It’s not just in movie epilogues that the killer’s hand bursts out of its earthly grave.
Two days after a student massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech and then committed suicide, excerpts of the killer’s last message were aired and published by media.
As a media worker and consumer, I understand too well the prominence and significance of the student killer’s statement.
Virginia Tech student Cho Seung-Hui’s 23-page write-up, 28 video clips and 43 photos were mailed to NBC News during the two-hour interval between the first and second attacks.
The multi-media package tantalizes, with its clues to a personality described by schoolmates and authorities as a loner.
But on another level, I am disturbed by my culpability, no matter how indirect, in becoming an audience for the evil done that day.
Curiosity, human interest, fascination with disaster—these are just some of my reasons for following the news on the Virginia Tech killings.
But what is the price of this information?
At least two studies of school-age killers imply that these massacres, while horrifying many, also inspire perverse admiration and even imitation of the violent means to exact vengeance for real or imagined grievances.
According to news.bbc.co.uk, psychologist Robin Kowalski’s study on school shootings and a US Secret Service study of 37 school shootings reveal that the killers leave behind statements to make sure that they exit in a blaze of “self-glorification.”
Although an “acute rejection episode”—whether single or a history of teasing, bullying and other acts of alienation—precedes the killings, Kowalski writes that it is not people’s treatment but the killer’s psychological problems—like severe grandiosity, bipolar depression and schizophrenia—that make them susceptible to violence, including a morbid fascination with death and guns.
The Secret Service study also reveals that campus perpetrators don’t just “snap” due to the rejection but plan months before carrying out the killings. This preparation apparently includes watching the videos and websites left behind by other killers, who are idealized and imitated.
Cho referred to “martyrs like Eric and Dylan” and expressed his desire “to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were behind the Columbine massacre.
The cult for anti-heroes thrives because of today’s easy access to information. According to the BBC analysis, the internet was the portal of choice for Harris and Klebold, as well as by the Canadian campus shooter Kimveer Gill, for their final statements.
Cho’s video contains graphic images similar to those in Gill’s web page.
Though their exhibitionism is disturbing, a greater unease should stir us to ask harder questions: does the glut of information help us understand better what sparks the violence? Forewarns us about showing the intolerance that scars people so we lose them to hate and violence?
A psychologist interviewed by BBC prefers that media should focus more on assisting survivors and their families to cope in the aftermath. Depression and suicide are “not unusual” consequences in the weeks or months following a campus killing, the expert points out.
Unless we are on our guard, the evil in Columbine and Virginia Tech will just bid its time and surface somewhere again.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 22, 2007 issue