What the Killers Want

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By Lionel Shriver
Sunday, April 22, 2007

When Seung Hui Cho shot himself in the head, he so obliterated his features that he was unrecognizable. Thus there proceeded a brief, merciful interval during which the identity of the perpetrator of last Monday's killing spree at Virginia Tech was unknown. He was literally faceless.

Would that he had remained so. Instead, that strangely slack, absent-eyed countenance is now permanently burned into our collective cultural consciousness.

Even more than these gruesomely gratuitous incidents themselves, I have come to dread the campus shooting's ritual media aftermath -- a secondary wave of atrocity, all conducted under the guise of grief, soul-searching concern and an ostensible determination to ensure that no demented loner ever 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's new novel, "The Post-Birthday World," was published last month by HarperCollins.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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