Media mayhem

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

Outside Burruss Hall on the campus in Blacksburg, a message on April 19. The media interference was resented by the student community.-CHUCK BURTON/AP

Outside Burruss Hall on the campus in Blacksburg, a message on April 19. The media interference was resented by the student community.-CHUCK BURTON/AP

Virginia Tech is subjected to media and political onslaughts in the wake of the campus killings.

ON April 17, 2007, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech, or VT) in the United States held a special convocation. To speak at the event, the President of the Institute called upon the faculty's most accomplished poet, Nikki Giovanni. The previous day, a student, Cho Seung-Hui, had turned his guns against his peers and the faculty, taken 32 lives and then his own. Of the 13 incidents of major shootings on American campuses since 1966, the Virginia Tech violence produced the most deaths.

"We are Virginia Tech," Giovanni chanted, to boost the morale of a devastated campus. Then she offered her analysis of what had transpired the day before: "We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS [acquired immune deficiency syndrome], neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilised. No one deserves a tragedy."

But Virginia Tech got a tragedy. In 2005, Giovanni complained to the campus administration about Cho, who was in her class. Cho wrote poetry that disturbed Giovanni, and his overall behaviour intimidated other students. The head of the English Department, Lucinda Roy, began to tutor Cho, but even she found his work and his behaviour dangerous. The campus did little to deal with the problem.

Cho's writings were misogynistic and misanthropic: he wrote about delivering vengeance for the many grievances he had accumulated. The child of immigrants from South Korea who worked in a backbreaking laundry shop, Cho resented the affluence and the social ease of some of his peers. With few avenues to transform these frustrations in a productive direction, Cho went berserk. Innocent lives were lost to no end.

The last poem in Giovanni's first book Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) ends with an invocation for people to "build what we can become when we dream". Thirty-three people can no longer dream.

The first major college campus shooting in the U.S. took place in 1966. On August 1, Charles Joseph Whitman climbed to the University of Texas' Tower, fired 150 rounds of ammunition and killed or wounded 47 people. Whitman, a former U.S. Marine, was in turmoil: he had thrown himself into an unsustainable work schedule as his marriage skidded towards divorce.

Gary Lavergne, author of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (1997), concluded that Whitman's "actions speak for themselves". He had a sad childhood and he abused Dexedrine (an amphetamine), but at the end of the day he planned a systematic assault on people who were not directly responsible for his trials.

Whitman's attack speaks for itself in another way. His suicide note was garbled and unclear. "I don't quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter," he wrote. "Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed."

Cho, on the other hand, began his rampage at around 7 a.m. in a dormitory, then took a two-hour break to go to the post office. There, he mailed a package that contained photographs and a 1,800-word manifesto to NBC News in New York City. "You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today," said Cho in a video, "but you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off." Cho mimicked poses from Hong Kong action movies and Hollywood thrillers (particularly the 2003 revenge film Oldboy directed by Park Chan-Wook; the movie won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival). Cho's murder spree was choreographed by images that he consumed and produced to become part of the media spectacle.

The media took the bait. NBC News ran much of what its anchor Brian Williams called Cho's "multimedia manifesto". Lead reporters flew down to the campus, where they buttonholed any student, faculty member or staff person and harassed them for the latest information or a parade of their emotional turmoil in front of the cameras. Nothing was sacred, and solemnity was shunted aside. Experts of all kinds stood before the cameras and wrote opinion pieces. Some wondered if Cho's problems were psychological (the television "doctor" Dr. Phil was the expert on Larry King Live); others considered if there was a chemical trigger (Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft). The more serious shows pondered the cultural meaning of Cho's actions, wondering if this massacre reflected upon American society in any substantial way. The bulk of the media, however, went straight for emotional pabulum as a way to capture an audience: "A Nation Mourns" (CBS News) and "Our Prayers are With You" were two lifeless examples.

Virginia Tech rebelled against this media murder. Not long after the media mayhem began, the student government released a statement: "Students in general will be declining all requests and contact from the media. Please grant us your understanding as this decision was made by the students, with the intent to regain a sense of normalcy as we prepare to move forward as an academic institution and as a community in the healing process."

President Bush came down to Blacksburg for the memorial service. He told the college that "our nation is shocked and saddened" by the events, and that he and his wife, Laura, came to the college "with hearts filled with sorrow". On April 16, the same day as the massacre, 53 people were killed in Iraq. President Bush, who has been loath to visit the families of slain U.S. troops and has met precious few Iraqi families (who bear the brunt of the suffering), nonetheless took centrestage away from the dead and the survivors.

Before the students could come to terms with the shock, Virginia Tech became the latest laboratory for various political battles. When the news reported that the killer was an Asian, Debbie Schlussel, a far-Right pundit, speculated that the he might be a "Paki" who was part of a "coordinated terrorist attack". The wires then reported that the killer was a Chinese national, to which Schlussel barked that this was "another reason to stop letting in so many foreign students". Such sentiments provoked remorse from the Korean community and fear among the Korean student body (many of whom fled the campus by the evening). Local Korean churches hastily apologised for the incident, as did the President of South Korea Roo Moo-Hyun.

Schlussel's opinions are, no doubt, on the margins, but her attempt to draw the tragedy into other political fights was fairly mainstream. Most of the media hijacked the story away from Virginia Tech to the problem of gun control. Certainly, in the State of Virginia it is remarkably easy to buy a gun. Cho, on fairly strong medication, was able to buy a Glock 9-mm handgun for $571 in early April (he also had a Walther .22 caliber pistol). His two guns are part of the 260 million personal firearms in the U.S. (one for each person), including 65 million handguns. As a result of this ready arsenal, 30,000 people die in a year from firearms (that is, 80 people a day). Gun control advocates faced off against the National Rifle Association, the leader of the gun lobby. Cho's access to firearms certainly allowed his rage to find lethal expression.

The debate is a real one, but this was not its time. Virginia's Governor Tom Kaine, a Democrat, could not control himself: "People who want to take this within 24 hours of the event and make it their political hobby horse to ride, I've got nothing but loathing for them."

Chennai-born Professor G.V. Loganathan came to Virginia Tech in 1982 to teach hydrologic engineering. By all accounts, GV, as his friends and colleagues called him, was an unassuming and brilliant man. Cho barged into GV's Advanced Hydrology class and ended his distinguished and short life (he was only 53). GV was not only a revered teacher (he won the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Faculty Achievement Award for Excellence in Civil Engineering Education), but a well-respected academic (he won the 1996 American Society of Civil Engineers Wesley W. Horner Award). Of GV, one of his students wrote: "He is the God of his subjects."

Not long after Cho left Room 206, Norris Hall, where he had killed GV and nine students, the killer stepped into Room 204. Professor Liviu Librescu was teaching his class on Solid Mechanics. He bravely shielded his students, most of whom survived. But one of them, Minal Panchal of Mumbai, a 26-year-old student of architecture, died along with her professor. Panchal had come to Virginia in 2006 to follow her father's profession.

Chetan Mogal, another architecture student and a member of the Indian Students' Association, told India Abroad: "She was just awesome. Very friendly with everybody and an extremely creative person. She always wore a smile."

Nikki Giovanni went to Arkansas a few days after the shooting. At a literary festival, Giovanni read her poetry, but talked also about Virginia Tech and its trials. "We know that sorrow is just around the corner," she said, "but so is hope."

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