Politics & Policy

Emotional Vampirism

Tragedy becomes feeding time for the press.

I’m sick over the Virginia Tech story. But I’m sickened of the Virginia Tech “story.”

That is, it’s at moments like this — the “aftermath” stage of some horrible event — when the press, particularly television news networks, are most proud of themselves that I find them the most repellent.

To be sure, it’s difficult to see the line between enough and too much when journalists go wild, “flooding the zone,” competing with each other like starving dogs for the slightest new morsel of information they can then put on a permanent loop on cable TV, until the next fragmentary detail is pried loose by a reporter desperate to be first, for 15 minutes.

Because there isn’t enough new information to fill the infinite void allotted to these stories, the press quickly succumbs to a kind of emotional vampirism, feeding off the grief, fear, and anguish of victims clearly incapable of understanding their own feelings or of finding meaning in events that defy either understanding or meaning.

Just as with the Columbine massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing and countless other slaughters whose names tug at our memories – as well as our guilty consciences because we cannot quite recall the details of those “unforgettable” events – we can be sure the media will continue to milk their role as remorse voluptuaries for as long as conceivably possible.

You see, Americans don’t watch news that much anymore, preferring Oprah, The View, Grey’s Anatomy, and other soap operas fictional or otherwise. So long after the shelf life of the facts has expired and the news is no longer new, the networks will try to keep their swollen ratings by making their “extended coverage” as engorged with mawkish sentimentality as possible before giving way entirely to recriminations, self-congratulation and navel-gazing about how they handled this latest challenge.

Perhaps just as gruesome is the race to assign a politically palatable meaning to the calamity before the clay of first impressions hardens into the granite of conventional wisdom. After all, we must have a controversy over this event; how else to justify the return of the pundits, like an aristocracy in exile, to television studios everywhere?

Most prominently, some of these journalistic first-responders are desperate to seize on the opportunity to make Cho Seung-Hui into a gargoyle of the gun culture. Others see the contesting forces of litigiousness, the shortcomings of the therapeutic society or, just peeking around the corner, the horrible influences of the popular culture and the Internet. Had Cho’s visa been out of order, one can be sure some would have added Cho to the parade of horribles of illegal immigration.

And then, of course, there is religion. Some are desperate to insinuate Cho as a deranged warrior for Christ. But Cho had “Ismail Ax” written in red ink on his arm. Ismail is the Muslim spelling of Ishmael, which has caused others to speculate that Cho was another Johnny Taliban. But then, he spelled the name Ishmael — the common Western spelling — on the return address of the package he sent to NBC.

That package also contained a multimedia suicide note in which Cho both denounced Christianity and put himself in the role of Jesus Christ, even as he struck a mimicking pose possibly lifted from a Korean action movie and carried on like one of the professional wrestlers he so admired.

His execrable writings contain countless allusions to pedophilia and abuse so offensive that even his presumably sophisticatedly desensitized classmates refused to read them. His video testimony contains quasi-Marxist denunciations of materialism.

In short, this deranged young man had a maelstrom of demons swirling about him. But partisans want us to pick one all-explanatory demon.

With the light of hindsight, some say the warning signs should have been spotted. But this assumes that strange and disgruntled people are a rarity and that all of them are candidates to become mass murderers. The reality is almost exactly the opposite. Strange minds and tortured souls are all around us, particularly on college campuses.

Shall we now have the psychological equivalent of the zero-tolerance mania that causes children with aspirin to be carted off by police? Shall we unleash the white coats on every misanthrope and muttering grudge holder?

I confess, I’ve played the game of trying to find meaning in tragedy more than once myself and I probably will again. But not this time. Not with Cho. The only meaning I can find supported by the horrific, heartrending evidence is that once again the mystery of evil has been corroborated, the permanence of tragedy confirmed.

© 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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