The amount of coverage has been staggering–dozens of stories per day in the top national newspapers, nightly broadcast news programs that are lengthened by half an hour, 24-hour repetitions of the same information on cable news, even a blow-by-blow account in the “Kid’s Post” section of the Washington Post, which my 7-year-old reads. I first found out about the Blacksburg tragedy because a student TV news crew stopped me on the street to ask my opinion. This is a global phenomenon: Le Monde and the BBC also led with Cho Seung-hui’s picture when I looked.
It’s a choice to devote so much space and time to those 33 deaths. Bombers killed 158 in US-occupied Baghdad on Wednesday. Nigeria, the biggest country in Africa, saw violence connected to its presidential vote. Comparisons are odious; they imply that one doesn’t care about particular victims and that human lives can be counted and weighed. I do sympathize with the Blacksburg victims and their families. I sympathize because I have been told their stories in detail; but there are many other stories that I could have been told–other tragedies, or (for that matter) other narratives that are important but not tragic.
Perhaps the Virginia Tech victims deserve sympathy from all of us, but I suspect they would prefer less attention. I find it hard to see how the deserve something they don’t want.
One reason to tell the Virginia Tech story in detail is to provide us with the information we might need to act as voters and members of various communities. For instance, I work at a university much like Virginia Tech and could agitate for new policies in my institution. But it is generally a bad idea to act on the basis of extremely rare events. There have been about 40 mass shootings in the USA. During the period when those crimes have occurred, something like half a billion total people have been alive in America. That means that 0.000008 percent of the population commits mass shootings. There cannot be a general circumstance that explains why someone does something so rare. The availability of weapons, mental illness, video games–none of these prevalent factors can “explain” something that in 99.999992 percent of cases does not happen. (Bayes’ theorem seems relevant here, but I cannot precisely say why.)
It is foolish to use such rare events to make policy at any level–from federal laws to school rules. For instance, if lots of people carried concealed weapons, there is some chance that the next mass killer would be stopped after he had shot some of his victims. But millions of people would have to carry guns, and that would cause all kinds of other consequences. The day after the Blacksburg killings, two highly trained Secret Service officers were injured on the White House grounds because one of them accidentally discharged his gun. Imagine how many times such accidents would happen per year if most ordinary college students packed weapons in order to prevent the next Blacksburg.
The last paragraph was a rebuttal to those who want to use Cho Seung-hui as an argument for carrying concealed weapons. But it would be equally mistaken to favor gun control because it might prevent mass shootings. Maybe gun control is a good idea, but not because it would somewhat lower the probability of staggeringly rare events. Its other consequences (both positive and negative) are much more significant.
If obsessive coverage of a particular tragedy does not help us to govern ourselves or make wise policies, it does reduce our sense of security and trust. It reinforces our belief that “current events” and “public affairs” are mostly about senseless acts of violence. It plants the idea that one can become spectacularly famous by killing other people. These are not positive consequences.
It is moving that some students have started a “reach out to a loner” campaign on the Internet. They are trying to respond constructively to something that they have been told is highly important. Imagine what they might accomplish if they turned their attention to the prison population, the high-school dropout problem, or even ordinary mental illness.