Action and Reaction

This week a horrible person with horrible intentions did something unconscionable and unredeemable. He strapped on a bullet-proof vest, loaded-up with ammunition enough to wage a private war and slaughtered students at Virginia Tech. And, now there will be tears and rage, confusion and blame.

In the aftermath, as people search hopelessly for answers enough to square the tragedy away conveniently into an understandable box, easy and convenient culprits will be dragged into the national spotlight and lambasted with great and furious hyperbole by people with an agenda. You will hear the usual suspects mentioned sometimes with explicit accusations of causality and sometimes just with a sense of guilt by association, and politicians already in the fresh throes of a coming campaign will trot out platitudes and rhetoric.

But, when I turned on my television tonight, writing this only twelve hours after the events in Virginia, the bloodshed and graphic images projected into my home were those of an unscheduled Dateline NBC, a boy being carried with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the leg, a grainy cell-phone video with the sounds of pain and death in the background. Sitting there, I had to remind myself that these were not actors playing a part, but real screams of real fear as a person with weapons to inflict his insane will on others wounded, harmed, killed. With television celebrity Brian Williams speaking in the background and a soundtrack to chaos and horror it was much harder to separate reality from fiction in this slapped together piece of "journalism" than it ever had been in the silly plastic world of video games.

I try to imagine the rush. Quickly booked flights and packed equipment vans speeding down the eastern seaboard so Brian Williams and the cast of the Today show can broadcast live from the campus, like ESPN's College Gameday with thoughtful expressions and somber mood music. Who will be the first to get an exclusive on the latest irrelevant morsel of information, already a half-day too late to do anyone any good; the first to cobble together something that mimics at least a passing reflection of reality, comfortable with the decision to be wrong now and release "new information" later. Better to get interviews with fresh shock and maybe a smatter of blood still on the faces while the smell of gunpowder is still in the air.

I watch long enough for Mr. Williams to admit they don't have adequate information a number of times before pressing on anyway with implied inaccuracies rather than corroborated facts. It is the most grotesque thing I've watched in months, perhaps since a perfect fall day not so long ago, and I turn it off horrified for having subscribed even for a moment to the stylized fiction of ratings grabbing carnage. The buzzards have only just begun to feed on thirty or more dead, a feast for any carrion, but I don't have to watch the macabre meal.

"It's interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry."

It was just this past weekend that I sat at a local restaurant with my wife and son as Don Henley's bitter indictment of popular news media was piped in to the diners, and I chuckled to my wife that he must watch CNN in absolute disgust these days. I mean, that song is twelve years old, and the whole news entertainment industry has only become more brazen, more lascivious and more macabre. I am assured by every twenty-four hour news outlet that the complete coverage with snazzy graphics, artificial experts, painted faces reading teleprompters and bombastic headlines will be providing me round-the-clock coverage of this incident to keep me informed! There will be blood and pain, recrimination and blame, but most of all fortune and fame to be made from the terrified dead.

I understand that this is news, and it deserves to be reported for incalculable reasons, but Dateline NBC, CNN and the others aren't reporting. They are gorging themselves on sensationalism grown fat on people's pain and horror, and we media consumers are the willing host to their parasitic displays.

But the blame, that's the next part of the equation right? We all see it coming, a bright light with a train whistle behind it. Despite the clear and irrefutable fact that we share a reality far too complex to allow a single or even knowable reason to explain an event like this, glorious television reduces the complexity and provides us with answers that sustain us and reinforce the easy biases we already cling to like an oiled rope over a gaping abyss. Maybe that's why we like the damn thing so much.

Tragedies like this, populated by crazy people with the means to do us harm, are older than humanity itself. If you want a reason, a cause for this kind of heinous act, then I'm afraid you'll need a geneticist not a psychiatrist. With 300,000,000 of us jammed onto a third of this continent, it's amazing to me that this thing doesn't happen more often; that violent crime is actually down. It doesn't seem fair that thirty people died in fear just because it's the way the bones rolled, and I can't imagine how the other victims, the friends and families of the dead or dying, must feel, but there are no answers that can reverse time and undo the acts of madmen. 100,000 years of human history suggests that we are helpless to avoid these kinds of act.

The real issue, for me, from a personal level, is that we wallow in the horror, selling SUVs between catchphrases and grainy video, and we only rarely act. We are a culture excited by the tragedy, nodding our head solemnly when the experts speak, putting our hands over our mouths in meaningless horror when the roll-call of the dead is spoken and making our momentous proclamations from the comfort of the Lay-Z-Boy. We have our only choice at that moment, which is the decision to keep watching and reward the broadcasters, or not watch and maybe make some effort to find meaning in whatever we have left of this life.

