Virginia Tech: Is the Scene of the Crime the Cause of the Crime?
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Another rampage massacre, this time the worst ever. Which means another fake attempt at trying to understand this uniquely American crime -- these interminable rage killing sprees in our workplaces and our schoolyards.
What makes the Virginia Tech massacre more horrifying isn't just the body count but the reaction of the living: The official fake soul-searching is more idiotic than ever, revealing, if anything, a culture that is so insanely delusional and incapable of self-reflection that it almost makes these rampage massacres seem relatively natural.
The footage from Seung-Hui's " media manifesto" has played on cable news on an endless loop for days now, and no one has considered the merits of his grievances -- except to cast them as proof positive that Cho Seung-Hui was one sick guy.
Of all the idiotic reactions, so far none tops an article posted on MSNBC.com, written by an "investigative reporter" with the ill-begotten name of "Bill Dedman." His investigation allegedly revealed that Cho Seung-Hui, the shooter, displayed alleged classic warning signs of a rampage shooting. Citing a landmark Secret Service study of schoolyard rampage massacre, Dedman observed, "In more than three out of four school shootings, the attacker had made no threat against the schoolteachers or students. But most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help. The attackers posed a threat even though they hadn't made a threat."
In other words, if you think someone's weird, but he hasn't threatened anyone, he's a threat.
There are two very serious flaws in Dedman's investigation. First, if the profile of a schoolyard rampager is someone who doesn't threaten anyone but who raises suspicions, then America will have to open up a new GULAG archipelago to hold all of the millions of kids who fit this description. But the second flaw is even more serious: the Secret Service study Dedman cites draws exactly the opposite conclusion: There is no way to profile a potential schoolyard killer . That was what was so shocking about the report. Everyone who has studied these rage massacres knows it. Everyone but journalists like Dedman, that is.
What Dedman's article reveals isn't just the sloppy work of a typical mainstream hack but, rather, of a culture desperate for an easy explanation for the massacre -- one that doesn't implicate it in the crime.
It is is far more difficult to deal with the possibility that other factors may have led to the massacre, factors that are still too painful and close to us to consider. For example, how was this nerdy South Korean immigrant treated at his suburban high school and at Virginia Tech? What is the campus life like? What was it about Virginia Tech that made it the setting for the first student-on-student college massacre? And why were there copycat threats at campuses across Middle America over the following days?
Consider the recent history of schoolyard massacres in America, and you'll see why I ask those questions.
Schoolyard shootings got their start in small-town America, making their appearance in 1996. The white, suburban middle-class massacres that Columbine popularized got their start in rural towns like Moses Lake, Wash., West Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark.
True, there had already been schoolyard shootings. In Kentucky alone, there were two that occurred before the Paducah massacre, one in Carter County in 1993 and another in Union in 1994. What was new about these modern school rampage shootings was that they caught on and found sympathy with a broader audience.
Never before had people considered that a schoolyard massacre could happen at any white middle-class suburban high school in America. But through the Moses Lake-Paducah-Jonesboro rage massacres, this new phenomenon entered the collective adolescent conscious. They provided a new context for something already felt, already brewing, but not yet expressed.
In his book "No Easy Answer," Brooks Brown, a former Columbine student and childhood friend of one of the Columbine killers, explained how the rage rebellion context reached his school:
The end of my junior year (1998), school shootings were making their way into the news. The first one I heard about was in 1997, when Luke Woodham killed two students and wounded seven others in Pearl, Miss. Two months later, in West Paducah, Ky., Michael Carneal killed three students at a high school prayer service. ...
Violence had plagued inner-city schools for some time, but these shootings marked its first real appearance in primarily white, middle- to upper-middle-class suburbs. ...
When we talked in class about the shootings, kids would make jokes about how "it was going to happen at Columbine next." They would say that Columbine was absolutely primed for it because of the bullying and the hate that were so prevalent at our school.
