeans respond well to my work not because they dislike America, but because they see my work as a warning that if they continue to adopt certain American ways, they will have a worse, less safe society as a result.

"Bowling for Columbine" shows chilling scenes of American apathy toward gun violence. What is wrong with Americans?

We are numb to it. In "Roger and Me" I interviewed a woman who clubs a little bunny to death. Twelve years later people still remember that from the film. No one remembers that two minutes later in the film, a black man is shot by the police in the middle of the street, because that is just another black guy being shot. But a little bunny rabbit--oh, my God--people were in an uproar. We won't accept responsibility for each other. We have an ethic that says [Washington sniper suspect] John [Allen] Muhammad has a right to legally purchase a rifle in his own name and that the police do not have a right to do ballistic fingerprinting on these rifles. I am a huge defender of the Bill of Rights, and that includes the Second Amendment. But like most Americans, I am willing to give up a little bit for the common good.

Is America more violent than other countries?

I do not think our propensity for violence is any greater than anyone else's. Europeans and Asians certainly have a long history of violence. I think the difference is that they structure their society differently [with built-in safety nets like free or low-cost education, health care and pension plans] so that people feel a bit more responsible for each other. Americans have a much more individualistic, every-man-for-himself nature. [In Canada, for example,] there is never the stress, the tension, the fear, the horror of, 'Oh, my God. If I lose it all what will I do?' That safety net makes the entire society safer.

The British also have these social safety nets but street crime continues to grow. Doesn't that go against your argument?

For 20 years the British have slowly chipped away at that safety net and, as they have done that, they have taken away from social services, taken away health care and now they want to charge university students tuition to go to school here. As they take away the little pieces, it has resulted in a less safe society. It has gone hand in hand with them trying to emulate America. You want to beat up on the poor? Then guess what? The poor are going to beat back.

Do you really think Bush is as dumb as you make him out to be? Were we safer under Clinton?

Bush is that dumb, but the people around him are very, very smart [and] they are successfully using him. I don't think we were safer under Clinton. I think that most Americans felt safer with Clinton and Gore because they were not as motivated by [big business]. They are not in the game of politics to line their pockets. They had other motivations, other desires--Clinton's were very clear. But what makes it scary under Bush is that the primary motivation is to repay his billionaire benefactors.

You mention in your show that Bush kept saying how he was going to smoke Osama bin Laden out of his hole. And now, it's as if they have forgotten about him and all this concentration is focused on Saddam Hussein.

It's like weapons of mass distraction. It is about getting people distracted and keeping people nervous, jumping around. We are [being] turned into a nation of little, shaking Chihuahuas.

With this new world order, are we really safe anywhere?

By and large it is a remarkably safe world, considering what our capacity is for violence and what our ability is in terms of the weapons that we have. We have had the ability to blow up the world now for over 50 years, yet the last time an atomic bomb was dropped was in 1945. That is absolutely amazing to me. The planet has got 80,000 warheads. That is why I remain an optimist.