How the Media Reframe Mass Murder

by Laura Snedeker

When’s the movie coming out? That was my first thought when “MASSACRE at Virginia Tech” flashed across the screen Wednesday night on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. It sounds like the title of the type of cheesy, over-hyped TV movie that’s so popular in memorializing disasters. When all we need is quiet remembrance, we’re given flashy graphics and platitudes about the fragility of human life.

The media already have their main character: Brooding, depressed, silent Cho Seung Hui, the man who never spoke in class but frightened other students with his very presence and attitude. The man everyone knew had a problem…but who no one could do anything about.

Cho was obviously a sick and disturbed young man, but there’s great potential for the media’s attention to these bizarre aspects of his character to bury the national conversation on gun control beneath the psychology of mass murder.

We don’t look at serial killers the same way we look at mass murderers. Serial killers are fascinating because their actions seem so far removed from what any of us could imagine doing, and because they often elude capture for months or years. They are dangerous, bizarre, and sexy. Rarely do they inspire the same kind of fear and outrage that senseless mass murder does. People like Richard Ramirez and Charles Manson are celebrities, fit for prime-time TV, Geraldo Rivera's latest cable venture and Larry King Live. We may be angry at police officers for not catching them sooner or amazed and impressed at the killer’s ability to confuse law enforcement.

Mass murderers, like Cho, inspire only anger, confusion, and grief, prompted by media that are fixed on the mental state of the killer. When they ask “How could this happen?” they aren’t looking for answers about the availability of guns. Like 9/11 and Columbine, the killings at Virginia Tech happened within a short time frame and left witnesses. The victims are mourned; the police officers and surviving students turned into heroes. The tools used to kill are soon forgotten.

Perhaps the fascination with mass murderers, like the Columbine killers and Cho, stems from the fact that these people were, like their victims, young boy-next-door types. Unlike serial killers whose actions and fetishes are so depraved and who seem to get sexual pleasure from their intricate murders, young mass murderers are too much like the rest of us for comfort. Americans fear mass murderers in a way that they don’t fear serial killers. No one wants to live next to Jeffery Dahmer, but it’s more frightening to imagine living next to the quiet man who just snaps one day.

Even as America mourns, we’re already thinking of new ways to monitor students’ behavior. Maybe this was one case where university officials should have stepped in, but it does no one any service to see potential mass murderers lurking in every moody, quiet youth. Cho was an extreme case, but as a country we have a nasty habit of extending preventative measures far beyond their original intent. Surveilling terrorists becomes a national spying database, medicating the hyperactive and the chronically depressed becomes drugging the merely energetic or sad, and monitoring the truly psychopathic becomes harassment of the simply stressed and annoyed.

As television coverage of the tragedy continued this week, one CNN anchor announced an upcoming segment discussing the Virginia Tech massacre in the context of Columbine and the Oklahoma City Bombing, and suggested that all three were terrorist incidents. There are certainly parallels. But terrorism is “politically motivated violence” according to the U.S. Criminal Code, distinguished from simple mass murder like Monday’s events in that terrorists intentionally target civilians to pressure a third party.

Terrorism, like mass murder, strikes fear into people’s hearts. But unless Cho’s ramblings against the rich, privileged, and humanity (wrongly dubbed by the media as a "manifesto") in general is political, we should not confuse the actions of disturbed killers with the political motives for terrorism, especially if we are expected to take either seriously.

(Photo by shizhao of Beijing, China, who attended a candlelight vigil for the victims on the Virginia Tech campus this week. The photo was obtained via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

For other posts this week on this topic, please see:

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Mark said...

I think the focus on gun control, or simply the psychology of an individual is the wrong focus. People should be asking, what are the social roots of such a tragedy? What does this event say about American society as a whole? I urge you to read David Walsh's analysis, "The malignant resentments that erupted into mass murder in Virginia", "The Virginia Tech massacre—social roots of another American tragedy".

Anonymous said...

Good blog.

Once again America is off on a massive spin fest driven by our media

Give a oversimplified unicausal explanation for a tragic event in order to sell more papers... They used to call it "sensational" journalism, in the worst sense of the world.

there are numerous issues we need to address... more than I can identify but here is my best try

- why is it easier to buy a gun than it is to get a drivers license.

- why are there so many mass killings of the sort that just took place. do suicidal folks now see a mass killing as a way to gain the fame they never had in their underachieving lives... why is that important...

I don't know

I looked yesterday at the faces of the kids killed at Columbine 8 years ago and was filled with sorrow as I imagined those same kids today would be bright eyed 25 and 26 year olds with college degrees, jobs, children. I just tears you up too see the 32 Virginia Tech kids and see the same kind of loss all over again..

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