There are good reasons why the rage craze started in small-town America and moved to the big cities. First of all, rural Americans are a little less conditioned and a little wilder than their highly socialized counterparts on the coasts.
In coastal or big-town white America, if you are a failure, you are more inclined to imagine that it is your fault, that it is some kind of cosmic judgment on your innate base nature. You might accept it more passively, suck it up more, or just quietly end it in your garage with a garden hose and the idle running. But well before you'd snap in suburban California, you'd be giving it your 110 percent over and over and over, constantly convincing yourself and those around you of your optimism and determination, always being positive and trying to make sure that everyone thinks you're just swell. There is no room for eccentric behavior in coastal suburban America -- unless it's the kind of eccentric behavior that's already considered cool in a recognizably safe way.
In rural America, expectations are different. However, the "shootin' the bastards up who done you wrong" solution has a long tradition, and doesn't seem as bizarre a response to injustice as coastal America's cheerful slavishness.
What was significant about these rage murders wasn't that they started in rural America but that they spread to mainstream America. Not that this hasn't ever happened. Other cultural trends, such as in arts and in language, often percolate "upward" from the rural lower-middle class to the wider middle class.
The schoolyard shootings in Pearl, Paducah and Jonesboro in 1997 might have seemed little more than isolated incidents if they didn't already have a context in the office massacres that had been leaving behind blood-spattered workplace corpses for over a decade. The three schoolyard shootings happened one after another, creating a snowball effect that helped propel the schoolyard massacre coastward and into cities, to Pennsylvania and Oregon, and later, of course, to Columbine High in Littleton, Colo.
One way of wrongly interpreting this pattern was to attribute the crime's spread to "copycat" behavior, rehashing the ol' kindergarten question "Would you jump off a bridge if Johnny did?" This fatuous explanation allows observers to write off a profound crime with a simple catchphrase. After reading a newspaper article about a schoolyard shooting in Mississippi, some upper-middle-class suburban goth-brat decides, "Hey, I wanna be just like that hick! I'm going to murder and destroy my life so that maybe one day a hick I don't know will think I'm cool!" You have to willfully forget how you thought or felt as a kid -- what your references consisted of, where you drew your borders -- to accept an explanation as intellectually lazy and convenient as the copycat-made-him-do-it account.
In fact, many schoolyard shooters very consciously saw their massacres as rebellions, however poorly expressed or thought through. Michael Carneal, who slaughtered three students in a high school prayer class in West Paducah, was found to have downloaded the Unabomber's manifesto as well as something called "The School Stopper's Textbook: A Guide to Disruptive Revolutionary Tactics; Revised Edition for Junior High/High School Dissidents," which calls on students to resist schools' attempts to mold students and enforce conformity. The preface starts off, "Liberate your life -- smash your school! The public schools are slowly killing every kid in them, stifling their creativity and individuality, making them into nonpersons. If you are a victim of this, one of the things you can do is fight back." Many of Carneal's school essays resembled the Unabomber manifesto. He had been bullied and brutalized, called "gay" and a "faggot." He hated the cruelty and moral hypocrisy of so-called normal society and the popular crowd. Rather than just complain about it all the time like the Goths he befriended, he decided to act.
And now that the media has started digging up the early life of Cho Seung-Hui, the same pattern emerges. Former classmates of Seung-Hui say he "was pushed around and laughed at as a schoolboy" because of his "shyness and the strange, mumbly way he talked":
Chris Davids, a Virginia Tech senior who graduated from Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va. [with Seung-Hui] ... recalled that the South Korean immigrant almost never opened his mouth and would ignore attempts to strike up a conversation. Once, in English class, the teacher had the students read aloud, and when it was Cho's turn, he just looked down in silence, Davids recalled. Finally, after the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho started to read in a strange, deep voice that sounded "like he had something in his mouth," Davids said. "As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, 'Go back to China.'"
