When It’s Personal

Reading the news this morning, I was struck by the paucity of new information, and the tendency to hash over the same material over and over again, for lack of anything else to say. Of course, the major news story continues to be the Virginia Tech shootings, although over 150 people died in Baghdad today as a result of coordinated bombing attacks.

I have a system for my morning routine. First, I read the news. Typically I look at online editions of the Chronicle, along with the BBC, the New York Times, and some aggregate sites, like Fark and Google News. I see what the leading stories are, I start to process them, I look at how they are reported and set up on the page…and then I head to my Google Reader, to catch up on subscriptions with numerous blogs and opinion sites. I typically have around 200 entries to sift through, and I enjoy reading other people’s takes on the major news, how issues are being reported, and picking up strange little human interest stories.

The Virginia Tech shootings dominate a lot of what I read today, and I started processing some thoughts about them.

A lot of the entries on blogs and personal sites that I read express surprise that the shootings have so captivated the American imagination when people are dying every day in Iraq. I express surprise at their surprise: it is a fairly well known psychological fact that we feel a closer connection to events we can associate with. I am sad that people are dying in Iraq, but I am not stricken and devastated because I am not Iraqi, I am not living in an active war zone, and I haven’t been to Iraq. I cannot comprehend the situation that those people are living in, and therefore I cannot muster empathy. It’s not that I’m cold hearted: it’s that my brain has trouble parsing it, beyond the basic sense of “those are people too.”

The shootings, on the other hand, I can connect closely with. Many of the victims were American, just like me. I’ve been 19, 22, young, going to school. I’ve woken up on a spring morning and gone to French class, I’ve been on a college campus, I’ve lived lives a lot like theirs. There but for the grace of God go I, says my brain when I read articles about the incident. I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to criticize Americans or the major media for not being able to empathize with the situation in Iraq, and for reacting so profoundly to the shootings. It is expected.

The shootings stripped away a little bit of our innocence and exposed a nerve which will be covered up again someday, because this is how humans function. If I spent all my time in mourning for every person who ever died, I wouldn’t have much time for anything else. While I long for my government to get out of Iraq, and wish that our flags flew at half mast for every dead person ever, because every death represents a loss…it’s not going to happen. And I understand the morbid fascination with the shootings, the quest that drives people to watch the news all day and read the papers, just as we did in 2001 after the 11 September attacks. Because the issue is immediate and pressing, personal. We can put ourselves in the place of the victims.

I am, though, worried about the copycat issue, and few major media providers have brought it up, presumably because they are feeding the fire for copycats. Heavy reporting on the issue, along with bomb threats and school closures linked to it, glamorizes it. I do not think that this is a good thing, and I struggle with what should be done about it. I do not think that the media should censor itself, and I do think that citizens should be informed about the world around them. But…it’s a sticky wicket.

I also feel a sense of sorrow for Cho Seung-Hui, the shooter. I notice that on all the sites commemorating victims, he is not included in a list of the dead. But he, too, is a victim, even if he caused a great deal of pain and sorrow. The photographs of him are grainy and ugly, the news reports stress that he was a psychotic loner, and he is generally demonized. He had a loving family, and a troubled life. Instead of identifying him as the manifestation of evil, the media ought to be addressing the serious issue of mental illness in American society. What drives people to act as the killer did, and how might this be prevented in the future? Isolating him as a non-person only alienates him further, and feeds the fire of people living lonely, miserable lives.

The news will fade from the radar, as all news eventually does, leaving people behind to deal with the profound change it represents in their lives. Every now and then a retrospective or memorial article will be written, a new argument about gun control will rage, the University will re-open or tear down Norris Hall, and life will continue. Probably some lessons have been learned, and many schools will increase security and implement systems to prevent future events, just as they did after Columbine.

There is nothing wrong with mourning the dead, and with feeling a deep connection to a tragic incident. Let no one tell you otherwise.

[Virginia Tech]