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.