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James Rosenquist's "F-111," detail, 1964-65 [Museum of Modern Art]

Reality Sowed
A Culture In Cold Blood

Sitting in his Manhattan apartment on Nov. 16, 1959, Truman Capote was leafing through his New York Times when, on page 39, he came across a 12-paragraph wire story datelined Holcomb, Kansas, that started this way: “A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged.” Capote spent the next six years writing the story of the murders for what would become one of the great books of the century.

Capote called his book a “non-fiction novel.” He knew that it would rewrite the rules of journalism for the psychological depth he was bringing to a form that until then reported good and evil like character types — bad guys, good guys and redeemable guys stacked up in every story to prevent gray shading from showing through. Capote elevated gray to equal billing. The four shotgun blasts in Holcomb, “all told, ended six human lives,” he wrote toward the beginning of the book: Six, not four. He was letting the reader know right away that even murderers are human, the degrees separating them from the rest of us not nearly as easy to enumerate as we’d like to think. If most of us aren’t killers, it’s less clear how many of us contribute at one point or another, consciously or not, to the making of killers, even less so when society succors murderous deviance. Why is the United States by far the most murder-prone country in the West? Capote forced the reader to come to terms with that carefully reconstructed reality, so that by the time Perry Smith and Richard Hickock hang for their murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, they’re not the only guilty parties. Just the only ones to be murdered in turn.

Capote’s relevance today should be the Lazarus act of this young, violent century. Imagine if every violent death had its complete biography. Violence as an entertainment might become less attractive, violence as the default setting of conflict maybe a little less automatic. But the fleshing out of violence’s psychology as Capote does in “In Cold Blood” isn’t in favor. The clinical treatment of violence as a costless entertainment very much is. In video games or the most popular breed of crime shows on television — the “CSI” franchise — blood and guts are literally the puzzle pieces that come together in 48-minute sequences. There’s never a missing piece or an unanswered question, least of all one posed to the viewer. You expect that from games and TV shows. You expect it less from real-life drama. Yet that cast-iron certainty of a problem bound for its solution has been the narrative of the Iraq war from its early days.

Most of us are spared the personal, psychological investment in the war. Except for the mostly working-class families from whom the majority of soldiers are recruited, taxpayers were never asked to sacrifice, either financially or personally. The violence of the war is barely shown. The wounded, screaming or dead soldiers, the dismembered children, the limbs that were once suicide bombers or their victims — the viscera of war, its glaring truths, in sum, is off limits, supposedly out of respect for the audience. But air-brushing reality to make it more palatable is the kind of deception that joins hands with the kind that invented the narrative for the war in the first place. The Iraq war continues unabated, and American involvement in Iraq is surging, because most Americans have no idea to what extent they’re contributing to the atrocity.

The Virginia Tech massacre briefly made the arrangement difficult to live by. What happens in Iraq daily, sometimes twice, three times a day, happened on a college campus in Appalachia. From what we now know of him, the Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho wouldn’t flatter sanity. He was a man even his own family didn’t know, a college student who thought he’d grown up with Vladimir Putin and vacationed with the Russian president on occasion, who dated a supermodel from outer space, whose plays and poems were brutality plots in search of a stage, and whose brief commitment to a mental health facility two years ago seems to have been spot on. But Cho didn’t live in Europe or South Korea, where the tightly-wound have to contend with equally tightly wound laws. He lived in the United States, where a blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality means that at times the fantasies of a deranged soul mutate from silence to bloodbaths. And yet, how quickly the national instinct to sanitize the event kicked in. Showing Cho’s videos and stills of himself posing with guns and eulogizing his mayhem proved too much. “Cho, in death, is taking everyone hostage by his videos,” read a Web posting on the site of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Networks quit showing the material. Suppressing evidence and calling it “better judgment” was safer.

It’s a different kind of fantasy, so familiar to the last four years that it’s become virtually automatic: Let’s at all costs never trouble ourselves with the personal implications of violence. That’s the better judgment of the most violent society in the West.

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