I've written three drafts of this article now, and at the end of them all I've tried to artificially put in the Happy Ending. You know the Happy Ending where I empower the reader to affect the world around them for the better in whatever effort might be possible to fight the commercialism of death and culture of violence, and every time it rang hollow, not because it is a poor sentiment, but because it's something we already know. It's like having someone remind you to breathe in and out, and to tell you to turn off the television during a horror like this and go help someone instead is just words on a website.

For most of us, we have very little of this world that we can control, and we are regularly at the mercy of people we don't even know. Sometimes, those people seek to do us harm and succeed, but it is not the action of the troubled killer that defines who we are as a people. It is our shared reaction that does, and we have much that can be improved.

Comments

Well said, Elysium. An eloquent call to lead an engaged and introspective life.

Thanks, Elysium. If only we could find a way to demonstrate our non-participation in the sensationalism without putting restrictions on it.

Hear, hear.

Amen, brother.

Well said.

If only the media would realize that inspiring fear into their viewers is not the only way to get their attention.

Thanks Elysium. It's reassuring to know that others share my disgust with televised media and that it's possible for us to maintain the proper perspective after a tragedy of these proportions, as grim as it is to admit that the world isn't always the warm, fuzzy place that we wish it were. Reading articles like this helps me cope with that reality, so again, thank you.

Jolly Bill wrote:

Thanks, Elysium. If only we could find a way to demonstrate our non-participation in the sensationalism without putting restrictions on it.

You could publically criticize game companies that publish games that glorify senseless violence.

Just one thought.

-peterb

I share your thoughts. I can't tell you how disappointed I've been by the ongoing displays of morbid fascination and sensational dramatization that are supposedly passed off as deep concern.

It's extremely frustrating to have to cope with the media coverage of such events. Aren't the underlying tragedies shocking, outrageous, and sad enough? It's like pouring salt in the wound.

And as far as the blame issue is concerned, there's little healing to be found in the finger-pointing game. Though it's obviously essential to do everything possible to prevent such things from happening again, the reality of the situation is such that there aren't easy or simple explanations beyond the personal motivations and choices of this very ill individual (which in and of themselves are not easily explained). In times like this I think grief and compassion for those affected serve everyone involved much better than self-righteous indignation.

I'm not entirely sure what they're trying to argue or how, but Slate has an editorial that concludes similarly:

If the networks weren't pinging Facebook for leads, if the New York Times weren't compiling a "Portraits of Grief" for the Blacksburg kids right now"”as I bet they are"”and if the story came to a close tonight on Anderson Cooper's show, readers and viewers would riot.

In this case, I'm neither a reader nor viewer.

peterb wrote:
Jolly Bill wrote:

Thanks, Elysium. If only we could find a way to demonstrate our non-participation in the sensationalism without putting restrictions on it.

You could publically criticize game companies that publish games that glorify senseless violence.

Just one thought.

I would rather publicly criticize the news and media vultures that feed of the real life senseless violence and call it a public service, than a company who makes games for entertainment and doesn't try to pass it off as anything but.

Great article Elysium.

I remember when I first heard about what had happened, a friend of mine e-mailed me about it. The first thing that came to mind was to not watch any TV for the next few days because I knew it was going to become a circus. Instead I came here and read a bit of the thread that people posted and thought about why things like this happen.

You could publically criticize game companies that publish games that glorify senseless violence.

While I _do_ criticize companies that publish the glorification of senseless violence, I think the portrayal of _actual_ violence and the sensationalization of that is far worse. For one, video games appeal to a limited segment, and particularly violent video games, but more importantly video games are not grounded in the reality. The whole point of my comment was that the glorification of real violence is a far more appaling thing to me, because the very nature of the event is entirely different. No matter how many terrorists I kill in Counter-Strike, it is irrelevant to the single murder of an innocent person, and to equate the two at all is to miss the point.

The point of this is not to find blame. That very act is futile and limiting. Picking who you will criticize doesn't do anyone justice, and that's a point I was hoping to make. I also didn't want to tell other poeple what to do, because that's another regular fault that people take in reaction.

Wow, incredibly powerful article. Ultimately, you've highlighted the sad state of reality. Society is constantly seeking after scapegoats, and it seems to me that it's been doing it for the last 50 years. Elvis, Disco, violent movies, porn, and now video games. Each generation, it seems has had a scapegoat for the ills of the world. It's sadly been identified and railed on by those a generation or perhaps two before the current generation getting the most out of them.

