I’ve resisted writing about the Virginia Tech shootings. They provoked shock, horror, incredulity, and profound sadness. My attempts to record my reactions were inadequate and I scrapped them, along with my initial comments about the university’s response. Had I known what the university’s administrators knew when they knew it, I cannot say I would have done anything differently. I was humbled into silence by my own high-horse hindsight, knowing it would take time for me to start to get my arms around these murders and their aftermath.
One word contains what I believe is the truth of these crimes: senseless. A Google search for <"Virginia Tech" senseless> yields 541,000 website hits and almost 2,600 articles. Sphere It reports over 16,000 blog posts containing these words. We acknowledge the killings are senseless and then we try to explain them, to impose order and reason on chaos. These killings are beyond rational explanation. Seung-Hui Cho’s alienation, rage, and sense of persecution were grotesquely magnified a thousand-fold by his mental illness into a perfect storm of violence. Thousands of people are bullied, alienated, shy, lonely, disconnected, and they don’t kill. These killings are the violently irrational product of a profoundly disturbed human being.
I submit that we are incapable of understanding and preventing similar acts. Mine is an unpopular, uncomfortable position. We struggle to explain horrific events because, we say, we have to do something to prevent them from happening again. “Doing something” becomes the rallying cry, proving that we are not powerless and vulnerable. We are doing something, yet that something often bears no relationship to the event that set it in motion. To fight terrorism we ban water bottles on airplanes. There is no reason to ban water bottles yet we do because it satisfies our need for a response. It means we are doing something.
We respond to these murders by identifying a cause. People are appropriating them to prove a link between violence and (take your pick) Korean martial arts films, graphic novels, video games, uninvolved or ineffective parents, bullying, and godless liberal secularism. Depending on which side of the gun debate you listen to, either Cho obtained his weapons because it is too easy to buy guns or Cho’s violence claimed so many victims because not enough people carry guns to defend themselves. The murders are a slate on which we write our explanatory narrative.
The most heated discussion I’ve faced concerned publication of portions of Cho’s manifesto by NBC and of the picture of Cho brandishing weapons by The New York Times and other newspapers. The coverage deeply offended and angered one of my friends. I defended their publication and off we went. He argued that these images would provoke copy-cat killings and should have been squelched. I argued two things. First, that they would surface someplace, if not on NBC or in the Times then on YouTube and the hundreds of Internet sites devoted to graphic images of violence and hatred, in which they would not have the context of news. Second, and more important, I don’t believe that images such as these create copycat killings. A killer may fire a pistol in each hand, find a manifesto in Helter Skelter, or take orders from his dog, but these do not make John Woo, the Beatles, or the the pound responsible for his crimes. Correlation is not causation. We rarely understand human motivation for ostensibly rational behavior. Understanding mental illness that lies beneath acts of random violence against strangers is beyond our comprehension. Trying to draw a direct line between the publication of Cho’s picture above the fold of a daily paper and the next act of senseless violence reduces senselessness to two dimensions.