Killer of Sacred Cows
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
  The Lessons of Virginia Tech
I wanted to wait a few days to write about this, partly because I've been swamped with my own work and partly because I needed to give it all time to sink in, so I could work out my thoughts about it. As I see it, the lessons we can learn from Virginia Tech fall into two broad categories: One, due largely to media patterns of sensationalization and hype, we have unrealistic expectations about how the world works, and thus we have disproportionate reactions to events like this; and, two, instead of trying what hasn't worked again and hoping it will work next time, we need to find better ways - but it's doubtful that will happen unless something fundamentally changes in our society.

The first reason why we have unrealistic expectations is that don't have a sense of proportion. Our perceptions of everyday dangers are totally out of whack. We're told that Bad Things - specifically, violent crimes - happen far more often than they actually do, and so we expect that bad things will happen a lot. We hear about them more often than they actually happen - mostly due to news media focusing on them every half-hour - and so our perceptions are that crime is rising even though it's been steadily falling for over twenty years now (1). But the Bad Things are generally on the order of a single person killing one or two others, or a bank robbery, or some other relatively minor event. Additionally, since they're on near-constant repeat on the television and news radio (and lately, the internet media as well) we get desensitized about these kinds of violent crimes - and have for some time now. People don't get afraid of being shot just because they walked into the liquor store at the wrong time, usually. About the "regular" crimes, we're more or less desensitized. We have fear fatigue.

As a result, what can we be made afraid of? Big, unusual catastrophes, not violent crimes. We're afraid of mad cow disease, and bird flu, and road rage, and strangers abducting our children, and killer kids in our public schools. (2) We're more afraid of the things that are so unlikely to happen that the chance of them hitting us is even less likely than a random roll of a million-sided die coming up with our number on it than we are of the things that are statistically much more likely: car accidents, domestic violence, and so forth. One reason is that the media need to have sensational topics to attract a vanishingly small amount of available attention from people. One murder is pretty much like another, unless it's Nicole Simpson, and one suicide is pretty much just another suicide, unless it's Anna Nicole Smith. If it isn't a famous name as the victim or suspected perpetrator, these stories about regular people who have been killed, or have killed, or have killed themselves, drop off the radar within a day or two at most. The stories that the media want are the ones that we'll pay attention to for a long, long time. They want the stories that they can do a one-month, three-month, six-month retrospective on... which further serves to convince us that Bad Things happen more often than they do.

When an event like Columbine, or 9/11, or Virginia Tech takes place, the media know they have a winner. People want to know who, what, where, when, why - and perhaps most importantly HOW - it happened. And this gives the media something they can chew on for days, giving us information in dribs and drabs. What's more important, though, is that the media have us trained when there's some big event: they have a pre-set story line to stick facts into and frame the event for us. As robin_d_laws said quite succinctly in this post, these events "have become so commonplace that they feel familiar." It's another school shooting? Okay, we want to tell them place, time, and number of casualties. Then we can cut right to the chase: gun control! video games! interviews with survivors of other shootings! Do we even know the gunman's name? Nope. That's not important anyway. We all know that he (and it's always he) is going to be an angry, isolated loner, probably mentally ill. He either dresses weird - like a goth or a gangsta - or he's black, or both. He probably listens to death metal music, and he may have Asperger's, or a drug problem. He writes frightening stuff in his creative writing assignments. We already know the story. We've heard it before. We'll probably hear it again. And at the end, even if we still don't know why he did it, we know how, and we can pat ourselves on the back because "we're not like that."

Why do we know this stuff? Because the media tells us so. We've seen this movie before. It's a morality play, with consequences attached. The people at Virginia Tech made the shooter feel like he was on the outside, so he attacked them. Cause, meet effect. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold felt like their entire school hated them, so they attacked them. And Harris and Klebold's parents were never home, and didn't supervise their kids - and one recent news story about Virginia Tech said that Cho's parents were nowhere to be found when the news media went looking for them at their home (so they must not have supervised their son either). Fault, meet blame. Someone did Something which Caused The Bad Thing To Happen. We need the media to tell us this, because otherwise we can't make any sense of it. And more than that, we need to know that Something Can Be Done to address these situations, because we need to make sure they don't happen here - wherever "here" is, whether it's Yale, Tulane, UIUC, or UCLA.