Luke Woodham, the high school killer in Pearl, Miss., whose murder spree preceded Carneal's by two months, was even more explicit in his rebellion. Minutes before starting his schoolyard rampage, Woodham handed his manifesto to a friend, along with a will. "I am not insane," he wrote. "I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. ... All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, truly blame me for what I do? Yes, you will. ... It was not a cry for attention, it was not a cry for help. It was a scream in sheer agony saying that if you can't pry your eyes open, if I can't do it through pacifism, if I can't show you through the displaying of intelligence, then I will do it with a bullet."
The Columbine killers openly declared that their planned massacre was intended to ignite a nationwide uprising. "We're going to kick-start a revolution, a revolution of the dispossessed!" Eric Harris said in a video diary he made before the killings. "I want to leave a lasting impression on the world," he added in another entry. And they certainly did leave an impression, including on Cho Seung-Hui, who referred to "martyrs like Eric and Dylan" in his " multimedia manifesto."
If the immediate goal of an armed uprising is to spark wider sympathy and a wider rebellion, then many of these rage uprisings have succeeded.
One of the most troubling and censored aspects of schoolyard massacres is how popular they are with a huge number of kids -- witness the threats issued the day after Cho Seung-Hui's Virginia Tech massacre to the campuses of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, St. Edward's in Austin, Texas, and two high schools in southeastern Louisiana.
The popularity of the Columbine massacre helped spawn several more schoolyard shootings and untold numbers of school-massacre plots, many of which were uncovered, and many of which were the inventions of paranoid adults.
"They said specifically it would be bigger than Columbine," New Bedford Police Chief Arthur Kelly said." -- Associated Press, "New Bedford police say they foiled Columbine-like plot," Nov. 24, 2001
Across America, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris became anti-heroes in the aftermath of their school shooting. In a Rocky Mountain News article titled "Surfers Worship Heroes of Hate," dated Feb. 6, 2000, the journalist details the mass popularity of the Columbine killers: "They made hate-filled videotapes about the day the deed they were planning would make them cult heroes. Now, they appear to have gotten what they wanted -- at least online." The article goes on to quote some of the message boards devoted to Klebold and Harris:
In a Yahoo! club devoted to the killers, a 15-year-old Elizabeth, N.J., girl writes: "They are really my heroes. They are in a way gods ... since I don't believe in 'GOD' or any of that other crap that goes along with it. They are the closest thing we can get to it, and I think they are good at it. They stood up for what they believe in, and they actually did something about it."
A 14-year-old Toronto girl is also cited as belonging to 20 (!) online fan clubs devoted to Klebold and Harris. The point of the article is that the Internet shows just how sick our kids are. It does not consider the possibility that maybe the kids aren't simply evil but have valid reasons for making Klebold and Harris into heroes. Perhaps they are considered heroes for valid reasons, and the Net allows us easier access into the unofficial truth.
The reason Klebold and Harris's hero status is expressed online is obvious: It's the one place where you can exchange ideas with a reasonable hope of maintaining anonymity.
Initially it was thought that Columbine's Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were drug-addled dropouts, Nazi-enthused homosexuals, children of broken homes, Goth-geeks, Trench Coat Mafiosi, Internet/video game freaks or Marilyn Manson goons. But the truth was far more commonplace, and that's what was so disturbing about their massacre. Both came from two-parent homes, both loved their parents and both were highly intelligent but erratic students. They weren't Nazis or drug addicts. They weren't Goths, Trench Coat Mafiosi, or Marilyn Manson fiends; they weren't even gay, as some had theorized.
The Secret Service report MSNBC reporter Bill Dedman incorrectly cited was an exhaustive -- and failed -- attempt to profile school rage murderers. Some schoolyard shooters were honors students, some were bad students; some were geeks, some were fairly popular; and some were anti-social, others seemed to be easy-going and "not at all the type." Some have been girls, a fact strangely overlooked by most. Like their rage counterparts in the adult world, school shooters could be literally any kid except perhaps those who belonged to the popular crowd, the school's version of the executive/shareholding class. That is to say, about 90 percent of each suburban school's student body is a possible suspect.
