A Brutal Truth
Massacre Is Just a Part of Everyday Life in America
t is as if we are on autopilot. The ghastly tragedy swamps the news to the exclusion of all else. There are the heartbreaking stories of a university shattered and of the dozens of victims, their mostly young lives cut short so senselessly. We listen to the grief-stricken remarks of the President, and follow the breathless investigation of the perpetrator's background, his history of mental illness. We share the anguished second guessing about whether his murderous rampage could have been prevented. Yet everything is playing to a script we know by heart.
Virginia Tech, of course, is the worst incident of its kind in US history - and at one level, you would gain the impression from American television that Cho Seung-Hui has literally stopped the world.
He hasn't of course. On Tuesday, in what passes for a relatively quiet news day in Iraq, wire services reported the deaths of 56 people in violence across the country: some of them gunned down, some killed by a suicide bomber, some discovered as decomposed or decapitated corpses. But we heard not a word of that, nor of the trial in absentia in Italy of a US soldier accused of shooting dead an Italian intelligence agent, nor of the report that North Korea may be about to shut down a key nuclear reactor (which would be very big news indeed if true.) And somebody shot dead the Mayor of Nagasaki. But who cares? Instead, nothing but Virginia Tech.
Yet, however exceptional the event, there is something formulaic, even routine, about the coverage. There is no soul searching, no wondering what might be wrong with a society where such things happen so frequently. You hear no new arguments, for deep down there is nothing new to be said.
No detail of the tragedy is too tiny to recount; from where Cho went to high school to the thoughts of the postman who delivered mail, to where the family lived in the Virginia suburb of Centreville (and never met him). Yet America is showing scant sign of addressing the far bigger issue - of whether it is finally time to get serious about gun control.
"Today is the time to focus on the families, the school and the community," Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said. But, she added, "we must allow the facts of the case to unfold before we talk about policy." Reasonable enough. But if not now, in the white heat of stunned national outrage, when?
For public anger can force unexpected change. Over the course of a long career as a loud-mouthed talk radio host, Don Imus must have made hundreds of offensive remarks. Last week, he made what seemed just another one, about the Rutgers University women's basketball team. Astonishingly, public tolerance at last snapped. In three days, Imus was out on his ear.
Might not Virginia Tech be the Rutgers University joke for the gun lobby, the moment when violence-drenched America says enough is enough? Alas no. Yes, there will be debate, just as after similar awful incidents in recent years, from Columbine High School to the murder of the five Amish schoolgirls last October in Pennsylvania.
But the underlying mood is of disillusioned resignation. So President Bush formulaically speaks of a "day of sadness for our entire nation," and how Americans are "asking God to provide comfort for all who have been affected." It is less certain, however, that a President from gun-toting Texas, who has pursued the conservative vote his entire career, will try to mobilise temporal political forces to render comfort from the Almighty unnecessary.
Keep coming to our world-class universities, was the message to foreign students from Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman yesterday. Virginia Tech was "an aberration". As Donald Rumsfeld infamously remarked of the anarchy of post-invasion Iraq, "Stuff happens".
School shootings happen year in, year out, like tornados in the Midwest in springtime and hurricanes in the south in summer. There will be pressure to step up security procedures on campuses. But that, I confidently predict, will be it. Some even urge more guns, not less. The shooting was proof that "gun bans are the problem, and that Americans should have the rights to defend themselves", according to The Gun Owners of America, a firearms lobbying group. In the meantime, the mighty media river rolls on, washing everything else away. And copycats watch, and wait to choose their moment.
The massacre at Virginia Tech is alarming, not just because of its scale, or that the authorities missed warning signs about Cho Seung-Hui, or that he found it so easy to carry out his terrible mission. The biggest worry is the "copy cat" risk - or rather virtual certainty - that some other student who's feeling depressed or victimised and wondering if life's worth while, will see what happened at Blackburg. And then he'll decide that he too might as well go out with a bang (or more exactly, as many deadly bangs as possible).
The question is not whether, but where, when and how a new outrage will happen. Not, thankfully, at St Edward's University in Austin, Texas, or at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, nor at the University of Oklahoma. The first two received bomb threats yesterday and briefly evacuated their campus. At the third, someone was reportedly seen with a weapon. All three scares were unfounded. But sooner or later, the scare will be real, and more people will die because of America's inability to strip the glamour from guns.