Keep the Killer Face­less

The Washington Post Sunday - - Out­look -

opens fire on his class­mates again. Yet the bloated pho­to­graphs on front pages, the re­peat­ing loops of in­ter­views on ca­ble news, the post­ings of warped cre­ative writ­ing as­sign­ments on the Web, and per­haps above all the air­ing of Cho’s self-pity­ing, quasi-mes­sianic video clips on ev­ery net­work all help en­sure that sim­i­lar in­ci­dents will in­deed re­cur — and soon.

When re­search­ing a de­press­ingly co­pi­ous ar­ray of real-life cam­pus mas­sacres for a fic­tional vari­a­tion on those macabre melees in my last novel, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” I grew to ap­pre­ci­ate that ev­ery school shooter has his own sorry story. Yet the one mo­ti­va­tion that seems to tie all these mis­guided char­ac­ters to­gether is a yearn­ing for me­dia recog­ni­tion. In an era that has lost touch with the dis­tinc­tion be­tween fame and in­famy, so driv­ing is the need to be no­ticed — for any rea­son — that even post­hu­mous at­ten­tion will do. Much like those fun-fair photo booths in which one can push one’s face through a card­board cutout of Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, you can be sure that more than one Amer­i­can kid has al­ready men­tally snipped out the zom­boid face on those front pages and poked his own mug through the newsprint in­stead. Cho’s video “man­i­festos” may stir re­vul­sion in most, but they will stir envy in a dan­ger­ous few.

More­over, Cho has de­lib­er­ately upped the ante; ex­ceed­ing Dy­lan Kle­bold’s and Eric Har­ris’s body count by more than a fac­tor of two on the eighth an­niver­sary of the Columbine shoot­ings, nearly to the day, was surely cal­cu­lated. So how many vic­tims will our next shooter fig­ure he has to claim in or­der to merit the same de­li­cious scale of cov­er­age? Sixty-four?

De­spite all the search­ing-for-an-an­swer hand-wring­ing we have been sub­jected to this last week, the most ob­vi­ous ounce of pre­ven­tion would be to stop al­low­ing the likes of Cho to play the me­dia like a pi­ano. As it is, we gave him ev­ery­thing he would have wished for. In so do­ing, jour­nal­ists who claim only to be help­ing us to “un­der­stand,” the bet­ter to pre­vent fu­ture ram­pages, are hyp­o­crit­i­cal. Ask any Skin­ner­ian psy­chol­o­gist: Re­ward be­hav­ior, and it rises.

As a nov­el­ist, I covet that “un­der­stand­ing.” As a cit­i­zen, I re­sist it. Pity for Cho’s pur­port­edly tor­mented child­hood and fas­ci­na­tion with his psy­chotic, solip­sis­tic uni­verse only en­tice other dis­turbed char­ac­ters to make a bid for the same sym­pa­thy.

I also get the willies when I hear that, in re­sponse to this sin­gle mas­sacre, cam­puses across the coun­try are now un­der­go­ing “se­cu­rity re­views.” Anx­ious that no one in the fu­ture claim that they, too, should have caught the “warn­ing signs,” school ad­min­is­tra­tors na­tion­wide will be tempted to in­sti­tute poli­cies that in­fuse their in­sti­tu­tions with a cli­mate of fear, sus­pi­cion and cre­ative re­pres­sion so at odds with the pur­pose of ed­u­ca­tion.

Con­sider what we have done to air­ports. Thanks to Richard Reid, we’re obliged to dump our sneak­ers on the belt, strug­gle to tie our laces on the other end and sac­ri­fice our cig­a­rette lighters — since oth­er­wise, so goes the de­fault pre­sump­tion, we will all set our ex­plo­sive shoes on fire. Thanks to a hand­ful of Bri­tish would-be ter­ror­ists who have yet to be con­victed, we travel with hu­mil­i­at­ing Zi­ploc bags of no more than 3 ounces of sham­poo, since oth­er­wise we would ob­vi­ously com­bine our full-size Her­bal Essences with our chamomile con­di­tioner and blow out the side of the plane. I doubt I’m alone in not feel­ing one whit safer as a re­sult of this the­atri­cal pre­tense of “se­cu­rity.” Is this what we want to do to our schools?

As dis­turb­ing as Cho’s writ­ing may be, I dread yet an­other wave of para­noia in Amer­i­can English de­part­ments, so that ev­ery aber­rant poem or off­beat short story is foren­si­cally ex­am­ined for signs of de­viance. In the su­per­sen­si­tive post-Columbine pe­riod, nu­mer­ous kids were ex­pelled for writ­ing work that their teach­ers be­came con­vinced dis­played “warn­ing signs.” Any stu­dent who wrote my own sev­enth novel, which cli­maxes in a grisly school killing with a cross­bow, would be thrown off cam­pus and dragged onto a psy­chi­a­trist’s couch in a heart­beat.