And once again, I believe this at the very least suggests that the source of these rampages must be the environment that creates them, not the killers themselves. And by environment I don't mean something as vague as society but rather the schools and the people they shoot and bomb.
It isn't the schoolyard shooters who need to be profiled -- they can't be. It is the schools that need to be profiled.
A list should be drawn up of the characteristics and warning signs of a school ripe for massacre:
- complaints about bullying go unpunished by an administration that supports the cruel social structure;
- antiseptic corridors and overhead fluorescent lights reminiscent of mid-sized city airport;
- rampant moral hypocrisy that promotes the most two-faced, mean, and shallow students to the top of the pecking order; and
- maximally stressed parents who push their kids to achieve higher and higher scores.
Schoolyard shootings are too shocking and subversive to forget. They remind us that we were just as miserable as kids as we are as adult workers. In fact, the similarities between the two, the continuity of misery and entrapment from school to office, become depressingly clear when you study the two settings in the context of these murders. Even physically, they look alike and warp the mind in similar ways: the overhead fluorescent lights, the economies-of-scale industrial carpeting and linoleum floors, the stench of cleaning chemicals in the restrooms, the same stalls with the same latches and the same metal toilet paper holders ... Then, after work or school, you go home to your suburb, where no one talks to each other and no one looks at each other, and where everyone, even the whitest-bread cul-de-sac neighbor is a suspected pedophile, making child leashes a requirement and high-tech security systems a given.
If you consider it this way, it means our entire lives, except perhaps college -- and Cho Seung-Hui reminds us that college can be hell for some people as well -- and that one summer backpacking around Europe are unbearably awful. As if our entire wretched script was designed for someone else's benefit. This is too much to handle. So the inescapable suspicion that suburban schools cause murder rampages is rejected with unrestrained hysteria -- and so it will be with college campuses in the public discussion about how to prevent more "Virginia Techs."
Blame is hurriedly focused on the murderer, rather than on the environment. A typical example is an op-ed piece written by Joanne Jacobs for the San Jose Mercury News , published exactly eight months after the Columbine massacre, in which she tried to reassure herself and her readers that, "Evil, not rage, drove these killers." I emphasize her quote because it's one of the most revealing yet widely held explanations among contemporary Americans.
When you use a word as inherently meaningless as "evil" to describe something as complex and resonant as Columbine or Virginia Tech, you are desperately trying to recover the amnesia that once protected you and told you how blissful and innocent your own school years were. The fact is that the schoolyard shooters were clear about their intentions: They wanted to "pry your eyes open." But sometimes we don't like what our eyes see; in fact, we refuse to believe what they see. You'd need to use "Clockwork Orange" eye-tweezers on someone like Joanne Jacobs to make her face this unpleasant fact. Blaming "evil" has worked wonders for President Bush in Iraq, and it's working wonders for Americans in understanding and stopping these massacres.
If you pull back and rethink how you view these rampage massacres -- if you can accept that the schools and offices are what provoke these massacres, just as poverty and racism create their own violent crimes, or slavery created slave violence and rebellions, then you have to accept that on some level the school and office shootings are logical outcomes and perhaps even justified responses to an intolerable condition that we can't yet put our fingers on.
Justified, that is, if you look at these crimes from a future historian's point of view. Imagine a historian 100 years from now, with no emotional investment in our contemporary culture, looking back on how we live today, and thinking to himself, "My god, how could those poor wretches cope with such hell?" It doesn't take a time machine to think this way. Unofficially, today a lot of people look at these murders as justified, as some kind of vindication. Sympathy is all over the Web. It's revealed in black humor, in "wage slave" T-shirts and in the success of movies like "Office Space" and "Fight Club." It's revealed anywhere it can safely be expressed.
Mark Ames is editor of the eXile, a Moscow English alt weekly. He is the author of " Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond ," from which a portion of this text is adapted.