Politics & Policy

Poison to the Soul

When images of murder become fashion statements.

Mondaday, literally before the blood was cold at Virginia Tech, I heard some university official telling the press that they planned to import a phalanx of psychologists and counselors so that the “healing” could begin. Sorry, but this is unnatural. When something so monstrous happens, you need time for shock, rage, even for numbness. A decent interval is required before you can or frankly should think about “healing.” The therapeutic instinct, so ingrained in our culture, feels almost indecent.

Some in the world press are feasting on this story, enjoying the opportunity to assail America’s “gun culture.” Such massacres, reports Italy’s communist newspaper Il Manifesto, “are as American as apple pie.” Much as one might wish to slug the Communists on general principles, in this case they have a point.

The embassy of South Korea issued a statement after it was reported that the shooter was a native of that country. “We are in shock beyond description. We convey deep condolences to victims, families and the American people.” An embassy spokesman went on to express the hope that the murderer’s identity will not “stir up racial prejudice or confrontation.”

Hardly. We’ve spawned so many mass killers that we can’t even recall their names or all the places they’ve struck. Columbine still resonates. But who recalls Paducah, Jonesboro, Savannah, Red Lake, Lancaster, Long Island, Killeen, or Jacksonville? Those are just a few of the American communities that have suffered mass shootings in the past 20 years, often at schools. All were perpetrated by entirely homegrown fiends. In fact, it looks like we have to take “credit” for Cho Seung-Hui as well, for while the Virginia Tech killer was born in South Korea, he seems to have been in America since the age of eight.

It would be so tidy to believe that gun control or the lack thereof explains this epidemic of ravenous violence. But there are a couple of problems with the reasoning. In the first place, as a practical matter, it’s impossible to imagine that we can now disarm the criminal and/or unstable people in our society. A 1994 survey estimated that as many as 192 million handguns are privately owned in the United States. Even if we passed a gun law confiscatory enough to satisfy the most ardent gun control advocate, only the law-abiding would comply. The black market would continue to supply the demands of criminals. But just as important, the suggestion that we restrict gun ownership does not address the matter of the conscience.

For centuries, guns have been plentiful in the United States. Young men, and often young women as well, were taught gun safety and how to shoot before they were old enough to drive cars. Yet your chances of being gunned down by a total stranger at your local school or bank or church in 1644, 1744, 1844, or 1944 were exactly nil. Yes, we had some spectacular political assassinations, but to suggest that the easy availability of guns accounts for the grim social realities we’ve created in the 21st century is simplistic to the point of foolishness.

No, something else is at work. Our culture has been all about disinhibition for the past generation or more. We’ve lost our inhibitions about sex (and we celebrate this as liberation), about eating (we’ve gained an average of 50 pounds over the past century, and we blame it on genes), and about violence. We marinate our children in the gory stuff starting just after the teddy bear phase.

Glorification of gun violence in particular is the mainstay of the video game world, movies, television, and popular music. Pornographic images of violence, such as those in movies like Kill Bill and The Matrix, are not even controversial anymore. If you protest, a thousand letter writers will point to Westerns or Shakespeare and sneer that there’s nothing new under the sun.

Perhaps. But the murders in great literature and old Westerns were morality plays or character studies. The murder was an evil act. In today’s entertainment, it’s more like a fashion statement, and, instead of featuring one or two victims, requires a death toll of dozens or hundreds or thousands. For all of us, but especially for the borderline types, this is pure poison to the soul.



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