This leads into my second point about our sense of proportion being out of whack: we expect that we'll be safe on a place like a college campus, a high school campus, or in an airport. More to the point, we expect perfect security. What this means is that we've raised the bar to a place it can't be reached... and as a result, when security inevitably fails, we react disproportionately to the failure. The Event itself is one huge shock; the failure of security is far more shocking than it should be, and in its own way is its own separate Event. I have the feeling that part of the reason for this is that in America, at least, we have extended childhood beyond a reasonable place. It used to be, when I was a teenager, that teens were treated like children by their parents and by society, but that we were at least given minimal acknowledgment when we got our driver's license. Most teens my age, when I was sixteen, were working a part-time job at McDonald's or Burger King. Nowadays, childhood extends into the college years. One girl I work with is 21, and it's her first job. She sits at her cube space text-messaging on her cell phone while she should be working, and worse, taking calls on her cell phone while she should be working. Our manager's caught her at it twice, and her response was to move to a cube where he doesn't really check on people (she used to sit next to me, and we were right outside his office) and continue to text-message and take phone calls during work time. This kind of immaturity also shows up in classes I take with these kids, especially in terms of expectations about extra credit, grade leeway, and homework, and frankly, it shocks me. This is an attitude I would expect in fourteen-year-olds, not twenty-one-year-olds.

So now, childhood extends into the twenties, and adolescence into the thirties. Middle age now doesn't happen when you're forty, it's when you're 55. And as a result, we tend to have this unrealistic belief in our own immortality. It used to be that most people started getting an initial sense of their own mortality around the age of twenty-five or so. Now, it's more like thirty-five or forty. Additionally, we are squeamish as hell about death in this society. Doctors try every possible method to prolong life as long as possible (witness the Terri Schiavo fiasco). They don't ever say "this is as far as medical science can take us; get your affairs in order and we'll arrange palliative care." They're not allowed to - our society won't let them. It's not a legal restriction; it's a societal one. People die only in hospitals, never at home. We don't accept that the human body wears out as it gets into the years above fifty, and we avoid the elderly and are often afraid of them, because they serve as a reminder that we are going to die someday, and we have a limited time to live.

You see, in America, We Just Don't Die. That's it. We're not supposed to die. Death is unnatural. These are real expectations - and they are totally out of whack with reality.

So when something like Virginia Tech happens, we have to check our expectations. And we don't like having to do that. So the shooter becomes demonized (usually mercilessly, because people "should" be "normal," and it's a moral failing to not be), as well as the people who failed to give us perfect security (because we "should" have perfect security, because it's our right as Americans, because We Never Die). We begin screaming for better security and stronger measures against these aberrant people, even at the expense of our own civil liberties. If possible, we demand attacks on those we perceive as having violated our security - and if we're frightened enough, it results in debacles like the Iraq War. In other words, like the insane man, we try again what hasn't worked in the past, hoping it will work in the future.

The only way that I see us, as a nation, resolving this is to face up to some hard truths: one, we can't have perfect security; two, we are all going to die someday; and three, we have a lot less control over life than we think we have. Unfortunately, as long as we avoid these hard truths, we're going to continue to try to do the same things that haven't worked before, and these incidents are going to continue to happen.

What would it have done for Virginia Tech if Cho had gotten the help he needed, without being stigmatized for needing it? What would it have done for Columbine if the standard of living in Littleton had been sane, so that at least one of Eric Harris' parents could have stayed home with him and kept an eye on his development? What would it have done for this nation on 9/11 if we all had a better grasp of our own mortality, instead of a truly frightening ignorance about it?

These are questions I don't have answers to. Do you?

(1) Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear.
(2) Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear.
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