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April 18, 2007


I think this gets at the problem as well as anything I've read. Alienation. A romanticization of violence. But I am beginning to really resist, even resent the rush to try and explain horrors like the Virginia Tech killings, when other, arguably much more easily explainable horrors are greeted with mere dispassionate interest and forgotten about a few days later. And I persist in believing, for example, that the extinction of species and the collapse of ecosystems are worth at least as much of our attention and concern as the by now rather drearily familiar human-on-human violence. Human beings are, fortunately or unfortunately, not in danger of going extinct any time soon.

good going. good post,

the idea that NBC news received a package from this kid should cast a pall of shame upon them. They acted like that was perfectly understandable.

I'm interested in the implications of Cho Seung-hui's probable mental ill-health which, it appears, had been manifest and noted for some time. I think it's perhaps misleading to concatenate his actions with those of Mafia assassins and Bonnie and Clyde. This might well have been a disaster which, as he himself pointed out, could have been prevented. There are and have been mass killings like this in other societies as wikipedia attests (see spree killer so it's neither a uniquely American phenomenon nor confined to recent decades. As you point out it's deeply sad, not to say sickening, that the world's media pays so much attention to this incident and shrugs off as a mere aside the deaths of more than 150 people in Baghdad. And as Dave points out we are fed / consume our disasters only in very small but blazing quantities. Anything more complex or incremental, no matter how great the implications, appears to be ignored in our quick-fix (in both senses of fix) cultures.


Indeed, as the wikipedia article on running amok attests, this kind of behavior was once thought to be the exclusive province of non-Western, "irrational" cultures.

Well, I never knew the origin of "running amok" before!

I'm not trying to link school killing sprees with Mafia assassinations - I don't think they are related and didn't mean to imply that. What I'm looking at here are trends in American/western culture that I have witnessed and felt, trends that have affected young people I knew personally, but with which the society has steadfastly refused to deal in a meaningful way. The trend toward a value the demographer Michael Adams calls "nihilism" is rising alarmingly among North American youth. I think that treating killing sprees or planned attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing as isolated instances of undiagnosed or ignored mental illness, without exploring the causes that led both to the illness and to the decision to kill large numbers of innocent people (as opposed to one's immediate family, or the teacher/employer/symbol of offending company), and instead focusing on "security," is pretty short-sighted.

One reason I think it's so hard for us to talk about these sorts of events is that they are bound up in highly complicated webs, and so are we. The nihilism - or fatalism, or apathy, or shallowness - that you mention is certainly one, the availability of lethal technologies to ordinary people is another, our anomie and inability to deal with mental illness is another... trying to distill "the cause" from this muddy water is what we are encouraged to do - but I can't help think that the silt and debris clouding the issue is just as important as the water in which it floats.

That said, I do find personally compelling the argument that part of this is due to a culture of violence in this society, a culture that is taken as normal and unremarkable. I still remember, when I was an undergraduate nearly two decades ago, this one incident that sums it up well for me. At the time I was living in the Russian-speaking dorm, along with several students and a native speaker visiting from Moscow. They were showing _The Shining_ one evening, and I invited this woman to attend with me. She was horrified and terrified by the violence in the film - and the implied violence - and was even more astonished and disturbed by the fact that many of the people in the audience were _laughing_ at Jack Nicholson's behavior. At the time I explained it lamely as a result of their/our having seen it so many times that it had become absurd rather than scary, but even then I knew my explanation was inadequate. Now, I feel immense sympathy for this woman, a stranger in another country brought to see something violent and cruel while all around her young Americans were laughing.

Thanks for some historical perspective on this, Beth.

The main flaw I see in the reaction to incidents like this is the one you've noted: this tendency to treat each case like it is isolated.

The so-called "soul-searching" that takes place is really about looking for simple local answers. This reaction is most obvious in disastrous situations like VA Tech, but it's actually a very common general principle here in the states. It's the "obvious link" culture: one thing "obviously" leads to one thing. If we "fix" one thing, we can fix the thing it leads to. That's why one hears the nonsense about guns, or about immigrants, or whatever else. And of course, the masses have their favorite targets. There's been no suggestion of banning English majors.

It's very difficult for people to think about systems, and about the fact that things are connected (in fact, they can find it threatening, as some of the wackier comments on my piece indicate). It's certainly very difficult for our leaders to tell the people they lead that, if we want certain things to change in our world, we must consider broad-behavioural changes in ourselves. That's simply not sexy politics.

For me, the most telling piece of rhetoric in the last six years is still Bush's "the American way of life is not negotiable."

I cross-posted with Rana. We make essentially the same point.

