I saw an old friend on the Acela on the way to Washington, and he told me of the glum, grim faces at the station he’d left, all the commuters with newspapers in their hands and under their arms. This was the day after Virginia Tech. We talked about what was different this time, in this tragedy. I told him I felt people were stricken because they weren’t stricken. When Columbine happened, it was weird and terrible, and now there have been some incidents since, and now it’s not weird anymore. And that is what’s so terrible. It’s the difference between “That doesn’t happen!” and “That happens.”
Actually I thought of Thoreau. He said he didn’t have to read newspapers because if you’re familiar with a principle you don’t have to be familiar with its numerous applications. If you know lightning hits trees, you don’t have to know every time a tree is struck by lightning.
In terms of school shootings, we are now familiar with the principle.
Dennis Miller the other night said something compassionate and sensible on TV. Invited to criticize some famous person’s stupid response to a past tragedy, he said he sort of applied a 48 hour grace period after a tragedy and didn’t hold anyone to the things they’d said. People get rattled and say things that are extreme.
But more than 48 hours have passed. So: some impressions.
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There seems to me a sort of broad national diminution of common sense in our country that we don’t notice in the day-to-day but that become obvious after a story like this. Common sense says a person like Cho Seung-hui, who was obviously dangerous and unstable, should have been separated from the college population. Common sense says someone should have stepped in like an adult, like a person in authority, and taken him away. It is only common sense that if a person like Cho leaves a self-aggrandizing, self-celebrating, self-pitying video diary of himself to be played by the mass media, the mass media should not play it and not publicize it, not make it famous. Common sense says that won’t help.
And all those big cops, scores of them, hundreds, with the latest, heaviest, most sophisticated gear, all the weapons and helmets and safety vests and belts. It looked like the brute force of the state coming up against uncontrollable human will.
But it also looked muscle bound. And the schools themselves more and more look muscle bound, weighed down with laws and legal assumptions and strange prohibitions.
The school officials I saw, especially the head of the campus psychological services, seemed to me endearing losers. But endearing is too strong. I mean “not obviously and vividly offensive.” The school officials who gave all the highly competent, almost smooth and practiced news conferences seemed to me like white, bearded people who were educated in softness. Cho was “troubled”; he clearly had “issues”; it would have been good if someone had “reached out”; it’s too bad America doesn’t have better “support services.” They don’t use direct, clear words, because if they’re blunt, they’re implicated.
The literally white-bearded academic who was head of the campus counseling center was on Paula Zahn Wednesday night suggesting the utter incompetence of officials to stop a man who had stalked two women, set a fire in his room, written morbid and violent plays and poems, been expelled from one class, and been declared by a judge to be “mentally ill” was due to the lack of a government “safety net.” In a news conference, he decried inadequate “funding for mental health services in the United States.” Way to take responsibility. Way to show the kids how to dodge.
The anxiety of our politicians that there may be an issue that goes unexploited was almost—almost—comic. They mean to seem sensitive, and yet wind up only stroking their supporters. I believe Rep. Jim Moran was first out of the gate with the charge that what Cho did was President Bush’s fault. I believe Sen. Barack Obama was second, equating the literal killing of humans with verbal coarseness. Wednesday there was Sen. Barbara Boxer equating the violence of the shootings with the “global warming challenge” and “today’s Supreme Court decision” upholding a ban on partial-birth abortion.
One watches all of this and wonders: Where are the grown-ups?
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I wondered about the emptiness of the phrases used by the media and by political figures, and how pro forma and lifeless and cold they are. The formalized language of loss hasn’t kept up with the number of tragedies. “A nation mourns.” “Our prayers are with you.” The latter is both self-complimenting and of dubious believability. Did you really pray? Or is it just a phrase?
And this as opposed to the honest things normal people say: “Oh no.” “I am so sorry.” “I’m sad.” “It’s horrible.”
With all the therapy in our great therapized nation, with all our devotion to emotions and feelings, one senses we are becoming a colder culture, and a colder country. We purport to be compassionate—we must respect Mr. Cho’s privacy rights and personal autonomy—but of course it is cold not to have protected others from him. It is cold not to have protected him from himself.
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The last testament Cho sent to NBC seemed more clear evidence of mental illness—posing with his pistols, big tough gangsta gonna take you out. What is it evidence of when NBC News, a great pillar of the mainstream media, runs the videos and pictures on the nightly news? Brian Williams introduced the Cho collection as “what can only be described as a multi-media manifesto.” But it can be described in other ways. “The self-serving meanderings of a crazy, self-indulgent narcissist” is one. But if you called it that, you couldn’t lead with it. You couldn’t rationalize the decision.
Such pictures are inspiring to the unstable. The minute you saw them, you probably thought what I did: We’ll be seeing more of that.
The most common-sensical thing I heard said came Thursday morning, in a hospital interview with a student who’d been shot and was recovering. Garrett Evans said of the man who’d shot him, “An evil spirit was going through that boy, I could feel it.” It was one of the few things I heard the past few days that sounded completely true. Whatever else Cho was, he was also a walking infestation of evil. Too bad nobody stopped him. Too bad nobody moved.