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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Senseless

Being the compulsive news junkie that I am, when I get the chance, I watch bits of up to five national nightly news broadcasts. Brought to me by the magic of satellite, these come to me from London, Paris, Madrid, Dublin and Washington. And, on a good night, I even get around the previous evening’s broadcast of The Daily Show. Most nights the lead stories vary or are totally different from one news program to the other. Naturally enough, barring a major international incident, the top stories are from within the country of origin. On Monday night, they all had the same dominant story. (And the next night too.) The American one (Fox News, the only American news channel I get which is not an “internationalized” version), like its competitors, was giving wall-to-wall coverage. (Despite its usual attention to topicality, The Daily Show only briefly and obliquely acknowledged the dominant event of the day and then went about its usual shtick, spending half the program on a strangely unfunny and, in the end, irrelevant-to-anything-that-matters series of jokes about the White House email system.)

As I was trying to explain to my almost-seven-year-old the next morning why she was likely to hear about the Virginia Tech massacre (and possibly get asked about it, since many Irish people instinctively assume that all countries are as tightly knit as their own), I told her that, unfortunately, bad things happen in the world everyday, but I reassured her that we were safe where we are. I further explained that when more than 30 people die in a single incident of inexplicable and random violence in America, it is considered major news precisely because it doesn’t happen that often. At least it didn’t used to seem that it did.

Sadly, however, there is a sickening sense of déjà vu about this latest tragedy—just as there was the last time and the time before. The only things really new are the location and death toll. The rest of it seems all too familiar. Including the commentary and rhetoric that accompanies the event. I know that journalists are human beings and they are struggling through something like this—just like the rest of us onlookers. But still, do they have to be so predictable? European reporters wasted little time before invoking America’s “gun culture,” as if there were something inherently flawed in the American character that causes these all-too-frequent tragedies. And maybe that’s true. But just on the basis of common sense it ignores that fact that in recent years there have been similar incidents (although not on this particular scale) in Scotland and Germany. And then there is the matter of various groups in places like the Basque country and Northern Ireland that have a recent history of committing atrocities. (In 1998, a half-day’s drive from my current home, a bomb killed 29 people going about their business in shops and on the street in Omagh.) Does anyone shake their head at the problem of Europe’s “bomb culture.” But commentators tend to make a distinction between these sorts of acts and America’s school shootings because the latter constitute “senseless” violence, i.e. there was no recognizable political or social purpose behind the atrocity. Principled pacifists might well ask, is violence ever sensible? The rest of us can ponder whether there is any meaningful moral distinction between randomly shooting strangers for delusional reasons and blowing them up for political reasons in a country that has reasonable democratic representation. The distinction is certainly lost on the victims.

The next-day coverage (which I mostly heard on National Public Radio) predictably focused on who was going to get the blame. No, I don’t mean the gunman. What’s the point in that? He was dead after all. No, in the void left by the exhaustion of actual new available facts, the “story” became about potential negligence, i.e. second-guessing what the authorities did in the wake of the initial two shootings, which appeared to be crime of passion followed by flight and which preceded the full-scale massacre by hours. Certainly, the question has to be raised, but let’s face it. The recriminating media voices questioning the officials’ judgment were undoubtedly some of the same ones that ridiculed officials in Boston three months ago for overreacting to a guerilla publicity campaign on behalf of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. If people in the business of public safety feel they just can’t win, can anyone really blame them?

The next predictable media wave was that of the pundits and politicians hauling their well-trod arguments for and against gun control. An incident like the one in Virginia would seem to be a slam dunk for the idea of outlawing the kinds of assault weapons that have no conceivable purpose beyond inflicting physical mayhem. But the other side then trots out their response that every incident of this sort invariably involves some gun restriction law that was violated and could not be, or simply was not, enforced. But people, on both sides, who care about this issue necessarily get energized when a travesty of this sort occurs—thinking that maybe this will finally be the time that moves public opinion. But it never happens, or least not for long. Personally, as someone who has never owned a gun or fired a gun, I would not be particularly bothered if the Second Amendment were repealed tomorrow. But that doesn’t seem to be at all likely, and it’s questionable how much effect it would really have on America’s levels of violence and crime anyway. A couple of things are clear at any rate. One is that the existence and legality of guns does not cause these terrible sorts of incidents. But outlawing the most powerful weaponry would certainly curtail at least of few of them by putting a potentially crucial delay in a madman’s progress. But it is also clear that gun bans on the city, and even state, level are more symbolic than effective. And, given the porous-ness of national boundaries, a federal one might well be too. Also, consider this: one statistic that has always stuck in my mind is that my former home of Redmond, Washington, had (at the time I lived there anyway) one of the highest levels of gun ownership per capita in the nation. It also had one of the lowest crime rates.

Apart from the problem of the availability of all kinds of weaponry in America, I think most of us can agree that the real problem is whatever it is that makes an individual or pair of individual unexpectedly turn into crowd murdering commandos. Is it the culture? In a word, no. You can’t judge an entire culture on the behavior of what a statistically miniscule percentage of its members do. If America were really the gun-toting, wild-west, quick-to-draw culture that many Europeans and more than a few urban blue-staters think, then it would have been relatively likely that one of the shooter’s fellow students would have been packing heat and been able to get the drop on him from behind. That didn’t happen because Virginia students (unlike their senator) don’t pack heat when going to class, and besides Virginia Tech is officially a gun-free zone.

In the end, what may put students and teachers in the American heartland at risk for this random sort of attack may be the same thing that puts American forces (or, more frequently, easier-to-target hapless civilians) at risk of suicide attacks in Iraq. It’s not that Americans hold life to be too cheap. It’s that we hold it to be so precious. That is why demented souls know that they way to wound the American psyche is to provide the most horrific images of bloodletting to the international airwaves—even if the perpetrator himself does not live to see the film footage. Our very respect for human life (especially our own) may paradoxically be what puts us at risk at having it snatched away by a sick, twisted mind. Such spectacular attacks are never quite as successful against closed societies with government-controlled media and seem beside the point as a retaliation against governments or movements who use suicide bombers. The problem with this analysis is that it poses a problem that has no solution, and that is something we humans abhor. So we will go on berating university officials and police for not be omniscient.

By the third day, we had a face and name to put on the crime, and there was more déjà vu. Is it a hard=and-fast rule of the media playbook or merely statistical probability that they will find acquaintances and near-acquaintances who will pronounce the criminal a “loner” or that we will hear that there were ample “warning signs”?

The one old saw that I have not yet seen in the post-massacre coverage is the one where it is reported and speculated that the shooter was obsessed by some movie or some video game. Just as those who would like to see tougher gun laws or outlaw guns completely see such an event as vindication of their position, the same is true of those do not like certain kinds of entertainment. I am long on record on this issue. You cannot optimize art and entertainment for society’s weakest minds. If you do that, we will all end up with weak minds.

-S.L., 19 April 2007


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