However, I think that if you look at it in that perspective, it gives a modicum of hope, perhaps the upswing you were looking for. Just like Elvis is no longer causing our teenage girls to go out and be promiscuous, and rock and roll doesn't cause our (hypothetical in my case) sons to perform evil satanic rituals in your basement with his friends on weekends so too will we realize that Counterstrike, Doom and GoW do not make mass-murderers of high schoolers who have been ostracized.

On a bit of a more personal note, and somewhat relating to your comments on Don Henley, even though I don't recall the song in question, I feel that I could certainly agree with it. I myself haven't been able to watch mass media news without feeling almost violently ill in around 8 months following my return from a deployment. So, in that respect, I can certainly understand having a certain amount of dislike for the sensationalist reporting we've seen in the last 24 hours.

Tool wrote a great song about this, granted the subject is kind of old news now. But, still. Vicarious:

Don't look at me like
I am a monster
Frown out your one face
But with the other
Stare like a junkie
Into the TV
Stare like a zombie
While the mother holds her child,
Watches him die

Hands to the sky crying,
"Why, oh why?!"

Cause I need to watch things die
From a distance
Vicariously, I
Live while the whole world dies
You all need it too - don't lie.

Why can't we just admit it?
Why can't we just admit,
We won't give pause until the blood is flowin'
Neither the brave nor bold
Will write as the story's told
We won't give pause until the blood is flowin'

Vicarious is a perfect song to exemplify what Elysium is saying. To me, a key line in that song is:

"You all need it too - don't lie".

The media plays what we want to hear. Ultimately, we can't blame the media, the violent video game producers, or the politicians: we can only blame ourselves.

It's instinct to want to be witness to tragedy. Anyone who has ever slowed down on the highway to get a better look at a crash off the side of the road is guilty of this.

Once I saw a crowd gathered around a man who had a knife to the throat of a toddler....a part of me was fascinated, but a larger part of me said "I don't want to see this girl die". Certain that someone had already called the police, and that my presence could do absolutely nothing to help, I walked away and hoped for the best, fighting against my instincts to stay.

Thankfully, the little girl made out out okay, but the horror of that day still sticks with me. And as disturbing as the psychopath and his inhuman behavior was, I was also largely disturbed by the crowd of onlookers, staring at this scene as if it was some kind of strange street theatre. Part of me wanted to be part of that scene also.

We are victims of our own instincts, I think. So why do our instincts make us need to bear witness to tragedy?

"The radio plays what they want you to hear. They tell me it's cool; I just don't believe it"?

Great work, Ely.

I am reminded of the movie "Unforgiven" where the young gun goes down to the outhouse to shoot a man. He had been running his mouth about having killed plenty of men in the past, but it turns out that this was his first. Ultimately, after completing the act - his last. I can't begin to image how far out over the abyss this guy was and what ultimately drove him to commit these acts. As news reports surface of this person being bullied and picked on in school, I'm trying to imagine the events of his life that led up to where we are now.

In terms of news coverage... the raw human emotion in the unfolding of these events is, no doubt, a reminder of our own mortality. The sensationalism of death and destruction is nothing new - but the instant access to news and information about it changes the impact on our lives. The want for immediacy has eclipsed the need for discretion and accuracy.

Turn off your TV. Go hug your loved ones and give praise to be alive. Teach your children to love and not bully or hate. We cannot change the past, we can only live for the future.

I hope that rings true and not hollow. It's a tough sentiment to make, but I firmly believe we can make a difference.

I will give big ups to CNN.com for publishing stories and celebrations of the lives of those who died right on the front page. It is refreshing to see that instead of the gruesome, macabre images and words of the killer.

Well put, Elysium. The eloquence of your writing is only outshone by the clarity and poignance of your thesis.

As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

At the risk of dragging this thread down to a firey hell of politics, Jon Stewart said something last night that really hit home for me.

There are bombings constantly in Iraq. It seems as though nearly every day you can find a report of one buried in the second or third page of the newspaper - "30 Dead in Baghdad Bombing" has become so common that we are used to seeing it and don't really feel much of a need to read through the article. Massacres beyond the level of the Virginia Tech shootings go on every day in Iraq and the Sudan, and they continue to occur with disturbing frequency in Somalia and Israel.

I don't mean to belittle the tragedy of the VT shootings. I wholeheartedly agree that we should be mourning. Regardless of your politics, however, it does make you stop and think at least for a second to realize how common this is in many places. We're pretty lucky to be living somewhere as safe as the United States, where the Virginia Tech tragedy remains tragic and not a fact of daily life.