As rit­u­al­is­tic as the in­sti­tu­tional over­re­ac­tion to one high-pro­file shoot­ing in schools is the bru­tal cast­ing about for some­one to blame who isn’t al­ready dead, a vi­cious tra­di­tion that’s now well un­der­way. The fin­ger of blame is al­ready cir­cling wildly — at the cam­pus’s po­lice, ad­min­is­tra­tors and teach­ers. For the first time, it has even pointed at me. Be­cause Cho, like my own fic­tional char­ac­ter Kevin, bought locks and chains to trap his vic­tims in their school rooms, nu­mer­ous blogs and even the Lon­don Paper have spec­u­lated that he may have been im­i­tat­ing “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Take it from me: Even such a glanc­ing ac­cu­sa­tion that the death of 32 peo­ple is all your fault is not an en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence.

The sole nom­i­nally pro­duc­tive re­ac­tion to Cho’s ram­page is yet an­other call for stricter gun con­trol in Amer­ica. But it’s un­likely that go­ing through the mo­tions of na­tional an­guish on this point will bear much fruit. Cho had no crim­i­nal record and had clearly done his plan­ning well ahead, thus mak­ing him ca­pa­ble of last­ing out any wait­ing pe­riod. He would surely have been able to buy a gun in states with even the most rig­or­ous re­stric­tions in place. Un­til the United States shifts the bur­den of proof — so that the pur­chaser has to prove that he needs a gun, rather than the state hav­ing to prove why he can’t have one — Amer­i­can gun con­trol is des­tined to be more ges­ture than sub­stance.

Sim­i­larly, calls for more at­ten­tive care for the men­tally ill are harm­less enough, un­less they trans­late into a leer­i­ness of any­one who is quiet, im­pen­e­tra­ble, pe­cu­liar, hos­tile and iso­lated (which well de­scribes me on a bad day) and into a cor­re­spond­ing over-ea­ger­ness to lock them up.

In all, the cheap hind­sight in­sis­tence that if we’d had the right rules, laws and pro­ce­dures in place, Cho and his un­for­tu­nately nu­mer­ous pre­de­ces­sors could have been stopped puts me in mind of the film “Mi­nor­ity Re­port,” in which psy­chics have vi­sions of homi­cides yet to be com­mit­ted. Thus Tom Cruise and his fel­low troop­ers ar­rive in the nick of time to ar­rest a “mur­derer” be­fore he has a chance to kill. I don’t trust our psy­chics in any guise, and I am more afraid of ham-handed pre­ven­tive mea­sures than I am of stray lu­natics with guns.

Re­peat­edly this past week, news an­chors have asked the “ex­perts” (one of whom, hi­lar­i­ously, this mere fic­tion writer is con­sid­ered), “What is to be done?” Even the barmi­est an­swers of­fer the il­lu­sion of con­trol. Get the an­swer right, so goes the rea­son­ing, and we will never see head­lines of this sort again. Yet leav­ing aside the seem­ingly in­tractable busi­ness of gun avail­abil­ity in Amer­ica, the grim truth is that there is noth­ing to be done.

A dis­crete sub­sec­tion of the hu­man race is in­sane. A larger sub­sec­tion may not be clin­i­cally psy­chotic but is still suf­fi­ciently re­sent­ful, venge­ful, en­vi­ous, grandiose and my­opi­cally self-pity­ing to be dan­ger­ous. Even if you zapped ev­ery gun off the planet, these folks could still get hold of knives, base­ball bats, jagged shards of glass or ma­chetes (think of Rwanda). We live in a world of mul­ti­ple risks — traf­fic ac­ci­dents, light­ning bolts, avalanches — and the big­gest risk we live around ev­ery day is other peo­ple. The un­hinged, the an­gry, the malev­o­lent cir­cu­lat­ing in our midst amount to so­cial bad weather. When­ever we walk out the door, we take the chance that mal­ice will rain on our heads.

Stop giv­ing these shoot­ers blan­ket cov­er­age and ban­ner head­lines? My per­sonal choice of so­lu­tion, but a pipedream; and me­dia cen­sor­ship would be one more cure worse than the dis­ease. Tighten up gun laws, and of­fer more coun­sel­ing in schools? Fine. But be­yond such com­mon-sense prac­tice, re­spond­ing to Mon­day’s mas­sacre with a host of tyran­ni­cal and doubt­less in­ef­fec­tual “se­cu­rity” pro­ce­dures and “warn­ing sign” codes would bring no one in Vir­ginia back to life, would make go­ing to school even more un­pleas­ant and would hand Cho Se­ung Hui a per­verse sort of vic­tory.

» Lionel Shriver will dis­cuss her ar­ti­cle at noon Mon­day at www.wash­ing­ton­


Me­dia crush: Satel­lite trucks crowded Tues­day into a Blacks­burg, Va., park­ing lot where news con­fer­ences were held.

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