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VT Killings: Worst of a Culture Addicted to Fame

The most important post-crime aspect of the Virginia Tech tragedy is that Cho Seung-Hei couldn’t conceive of the massacre without justifying it through media.

In the videos Cho mailed to NBC, he repeatedly refers to himself in the past tense. He has a meta-cognitive view of himself. In filming the piece, he was already looking at himself, postmortem, through the lens of the news. So in some ways you have to assume that, to Cho, the killing itself wasn’t the important thing. The important thing was imposing his ego on the world.

How appropriate, given that Cho thought the world imposed its ego on him. Cho’s video and photos were lifted from movies. The two gun pose, arms spread, straight out of Boondock Saints, or Snatch, or Layer Cake, or The Transporter, or any number of mainstream action movies. The hammer pose, straight out of Oldboy. In a very disturbing way, Cho was doing what the movies told him to do.

And so the images Cho sent to NBC provide a social timeline: We tell ourselves how to kill ourselves. We kill ourselves. And then, in killing ourselves, we tell ourselves how to kill again. That’s the danger of repeating Cho’s video. We’re closing the loop: From killing fantasy (movies!), to killing (news!), to killer’s fantasy (I’m on TV!). Meanwhile, Gus van Sant waits to make another Elephant-style dramatization. What a horrific lesson for a culture addicted to fame.

Thus, the danger of “copycat killers.” Last night on CNN, Anderson Cooper interviewed a psychiatric expert while showing Cho’s video. The expert said, repeatedly, that showing the video might inspire copycat killers. Anderson: “We considered that.” Considered, and ignored.

But here’s the most disturbing thing about this perennial debate. Yeah, the video isn’t exactly a healthy thing to watch. But despite the psychologists protestations, and Cooper’s relative nonchalance, the “copycat” topic as it pertains to Cho is actually moot. After all, Cho himself was a copycat killer. There’s a greater danger that someone will try, again, to copy Oldboy. Or Layer Cake. Or whatever story appeals. The problem is already metastasized in the culture. No getting rid of it.

So what lesson to learn? It’s beyond pedantic to suggest we curb violence in movies. Even if there was political and social will to do so, that genie is long out of the lamp. Instead: Guns are dangerous. Be nice to loners. Wait for the next tragedy. Cover it.

11 Responses to “VT Killings: Worst of a Culture Addicted to Fame”

  1. blueeagle1989

    Somehow the emphasis seems to be on “culture” which infers our culture. If Cho is such an indicator for us, then where is outrage about the young boy slowly beheading a man with a knife in Afghanistan, and it being broadcast? How about a culture that deliberately raises children to blow themselves up and take dozens with them? Cho was not deliberately raised to do this.

    30 plus people died at one man’s hand at VT. How many children were murdered on the same day in this country?

    Cho got his fame. How about broadcasting the pictures of child killers every night.

    How come a couple of blond girl victims and a drug overdose playmate get so much attention when black girls are being killed at a much higher rate? (No, I am not a person of color.)

    And another thing, funny how the Imus verbal rant incident suddenly lost its importance.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. This article misses the point COMPLETELY. Sociopathic killers have ALWAYS been addicted to the fame. Reference Jack the Ripper and work your way forward. Our media doesn’t have jack-sh*t to do with it. Violent movies “teach us how to kill ourselves”?! The absurdity of that assertion boggles the mind. The truly disturbed always get their inspiration from somewhere (books, movies, music, TV), but the reason why they turn fantasy into reality is because they were freakin’ crazy BEFORE they ever turned the TV on!!!

    That our culture is one obsessed with 15 minutes of fame for the ordinary Joe Sixpack (a la American Idol) is definitely part of the core issue here. But more disturbing is that our news outlets are GIVING him that posthumous 15 minutes! That’s the warped effect that our reality-based TV obsessed culture has wrought. WE are immortalizing the monsters. It’s pouring in on every TV channel and we can’t seem to get enough…

  3. Well put. Such a horrendous act, and the use of media in this manner, make us hit pause, and wonder what we have wrought.
    The problems are quite deep, actually.

    The idea of art and images as a mirror has evolved to our present state where the values espoused – therapuetic, informational, documentary – are well known “virtues”. Yet, anyone who has looked through microscope, or a Walker Evans photo, and really thought about them, will understand how much images don’t tell us. Yet in this era, the idea that seeing is believing is paramount.