Great Point WoodenTaco. Wasn't there a quote attributed to *shiver* Stalin or someone that went
"1 person dies and it's a tragedy, 1,000,000 people die and it's a statistic?"

It wasn't attributed. It was really his.
And it is true. That makes one wonder about point of being sorry for these people. Cortazar once wrote this: what a cruel or thoughtless creatures we have been made if we could grieve when our mother dies but just walk on when we hear about thousands of people killed in earthquake.
The point about "30 Dead in Baghdad Bombing" is very accurate. Death became worth anything only from journalism standpoint. Scary.
But it's only side remark.

Maybe something good will come out of this whole thing. Maybe the media will finally wise up and realise that they may be part of the problem and not just blame games, music and movies. They are quick to judge or find an easy solution to a complex problem but have been severly lacking in self inspection. The fact is that up to this point they have never suspected themselves of being instigators of this kind of violence. If they have any brains at all the last twenty four hours of their coverage and the public backlash it caused should act as a real eye opener.

As regards to the Slate article, where the writer almost begs us to forgive crass reporters? Is this guy for real? We should feel bad for reporters sensationalizing tragedy because well shucks they're just doing their jobs and they hate this sort of thing? Is he for real?

Well said, Elysium.

Nicely communicated Ely. I do share your aversion with the sensationalism and have even gone as far as forbidding people around me to talk about this event. In my opinion, every second we spend talking about it, we fan the flames of the next psycho that wants to be heard.

Dysplastic wrote:

The media plays what we want to hear. Ultimately, we can't blame the media, the violent video game producers, or the politicians: we can only blame ourselves.

Sometimes I wonder if the world would be a better place if it were 7 billion clones of me. Probably not, but at least there would be no need for such statements. There is tragedy all over the world. All the time. And has been for as long as we walked on two feet.
I also don't put much stock into the theory of media only giving us what we want. They have been known to try and tell us what is it that we want to hear, rather than the other way around. Most people are mindless drones that just want to be told what to think and what to feel. 200 years ago they went to the church for that, today they watch CNN.

Dysplastic wrote:

It's instinct to want to be witness to tragedy. Anyone who has ever slowed down on the highway to get a better look at a crash off the side of the road is guilty of this.

Yes and no. Personally, I will look upon such events with curiosity, but not to see body parts and/or human drama. I would look upon such events to try and learn what has happened so as to learn from other people's mistakes and prepare myself to not repeat them.

MoonDragon wrote:

Sometimes I wonder if the world would be a better place if it were 7 billion clones of me.

I dunno. It would really kill the whole procreation thing...

Well said. I've decided not to watch the news for a long while since this happened. The "reports" I've seen were mostly nothing but speculations, assumptions and complete bullsh*t. I've barely heard a peep about any of the victims or their families. Yet, they continue to post the murder's photo every few seconds as if he had won American Idol or something.

It's sickening.

MoonDragon wrote:

I also don't put much stock into the theory of media only giving us what we want. They have been known to try and tell us what is it that we want to hear, rather than the other way around. Most people are mindless drones that just want to be told what to think and what to feel. 200 years ago they went to the church for that, today they watch CNN.

Well if people didn't watch it and come back for more they wouldn't do it. It is all about money in the end so as long as we are willing to keep their revenue flowing in (by watching their shows + the commercials of their sponsors) they will continue to produce. You can say that they are telling us what we want but if we are accepting it who is to blame? If this type of stuff didn't sell you wouldn't see it. Who is at fault? The news media or those empowering them to do what they do?

CrawlingChaos wrote:

I am reminded of the movie "Unforgiven" where the young gun goes down to the outhouse to shoot a man. He had been running his mouth about having killed plenty of men in the past, but it turns out that this was his first. Ultimately, after completing the act - his last. I can't begin to image how far out over the abyss this guy was and what ultimately drove him to commit these acts. As news reports surface of this person being bullied and picked on in school, I'm trying to imagine the events of his life that led up to where we are now.

That was a great movie, and a rare example of an extremely violent film that actually explored the subject of violence in a meaningful, thoughtful way.

Indignant wrote:

Maybe the media will finally wise up and realise that they may be part of the problem and not just blame games, music and movies. They are quick to judge or find an easy solution to a complex problem but have been severly lacking in self inspection.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahaha... *wipes a tear from his eye*.
Oh man... that was a good one.
(Not saying I disagree... just that the media actually coming to that cold realization it entirely too hopefuly to be expected.)

Excellent article, Elysium.

Wait till the lawyers start getting involved... the feeding frenzy has just started..

Theres blood in VA and all the top firms wanna get in