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Only in America: chemist becomes America correspondent

Chemistry, which is what Hans Klis studied in Leiden, is not what one might expect of a general journalist. ‘I’m a late bloomer,’ he says, despite having spent four years as America correspondent and written a book on notorious school shootings by the tender age of 34.

Hans Klis and his wife Anke, also a journalist, left The Netherlands for America in 2014, after consulting Klis’s ‘heroes’ Thomas Erdbrink (Iran correspondent) and Arjen van Veelen (also America correspondent) about whether they would be able to earn a living there – they were. It helped that they knew each other from the NRC Handelsblad newspaper and still had contacts in the Netherlands. Klis found work for not only the NRC but also for the HP/De Tijd magazine, The Correspondent online news platform and the VPRO broadcasting organisation. Anke’s network increased their opportunities.

Hans Klis
‘With my colleagues from De Telegraaf in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the Groundhog Day celebration, with music, food and crafts. Famous from the eponymous film.’ (Photo Hans Klis)

Big differences

‘Americans are like the Dutch, but there are big differences too,’ says Klis. The country is unmistakeably western, but there is also extreme inequality. ‘In the University town of Providence with its lovely buildings and classical columns, I once took a ten-minute taxi ride and in no time found myself in a suburb with empty and burnt down houses, junkies and prostitutes and a whole load of police.’ 

Another thing that Klis noticed was how people with little money have to pay for the services at banks. ‘In contrast to richer people, they are also given a relatively hefty fine if they don’t have enough in their account. To me that’s all sorts of wrong.’ And then there’s the almost sacred, practically unassailable, right to bear arms, despite the terrible consequences.’

Exciting times

For a journalist, the years 2014 to 2018 were exciting times in America. In 2014, the black population decided it would no longer tolerate the depressingly regular police killings of black men who were doing nothing wrong at the time. They reached breaking point when Eric Garner died in New York after being put in a headlock and Michael Brown was shot dead by the police in Ferguson, despite being unarmed. The black population rose up, and riots broke out. This was the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hans Klis
‘Littleton, where the Columbine school shooting took place in 1999, was where I held a gun for the first time, at my Airbnb host’s.’ (Photo Chad Paquette)

Parkland shooting

Donald Trump was voted 45th president of the United States while Klis and Anke were living there too. ‘The election campaign alone was really exciting,’ says Klis. ‘It reminded me of all the buzz around football in the Netherlands.’ With his unique style, the new president soon became an inexhaustible source of news. And then there was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Valentine’s Day 2018: 17 people, mostly students, were shot dead by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from school. It was the most deadly school shooting since 13 people died at the hands of two students of Columbine High School in 1999.

The Second Amendment

The phenomenon of school shootings intrigued Klis. ‘I started to find out more about it and came across myths that I wanted to debunk. Many Dutch people think that American crazies are the only ones to love guns, but that isn’t true at all – people with common sense also have a gun at home.’ He went back to the source of the right to bear arms: the Second Amendment, which was added to the constitution in 1791. At that time, the police force hadn’t yet been invented. Although the wording of the amendment is unclear, the supreme court has twice interpreted it as the right of all Americans, or adults at least, to defend themselves with a weapon.

Hans Klis
‘I met parents from Parkland and Coral Springs on Valentine's Day 2018 to talk about their experiences.’

Little research into effects of possession of firearms

Attitudes to firearms even affect scientific research. Klis: ‘A bill has been passed that prevents research into firearms that could provide material for anti-weapon groups. The big national public health organisation Disease Control & Prevention no longer dares to conduct any research whatsoever into gun violence. Only as a by-product of other research does any data become available at all.’ The universities are equally cautious. Klis: ‘David Hemenway, a Harvard researcher into the effects of firearm possession, told me that he discourages students from beginning a career in that area.’ 

However, Klis does see signs of a possible sea change, just as attitudes to smoking have changed. Klis: ‘Four out of five Americans are at least in favour of stricter firearms legislation. This could mean better background checks and increasing the minimum age for gun possession. Sports shops are stopping selling firearms. The NRA is suddenly losing members and in financial trouble. Gun possession seems to be becoming less of a given.’

Hans Klis
‘At Final Frontier Design in Brooklyn, where I tried on one of the new generation of space suits for NASA.’ (Photo Sebastiaan Knoops)

Gun lobby

‘The arms industry is very powerful,’ says Klis, ‘and the same is true for the National Rifle Association (NRA), an association of five million supporters of more-lenient gun laws.’ But 35,000 Americans die from gun violence every year – that’s the entire population of a town such as Gorkum or Coevorden. And school shootings are much more frequent in America than we in the Netherlands realise because we only hear about the big ones. The risk of falling victim to a weapon increases by a factor of three if you have a gun at home. Hard, telling facts, says Klis.

Young people speak out

The campaign by students after the Parkland shootings was an important aspect of this development. ‘They spoke out loud and clear straight away, at various meetings and by making clever use of social media,’ says Klis. ‘And children are much more difficult to brush aside than adults. The question is whether the movement will continue. The students are getting older and going to university. Will they persist? Will they pass the baton on to the next generation? I’m not sure.’

The shootings resulted in higher security at schools and nurseries. Klis and his wife had a baby while living in America and began to wonder whether this was what they wanted for their son. ‘Obviously not. It was an important reason why we returned to The Netherlands in August 2018.’ Upon his return, Klis started writing his book Generatie Columbine; opgroeien met school shootings in Amerika, [Generation Columbine; growing up with school shootings in America], which was published on 25 April.

Hans Klis
‘Here I’m exploring the Tree National Park in California with my son Joshua.’ (Photo Anke Meijer)

Academic training important

‘My academic training has been of enormous benefit,’ says Klis, who was a member of the Catena student association, ‘for my book too. I love trawling through research reports. Headlines don’t interest me much. I prefer to look at the facts behind them. I sometimes feel like more of a historian than a journalist.’ 

Klis calls himself a late bloomer, rather strange for someone who at the tender age of 34 has already been America correspondent and has a book and a child to his name. ‘I mean that it took a long time to realise that journalism in the broader sense suits me best. That’s why I wanted to do the Master’s in Journalism and New Media in Leiden, but I couldn’t get into it, so ended up not finishing it. I worked at Mare, under Arjen van Veelen, at VARA as a science journalist and then went to the NRC. My heart lies in general journalism. I know that for sure now.

Text: Corine Hendriks
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Banner photo by Koen van der Velden: ‘This was a report about the bankruptcy of Bethlemen Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The steel beams that were produced here in the first half of the twentieth century made the skyline of Manhattan.’ 

Hans Klis
Generatie Columbine; opgroeien met school shootings in Amerika
Uitgeverij Podium

238 pp.

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