    A mirror is not a virtue of art but rather deconstructs it and the meaning it might have. Art could help us understand who we are, but instead, we get weak “selves” reflected back. What is this latest grotesque monster, but the reflection of our most hideous selves, played over and over for emphasis. IWe can gaze at ourselves transfixed, but we might end up like Narcissus, and drown from such ardor. In this age of the screen, it is unlikely much will be repressed.

    Clues to our videos coming soon in Keys to Rabbit Bites

  4. James Ethan

    I believe the surface level examination of violence and its ramifications is an unconsidered factor in copycats. When our violent entertainment neglects to examine and showcase the roots of a violent individual’s behavior as well as the outcome of their actions, the viewer is left with a mere fraction of the story – allowing less enlightened individuals to identify with the aggressor. When violent entertainment includes unsavory roots and weakness in the aggressor as well as showcases the lasting unhappiness and lingering injury caused by the violence, I believe people will be less inclined to identify with the perpetrators and copy their actions.

  5. ohigotchya: That’s the thing that bothers me the most about this whole story. In some sick and twisted way, this guy wanted to be famous, and he came to the conclusion that the only way to do that was to become a mass murderer.

    On some level, we celebrate Bonnie & Clyde in the U.S. We remember Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, Lee Harvey Oswald, Timothy McVeigh, and other who commit terrible acts, and that notoriety lasts forever. John Wilkes Booth. Need I say more?

    We need to have a serious conversation about the nature of fame in this country — why we post videos of ourselves for everyone on the internet to see, why we holler and scream whenever a TV camera passes by, why we feel the need to follow every move Paris and Lindsay and Britney make, etc.

  6. ohigotchya

    This is the type of thing that really makes celebrities out of people. With others that have nothing to live for, they realize with one quick, bloody decision, their names can find the notoriety their normal, mundane lives would have never attained.

  7. Steve Bryant

    Alex just broke the sound barrier for ignorance. Zero to dumbass in negative seconds.

    BTW Matt, I was just thinking about how news reports mention that Cho didn’t have a MySpace page, “thus confirming his status as a loner.” Interesting how public personas on MyFace and SpaceBook are so expected now. Kids are more likely to be noticed if they DON’T have a profile.

    I can see a day shortly coming when, like Owen Wilson in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, non-public people are persecuted because we’re “unscannable!”

  8. Alex, that is the single stupidest thing I have read about this tragedy — and that is saying something, believe me. According to the family, she wasn’t even his girlfriend, so your comment manages to be wrong on multiple levels. Congratulations.

    And Steve, I think your point is a good one — not to ban or censor the showing of videos like Cho’s, but to try and look more closely at why and how we encourage that kind of behaviour. Although, of course, we have to put up with comments like Alex’s as we do that.

  9. Is it just me, or are we ignoring the fact that he was angry about some things, and he reacted in an excessive way. By only blaming the murderer (of course, he deserves megatons of blame), we’re not focusing on the problems that might have driven him to do awful deeds: it seems that he has invested himself in a girlfriend that was using him: she was the first victim, and it was an act of retaliation. Perhaps there were fewer men going crazy if there were fewer manipulative women.

  10. As a 20+ year veteran of filmed content production and distribution (from features to internet television), I have long-heard the debate over “who’s to blame?” (a) the producers or (b) the culture that spawns the fictional stories (and is mirrored by them) we film.

    I have generally sided with the notion that Producers are holding up a mirror to society. But, after this week, I have changed my stance.

    Let’s face it, we are a society “on film” now — Welcome to the ultimate User Generated content — and, guess what? We (as producers and distributors of filmed content) need to take a few giant steps backwards.

    Both scripted and unscripted/news production and distribution are just as liable here as the lame gun laws (or, lack thereof). We are responsible, as a society, for cultivating an atmosphere where these tragic events transpire.

    Let’s be honest, this Loner/School violence thing happens a lot these days, and, generally, only in America. We must be doing something wrong. All of us. Red, blue, left, right, Christian, Jew, Muslim and Agnostic…we’re all screwing up really badly.

    And, the Producers and Distributors of filmed content are either ignorant or unrealistic if they believe they are immune from blame. We’ve been glorifying violence and earning a living off of it far too long.

    Peace.