Teju - yes. Whether one looks at it from the inside (as I was doing) or from a broader perspective, it's pretty clear that simple solutions to dynamics years in the making aren't going to work, except in very limited ways. Indeed, one might even argue that they're destructive, in that they give the comfortable illusion that we've "fixed" "the problem" and allow us to go on otherwise like we have been, unreflecting and unwilling to see ourselves as part of the dynamic.

An interesting historical perspective on school massacres here.

We have to talk about mental illness, but we also have to talk about culture and psychology. I don't think human beings differ radically from one society to another, and there are probably roughly the same percentage of psychopaths in each, but in only a few of them do we see the level of interpersonal violence found in the U.S. - and some are actually peaceful. So on reflection I guess i lean more toward Beth's initial position than rr's.

Thanks for that link, Dave, well worth reading. I think he has a plausible argument about why the murderers choose schools.

Bob Herbert's column in the Times today also looked at deeper reasons why these people turn into mass killers. This is his basic point:

"We behave as if it was all so inexplicable...But a close look at the patterns of murderous violence in the U.S. reveals some remarkable consistencies, wherever the individual atrocities may have occurred. In case after case, decade after decade, the killers have been shown to be young men riddled with shame and humiliation, often bitterly misogynistic and homophobic, who have decided that the way to assert their faltering sense of manhood and get the respect they have been denied is to go out and shoot somebody."

The gun is kind of the ultimate phallic symbol, isn't it? And that image has been perpetuated through American entertainment, from westerns to Dirty Harry and far beyond. I think this sense of rage and impotence IS shared among most of the mass murderers I've seen profiled, as well as among a number of violent criminals who kill fewer people - their wife or girlfriend, perhaps. And I think part of that comes from the huge discrepancy between the sort of life the media constantly shows us we all "ought" to have - house, beautiful wife, kids, money - and how unattainable they think the dream has become, as well as the twisted fame alloted to mass murderers and assassins. For such people, it's not the suicide bomber's martyrdom that is the motivation, perhaps, but the idea that "I showed them all - for one blazing hour I was somebody, I was powerful, they all fell down before me;" i.e., "I was a real man."

I'd say that American culture probably isn't more violent--however one measures such things--than most cultures at most times in history. Think about Europe, and Africa, and Asia, and Latin America, in the nineteenth century. A staggering number of horrible wars were happening on and on almost everywhere.

But there's also the question of a culture that fetishizes not only violence, but a specific brand of go-it-alone violence. The hero, yes, that trope is old as the hills, but specifically the rule-breaking hero. Not Achilles, but Dirty Harry. Almost every "action" movie has a character that breaks the rules and goes it alone and is victorious in the end. Even if it's a cop movie, he's usually suspended for breaking the rules: this device is to give him an opportunity to do it by himself and show them all wrong.

I'm not blaming movies, far from it. I think they are a symptom of the cowboy mentality. I think it's sunk deep in our history.

George Bush is definitely a go-it-alone psycho. His disdain for the UN and for the International Court of Justice does more than reflect badly on our country. It warns the world that we are dangerous rule-disregarding loners and that if we are pushed too far were going to bomb them all to hell. We are a source of fear because we are prone to violent tantrums. We, along with Israel and Iran, are a major pain in the world's ass.

It's a shame that this lamentable aspect of the country's character is the one that's making the most noise now.

End of rant.

This discussion is quite interesting to me. One theme that has been touched on is boys becoming men. In tribal societies there was often some sort of initiation for boys into manhood by the elders. Women had their own initiations. The only such initiations that are common are those that occur in joining a street gang, the military, a fraternity or going to prison. Without guidance a boy looks for role models. If pop culture provides those models we have Columbine and VT. Our consumerist culture can turn us not only into consumers but products for others to consume.

There's also the influence of fashion, subtle memes which creep into the culture and then overtake it like a virus. Killing is in fashion. You only have to turn on the TV, look at what's on at the movies or check what's most popular in computer games to realise that someone pointing a gun and someone falling over in various states of blood & gore are the most popular images of our time. The ubiquitousness of recreational drugs in all levels of society is inseparable from the Killing Fashion, erasing all inhibitions about it, and the recording of one's self and/or of one's peer group performing acts of violence is in fashion too. Gangs of kids, sometimes no older than 10 or 12 exchange mobile phone-camera recordings of themselves beating up elderly people or torturing animals. Often they are high on easily available drugs and are themselves drug dealers. Incidents like this are reported every week in our local papers but they don't often make the headlines. Shock/horror is duly expressed but well, it's on the telly, innit? And that film by watsisname, Quentin Tarantula?

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.