Apr 192007

When Palestinian suicide bombers blow themselves up, they nearly always have participated in a video, to be shown on TV (and now, the Internet) right after their deaths. It’s a difficult but quick way to achieve a kind of immortality, not in the next world, but this.

Iraqi terrorists have a somewhat different pattern, more likely to be visible (at least from the back) when they are executing some poor hostage. The suicide bombers oddly seem satisfied with anonymity, at least so I glean from news reports. Even if they wanted attention, the fact that several of them seem to die every day would mean they would not get much individual publicity anyway, although their actions certainly do get on TV. Just today a few bombers managed to kill well over a hundred and fifty in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, of course, American attention has been focused not on the boring Iraq occupation, but on the shootings at Virginia Tech. Of course, everyone who has ever gone to an American college or has sent a child to one can easily align with the victims. Further, reporters can flock to Blacksburg with little fear of being shot or bombed themselves. As horrible as the event is, it is perfect for getting attention on American media. And we should not be surprised that the apparent shooter thought so too. Unhinged as he evidently was, he had no trouble realizing that merely by killing so many and then himself, he would get on TV and YouTube.

The shooter set a new record for killing on an American campus (at least if we don’t count the 1927 bombing of a school by a school board member). Why? Was this just rage, or was there method in his madness? Had he killed, say, just two or three, he would not have got the headlines he did. By setting a record that we can only hope will endure for a very long time, he assures himself many future mentions and much attention to his various expressions. He was a student of creative writing, in part, and very few such students will get their work read so widely.  It is repulsive to think that snuffing out so many lives is a way to gain so much attention, but the fact is that it is. (Of course, in its early days, and still now, the money economy rewarded the taking of life in several ways — through arms sales, through paying mercenary soldiers, through unsafe working conditions, and more than once through violently breaking strikes. Sometimes the death toll  was much higher than in Blacksburg.)

Had the same shooter been in Iraq, even with the videos, etc., no long-term attention would have been likely. President Bush, who certainly bears considerable blame for the carnage in Iraq, mostly keeps silent about it. For this set of murders, for a change, he is probably blameless, so he rushed to Blacksburg to appear on TV delivering a vapid and unnecessary statement. Would the university community be less able to mourn or to begin what must be a slow healing process without him? Would the country be feeling any different if he had just issued a few words of condolence via his press secretary?

Of course, I feel a little uncomfortable adding to the excessive commentary on this. The more commentators like me seek to get attention by referring to the shootings, the more likely it is that some copycat will try to outdo the record. In fact, someone in the Boston area has already boasted that he would. Certainly there are plenty of disturbed people, plenty who are suicidal, plenty who are angry, and plenty who are willing to pay a huge price to get attention. Cho himself referred in one of his rants to the Columbine killers —who acted nearly exactly eight years ago, so even he was copying.

But, fortunately for us, something seems to prevent this country from turning into Iraq, as it is now. One possibility is that we do have plentiful outlets for seeking attention aside from mass murder.  (Cho, if  his word counts for anything, possibly did want to get attention for just bomb threats, but felt thwarted when he was not caught.) Large segments of ethnic groups, despite considerable hurt, do not seem to have quite such deep reasons to be vengeful. There is no reason I know of to suppose that suicide bombers in Iraq (nor even some of the American military) enjoy better mental health than Cho apparently did. But in those circumstances bombing or shooting may be as obvious an outlet as yelling in response to an unseen voice is here. Perhaps we need to develop more platforms from which the insane can seek a hearing.

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