Wednesday, April 18

Virginia Tech Talk

This week’s tragic shootings on the Virginia Tech campus made me stop and think.

I’m wondering—not saying, not hypothesizing, just wondering—what role TV plays in all of this. When Charles Whitman killed 15 and wounded 31 from a sniper’s next on top of the University of Texas tower in 1966, there were no 24-hour cable news outlets. There was no satellite beaming of stories instantly around the globe. There were no cell phones—much less phones with video capability. There were no Lear jets to rush anchors to the scene.

So we didn’t get the fancy show titles like “Virginia Tech Massacre,” we didn’t get the somber theme music, we didn’t get wall-to-wall coverage of every psychologist with a sheepskin who wants to pontificate on the breakdown of society as we know it.

Back in 1966 we got straight news coverage that left us shocked, questioning and feeling helpless: but it wasn’t a theme park ride for the national psyche. We dealt with it. Today we’ll dwell on it—until something bigger and better comes along.

Here’s a question: how are conditions today for Walter Reed Army Hospital outpatients? It was less than a month ago that the story of neglect and mismanagement was THE…BIGGEST…STORY…OF…THE…YEAR! But hey, we’ve had Anna Nicole Smith’s death since then—and Britany Spears shaved head (parenthetically, why the hell do I know the correct spelling of Ms. Spears’ first name?!?!?!)—and Attorney General Gonzales bobbing and weaving his way around the truth—and the “Troop Surge” in Iraq. People don’t get their fifteen minutes of fame anymore—stories do. Walter Reed got its obligatory run at the top of the news cycle, but now we’ve moved on. We keep tossing more garbage down the chute and onto the air. Is it because there’s more to cover—because it’s easier to cover—because the viewers want it—or because it’s easier to point the camera at the disaster than to report? We live in a violent society. Does TV magnify and encourage violence? But if it does, why aren’t we all armed and taking pot-shots at the paperboy who tosses the paper into the puddle?

And all this publicity—will it make for more “copycat” crimes? I’ll admit I lived a sheltered life growing up. In the fifties, there were no mass murders—or were there? There was no drug abuse—or was there? There were no child molesters—or were there? There were no kids taking guns to class—or were there? Maybe such crimes just didn’t get noticed. Maybe—just maybe—the coverage itself made such crimes a part of the national “playbook.” Not acceptable, not by a long shot, but sort of “out there” where poor, sick people could mull them over. There was a time when the response to a tragedy like Virginia Tech’s would have been, “Not possible.” Now it’s, “Not again.”

I know: if I’m so smart, how come I ain’t rich? Dunno.

One other note. For 38 years we’ve been hearing, “He was a quiet guy, kind of kept to himself. I didn’t really know him, but he always nodded to me when we passed in the street. I never would have guessed in a million years that he was capable of something like this.”

This guy in Virginia seems to have been an exception.

I only know of one other exception: one of those “mad gunmen” some years ago in Cleveland. Guy shot up his neighborhood—to the surprise of his neighbors—NOT!!!!!

“Oh, yeah, he was a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off. He used to go duck hunting in his canoe—in the driveway!” That’s right: this maniac would pull his canoe out of the garage into the middle of his driveway and sit in it in full hunting gear pretending to shoot ducks. The neighbors never saw evidence that the gun was loaded—no shots were fired—but he went through the motions. If we’re going to have homicidal maniacs in our midst—and I’m afraid they’re a fact of life—THAT’S the kind I want, the kind who go around drooling and howling at the moon. HIM I’ll know to steer clear of. English majors from South Korea who write violent short stories? How do we defuse them before they go off?
A postscript. I stand corrected. The VT shooter was a madman, and did send out signals of his lunacy for years.

Suddenly the debate has become, "How dare NBC air those tapes and publish those pictures?"

I think NBC was doing its job. What's the old Scripps-Howard motto: "Give light and the people will find their own way." But how come college officials weren't trailing this young man around campus in squad cars with lights flashing and bullhorns sounding? His fuse was lit a long time ago. Did no one think to put it out?