May 01, 2007

Massacre at CNN

On 16 April 2007, on the campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, a 23-year-old student, a Korean national by the name of Cho Seung-Hui, shot and killed 32 students and professors, and then shot himself. For the next two weeks, all the major television networks covered the story in detail, and then, as with everything else in the news, it dropped out of sight, in this case being replaced by discussions of profit earnings at Microsoft.

I was traveling through Tabasco and Chiapas (Mexico) during the time, so my only access to information, besides the local newspapers, was CNN. In a weird way, the CNN coverage was as peculiar as the event itself. The focus was entirely on who this person, Cho Seung-Hui, was; the larger context in which the event took place–and there have been quite a few in recent US history–was never even referred to. Of course, if you focus on how aberrant Cho was, then the larger context becomes (supposedly) irrelevant and can be ignored; which is certainly what the media, and the American public, want. So we learned that Cho was Korean, not American; a loner, depressed from an early age; a psychotic, obsessed with death and weaponry (as one sensationalist video, which CNN kept playing over and over, revealed), and so on. CNN also conducted a fatuous interview with Cho's former roommates, trying to probe into his relations with women and his sexual proclivities. Other coverage included the usual handwringing after such incidents, suggestions from some journalists and "experts" that students and professors need to come to classes armed; the appointing of a commission to investigate the event, etc.–the usual suspects, in short, which never amounted to anything in the past and won't this time around either.

CNN did, however, briefly refer to some sort of suicide note left by Cho, in which he apparently talked about the pretensions of the wealthy students at the school, and the "charlatanry" that pervaded the campus. The news network also read an email from someone in Korea, who pointed out that Cho was, green card notwithstanding, an American: he had come to the US with his parents when he was 8 years old, and had thus spent two-thirds of his life in an American context, being exposed to American values. "An incident such as this [massacre]," the writer concluded, "has not occurred in Korea during its 5000-year-long history." This too was passed over by CNN, a topic they obviously preferred not to deal with.

Of course, I never personally saw Cho's suicide note, so I can only guess at what went on in his mind, or what led him to kill 32 innocent people. But the brief reference to the contents of the note, the letter from the Korean writer, and the endless focus on Cho himself as alienated and insane, suggest a few things that were not part of the CNN coverage. To take an extreme analogy, there would seem to be an odd similarity between this coverage and that of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Network news "analysis," if such it can be called, was all about Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta as "evil" and "insane." When Susan Sontag subsequently made a brief comment in the pages of the New Yorker to the effect that US foreign policy might tell us more about the causes of 9/11 than the psyche of Osama bin Laden, a national uproar ensued, in which she was basically branded a traitor. Any serious student of US postwar activity in the Middle East knows that Sontag's comment was totally on target; but the desire of the media, and the American public, to preserve an image of American innocence vs. external evil is too powerful to allow even a hint of an alternative possibility. In the case of the Virginia Tech massacre, I am not (as in the case of 9/11) suggesting that the slaughter of civilians is justified; of course it isn't. But as in the case of Susan Sontag's commentary, I do think that what happened at Virginia Tech might be explicable, and that a deeper understanding of the event beyond "the killer was insane" might be worth having. Consider, then, the following:

1. Cho Seung-Hui, at age 8, left a society that has not had such a civilian incident in its 5000-year history and entered a society in which violence, via movies, television, and basic daily life, is the norm. This was his true socialization as a child, adolescent, and young adult. Just to take one statistical example, a US-Canada survey taken in the year 2000 revealed that while 12% of Canadians said Yes to the question, "Is it acceptable to use violence to get what you want?", 24% of Americans answered in the affirmative. Or if we consider the world data on homicide, the average rate of homicides per 100,000 people in the European Union was 1.7 during 1997-99, while the US rate during the same period was 6.26, or nearly 4 times that number. The homicide rate for American children during that period was 5 times higher than for the children of the next 25 wealthiest nations in the world combined.

2. What Cho also saw around himself, in addition to violence, was "charlatanry," as he apparently put it. This strikes me as about as great a revelation as the fact that the Pope is Catholic. American society is totally opportunistic, epitomized by TV shows such as "Survivor." As Karl Marx put it long ago, the bonds of friendship and community get dissolved in "the icy waters of egotistical calculation." It's all Los Angeles, in the United States: everybody has an agenda, an ulterior motive, which is the core of their individual program of self-promotion, and which they regard as the purpose of life. Someone coming from a society that still, in some ways, has traditional values, can't help but be disgusted at what passes for human relations in the US. As the historian and social critic Paul Fussell once wrote, "everything in the United States is coated with a fine layer of fraud."

3. Of course, there are literally millions of immigrants who come to the United States, absorb the violent messages that exist all around them, see the charlatanry that pervades the American Way of Life, and don't go on a killing rampage. In that sense, individual psychology might indeed be more helpful than mass sociology, but only if your goal is to answer the question, Why this particular individual? But there is, surely, a deeper question, namely: Why aren't a lot more individuals doing something similar? The huge intake of Prozac and other tranquilizers might offer one possible answer, of course, in that these drugs enable the American population to suppress its rage. But the society that generates the rage remains the crucial, and unacknowledged, point. And this is the truth that CNN seeks (consciously or unconsciously) to keep out of the public eye. As a result, the "understanding" it provides is self-serving and skin-deep. How many other societies, Japan excepted (which is a whole other discussion), are plagued by chronic outbursts of seemingly apolitical violence against innocent bystanders? The fact is that these outbursts are political, if "political" is expanded to include the nature of the culture at large, and the way in which it works at its most basic level.

One final example of what I am talking about. During the vapid CNN interview with Cho's former roommates about his sex life, a caption ran at the bottom of the TV screen, telling the viewers that this interview was available only on CNN. And there we have it, in a nutshell: the goal of every American institution is (or supposedly should be) to be Numero Uno. In the midst of a massacre, of the brutal deaths of 32 innocents (including Professor Livriu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor who apparently had to come to an American college campus to finally get himself liquidated), what's important to CNN is that they be first with the scoop. Death makes absolutely no difference to these people; that the charlatanry continue, is what counts for them. Everything is marketing in the United States, everything is promotion, and I submit that this is what managed to push Cho over the edge. That CNN couldn't even see the irony of what they were doing, finally says it all.