Virginia Tech and American Society

by R.J. Hansen

Who is to blame?

The short answer: No one.

We can no more divine the motivations of this collegiate shooter, whom I refuse to name, than we can divine the motivations or thought processes of a tornado or a tsunami. Biology is inexact. Malfunctioning brains are far more common than anyone realizes, and when they do malfunction, the victims of mental illness have a tremendous will and motivation to hide it, precisely because isolation is the nature of such disease. It hampers their ability to think like or relate to others.

Read An Unquiet Mind or I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, or view a screening of A Beautiful Mind if you wish more insight into folks who survived their illness, and see if you can still disbelieve that psychosis can lie hidden for many years without notice.

The longer, more difficult, and unfortunate answer: WE ARE to blame.

With the necessary caveat that when I say "we," I refer to the society which produced this situation and allows it to recur without proper cognizance of its root causes.

Since isolation is the nature of mental disease, and because mental disease is a constant that will continue to strike thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans each year, it needs to be addressed by society. Only society can penetrate the isolation of mental illness.

However, our society has become something less than community minded. In schools across the country, amongst many teens, "popular" has become an insult. In the ironically "popular" show Wicked, it's treated like a curse. While the popular are no better for being such, what's good about being popular is that it means you are connected to your peers and your society. As Dickens coined it, "Humanity [is our] business." Without others, and a societal context within which to exercise our talents and exorcise our demons, we are nothing.

It's high time we stop turning common sense on its head and realize that popularity is a virtue because it brings people together. It helps prevent disasters like these by giving people some way to carry terrible burdens like mental illness with support and help. It should be encouraged and sought after. It is no panacea, but a community that literally extols "rugged isolationism" and/or unilateralism as virtues, instead of more sensibly as a commonplace necessities of any adult personality, only magnifies and encourages such tragedies. Popularity without ethics is exclusionary, but in the light of proper ethics, it is enlightened self-interest, which is missing from many American neighborhoods, replaced instead by singular self-interest and a false sense of privilege.

Compounding this lack of community interest, our society also suffers from a long standing sickness of rubber necking to see horrific car crashes, and seeking every last bad bit of news possible in a perverse fascination with anyone who we can look down upon as either irregular or deviant, or as victims that we can remark upon, “Thank God that isn’t me.” It is human nature, but it is exaggerated in our American community, and the immediacy and speed of our current media system produces the disaster.

To me, the warning signs were quite clear: Printing the lunatic manifesto of the "Unabomber," week long coverage on Columbine, the Oklahoma bombing coverage, etc. An obsession with the Trade Center attacks bordering on the absurd as our leaders try to equate a truly feeble, only psychologically successful attack (by any historical comparison), with the Japanese belligerence that drew us into the Holocaust. The conventional media continuously reports and distorts freak violence so badly that many young people now choose get their news from Comedy Central. Can such a willingness to ignore the simple fact that most of life is good result in ugly consequences? You bet.

Because the simple fact is that many people with mental illness recover, if they can be gotten to treatment. But they are sick, and they do need encouragement to enter into dialogue and treatment.

We sweep them under the rug instead.

Unless, of course, they go utterly berserk, in which case it's a media event. If you do something nice, you might get fifteen minutes of fame, or a brief stint on American Idol. If you kill 32 people in an alarming copycat rampage, you get a week of coverage, because we, the media's ugly taskmasters, demand it. And why isn't the shooter considered a victim in our coverage? My count says there were 33 victims, one to a suicide. Even after days of coverage, this poor sick man gets swept under the rug in the ultimate body count. Give him a black balloon amongst the throng of white balloons if you like, but don't pretend this was anything more than a pitiful man with a broken mind. It is a fact that sometimes victims carry guns, or whatever weapon of choice they can find, and frequently strike the innocent presuming them to be their attackers.

And so victims are not to be lauded nor encouraged. They are another simple fact of the human condition that have been mistaken for virtue.

During the week, I mostly avoided watching the coverage, but while waiting for a tuxedo to attend a charity ball, I saw the coverage on cable TV.

"What was in the mind of the killer?" they asked.

"What are the people who suffered this tragedy experiencing?"

These are, to my mind, shocking questions that should not, nor can be, answered. If you want such insights, and I can't see why anyone would, you'll just have to trust in divine Providence and wait for them to come knocking. For the most part, God spares us that tragedy, possibly because He only gives us what can be borne.

The only decent, ethical questions that we should be asking are “What can we do to support and help the bereaved?” and “How can we make our society more accessible to the mentally ill, so that they need not isolate themselves and can choose treatment over disaster?”

Good will and a renewed sense of society are the only ways to lessen the growing severity of this problem.