Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Virginia Tech massacre and the vice of common decency

Last week, thirty-two students and faculty at Virginia Tech University were gunned down by an insane young man using semi-automatic weapons.

Bart Hinkle is the deputy editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and later that day on his blog he wrote “common decency would suggest—would demand—a moratorium of at least a day or two before either side in the gun-control war starts repeating its hobbyhorse talking points. There will be plenty of time for each side to exploit the episode later—as they inevitably will.” The next day, Hinkle wrote an otherwise thoughtful piece about the tragedy but couldn’t help himself to not include a jab at those concerned about the means of death – i.e. guns. It’s nice for Mr. Hinkle to be so concerned about common decency but when “common decency” is a codeword for suppressing democratic debate about legitimate issues it is bullshit. Appealing to common decency becomes another way of preserving the status quo -- particularly when Mr. Hinkle’s newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and its owner, Media General, seem to know no bounds on common decency by engaging for the past week in the voyeurism of those driving by a bloody accident scene. Each day multiple pages have been devoted to this crime as if it were a national tragedy of the scale of September 11th.

We are a nation fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a third one brewing with Iran but you would not know it from reading the Times-Dispatch this past week. The Virginia Tech massacre was legitimate news. However, of the enormous amount of space devoted to the shootings very little carried news. There were mostly “soft” stories. Fluff replacing news has been the pattern for the TD during the past few years but the newspaper outdid itself this past week exploiting the private pain and loss of the unfortunate victims in Blacksburg and their friends and family. It is no wonder the students at Virginia Tech are fed up with this kind of baloney and have asked journalists to leave the campus.

The editorial in yesterday’s paper repeated the line that those engaged in debate are exploiting the Virginia Tech incident and this debate “diminishes the tragedy and insults the victims.” This is an editorial in the same publication that ran a picture the full width of the newspaper on the front page above the fold on Thursday of the deranged young man responsible for the killings with both his guns pointed at the camera. One can only imagine what the victims felt about the prominent display given that particular photograph of the killer in that very threatening pose in the newspaper worried about victims being insulted.

Media like the Times-Dispatch help feed the cultural monster of narcissism (i.e., reality is simply a reflection of ourselves) that turns empathy from a virtue into a vice. It cannot be emphasized enough how horrible the Virginia Tech incident was for those directly and indirectly involved. We can be bewildered, angry or scared by what happened in Blacksburg but the pain they suffered is not ours. As Rosa Brooks argues “Convincing ourselves that we've been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime.”

Rosa Brooks has these thoughts from Friday’s L.A. Times:
… There's something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized. This trivializes the pain felt by those who have actually lost something and pathologizes normal reactions to tragedy. Empathy is good, but feeling shocked and saddened by the shootings doesn't make us traumatized or special — these feelings make us normal.

Our self-indulgent conviction that we have all been traumatized also operates, ironically, to shut down empathy for other, less media-genic victims. On the day of the Virginia Tech shooting, for instance, Army Sgt. Mario K. De Leon of San Francisco (like the Virginia Tech victims) died of "wounds sustained from enemy small-arms fire". On Wednesday, car bombs killed at least 172 people in Baghdad. But no one has set up a special MySpace page to commemorate those dead.

Our collective insistence that we all share in the Virginia Tech trauma is a form of anti-politics, one that blinds us to the distinctions between different kinds and degrees of suffering.

On Wednesday, USA Today worried about the effects of "the trauma this generation [of young people] has witnessed….The Oklahoma City bombing. Columbine. Sept. 11. The space shuttle disasters. Hurricane Katrina. And now Virginia Tech. Previous generations … had their allotment of horrors — two world wars, Vietnam … but no cohort of American youth has ever endured repeated mass catastrophes in the … 24/7 media environment."
Excuse me? More than 400,000 American soldiers died in World War II, and 58,000 died in the Vietnam War, but the Millennial Generation is uniquely traumatized because it has watched sad things on TV?

Lumping together the space shuttle disasters, Columbine and Virginia Tech with terrorism, natural disasters and war dangerously decontextualizes these disparate events.

The Virginia Tech massacre was catastrophic for the victims and their loved ones, but, unlike war, it was not catastrophic for the nation. Yet President Bush — who refuses to attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq because that might "politicize" the war his administration started — ordered all federal flags at half-staff and rushed to Blacksburg to bemoan the "day of sadness for the entire nation." It's a good strategy. People busy holding candlelight vigils for the deaths in Blacksburg don't have much time left over to protest the war in Iraq.

The insistence on collective mourning even operates to depoliticize the Virginia Tech tragedy. Those who made the mistake of suggesting that the massacre might lead us to consider tighter gun regulation were quickly told to shut up because this is "a moment for grief," not politics.


Tim said...

I started to leave a comment and then realized it was going to be huge. So I slapped into a blog entry (hope you don't mind).

Sisyphus said...

I don't mind. Good piece. I recommend it:


Anonymous said...

Wow; thanks.

Jim said...

There is something askew about the attention we devote to these events. 33 died at Virginia Tech, but didn't 183 die in Iraq at about the same time? And a 33-death disaster occurs in Iraq every week or so. Yet we spend so much more time on the Va Tech tragedy. Something here violates UU's First Principle, as though Va Tech's people are worth more than people in Iraq. Excellent blog.