The Lessons Learned

by Scott McLemee on April 20, 2007

Among the top-ranking videos at YouTube this morning, nearly half (nine out of twenty) consist of Cho Seung-Hui’s monologues as broadcast by NBC.

Good for Siva Vaidhyanathan for criticizing this decision at the MSNBC website. (See also his piece there on the “ill-conceived lessons” being drawn from the massacre.)

So what have we learned from this past week?

First of all, that when the Founding Fathers wrote about the need for a “well-regulated militia,” it meant they wanted a free market in guns with no barriers whatsoever to access. (“Well-regulated” being an 18th century expression meaning “not regulated.” The term “militia” is to be very broadly construed. Very, very broadly.) But such is stating the obvious.

Second, that if your mind is such a toxic waste dump that killing everyone in sight seems like a really good idea, by all means explain yourself on camera so that all the world can know. Because your thoughts will definitely reach an audience — almost immediately, in fact — via mass media that “well-regulate” themselves through a profound sense of social responsibility.

Finally, that it’s really cool and “edgy” to make a video in which you perform one of the plays that Cho Seung-Hui wrote, then post it online right away, while the bodies are still in the bags. Man, that shit is hilarious! But you’d better hurry, because otherwise you’ll only be the second or third person to do it.

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The Explainsies § Unqualified Offerings
04.21.07 at 3:52 am



P O'Neill 04.20.07 at 4:51 pm

I know that this is classic debate fodder but I disagree. The standard description of VT was “senseless.” It made sense to Cho. I learned something from seeing the anger and fury and his expressions thereof. I don’t think many people get a chance to see direct visual evidence of psychotic behaviour in action. I think it’s strange for the MSNBC link article to complain about how the images will achieve “iconographic status” when Cho himself was working with previous iconic images, as the article then acknowledges. It’s painful for the victims. But it was also an insight into a sub-culture, a very small one maybe, but one in which Columbine and boutique action movies have merged into a very disturbed world view. A worldview whose subscribers have easy access to guns.


Stuart 04.20.07 at 5:09 pm

One of the things that made me wonder, although its probably something that can’t be answered, was why the choice of mailing his videos, etc., to NBC? There would seem to be a moderate possibility that channel actually introduced him to the Columbine killers, or built his interest in them anyway (either because its a channel he watches regularly, or chosen specifically because of their coverage of Columbine). Of course that assumes the links between them aren’t fluff from the media reaching for links with little evidence (I haven’t really looked at any of his broadcasts personally, read part of one of his plays and if that is indicative I doubt there is much of interest).

You wonder if this stuff will feed into itself more – I seem to remember some of the serial killers started playing off each other or being inspired by others – if this continues to happen with spree killers maybe it will keep getting more commonplace, especially if the potential killers close to the edge have more and more icons and examples being paraded in front of them at regular intervals.


Kelly 04.20.07 at 5:23 pm

Disclaimer: I like Siva, and have mined his work for my own projects in the past. That said, this bit in his critique jumped out at me:
We will soon see irresponsible, hateful mashups on YouTube. We will see sick attempts at humor, bigoted jokes about Korean immigrants and chilling calls to violence. And we will see a proliferation of hateful material that will be an assault on the mentally ill and their families.

…because of MSNBC airing the video? No, we were going to see all of that information regardless of what any news channel aired, because the network broadcast news is no longer our only source of information. In fact, for a lot of people, it’s no longer even a primary source of information.

And as P O’Neill said, the iconography Cho was working with is already standard iconography for us – it is John Woo a la The Killers, Hong Kong action movies, video games, the whole nine yards. Cho was reproducing the idea already in mass circulation, and much like the Columbine guys eventually faded away, so will he. It’s not the person enacting the iconography that stays with us, but the symbolism itself.

Should MSNBC have aired the footage? Yes, I think they should have, and I think they did it in the right manner. They explained themselves, what and how they were thinking, and why they ultimately opted to show it. There were disclaimers, there was plenty of time to turn away. And now, a lot more people have at least a little more knowledge, and it’s fueling a lot of disparate debates that need to happen.


roger 04.20.07 at 5:24 pm

I think NBC should definitely have waited for a month or so. There was no need to air those videos now.


Floyd 04.20.07 at 5:40 pm

While criticisms of sensationalist news are valid, they are also somewhat moot in a society where the media is privatized. This is a well-covered trade-off and I am not particularly qualified to speak on. However, the benefit for which we trade sensationalism is (ideally) dogged concern for the truth. In this case the media fulfilled their function, whether sensationalizing the tragedy in the process or not, by making these documents public. I find the argument that it is necessary to protect the feelings of those affected and/or head off insensitive opinions by suppressing information obviously relevant to the public discourse to be less than compelling to say the least.


C. L. Ball 04.20.07 at 5:59 pm

Vaidhyanathan wrote: Airing the video ultimately was disrespectful to the victims and their families. It also was exploitative of Cho’s condition and that of all severely mentally ill people.

I don’t understand how airing the video is ‘direspectful.’ Upsetting to victims and their families and friends, it may be (some might be curious to learn more, as the daugher of the female French instructor said on a CBC radio interview). Nor do I understand how it exploits the mentally ill. As p o’neill said, this is what severe psychotic behavior looks like. To say the public should not be able to view it is to further, to some degree, the stigmatization.


robotslave 04.20.07 at 9:00 pm

I’m afraid that Vaidhyanathan, in invoking the the rights of “the mentally ill,” has gone and opened that familiar can of worms containing the question, “what is mental illness?”

When I saw the video clips, I had to ask myself, “would I consider this young man insane, if I didn’t know he’d just killed 32 people and himself?” I’d have called him unhappy, a bit pretentious, and fixated on weapons, but frankly, I’ve known a lot of guys who fit that description (particularly at that age) and I’m pretty sure you could go out today and find at least one of them in every High School and college in the US. Most of them, to be fair, aren’t “loners”— they tend to hang out with other “weird” kids— but you can’t conclude a man is a loner just because he appears alone in some videos he made.

The TV networks have given us a parade of experts who all say categorically that Cho’s insanity is immediately and unquestionably obvious in the video clips, but I’m unconvinced. The thing that makes his insanity* obvious to me is the killing spree, not the video.

* or “insanity,” avec scare quotes, if you’re not entirely comfortable simply rejecting a sizable pomo slice of the academic debate


robotslave 04.20.07 at 9:02 pm

One of these days, I’ll figure out how to get around that Textile markup thing where it takes any asterisk found as the first non-whitespace character on a line, and turns it into a stinkin’ bullet point.


R.J. O'Hara 04.20.07 at 11:02 pm


Laleh 04.21.07 at 11:30 am

I wholly agree with robotslave at #7. When I was in my late teens/early 20s, I knew a whole lot of very unhappy, pretty well-read, dark kids. They read Maldoror and J.K. Huysmans and even Rimbaud, listened to dissonant muisc and were acutely aware of being called losers by the frat boys and sorority girls in their university (I went to University of Texas, where the divisions between different cliques were really stark; almost high school-like).

Just looking at Cho’s video -if I didn’t know that he were about to go out and kill a lot of people- wouldn’t necessarily indicate that he had already killed two people and was homicidal. If NBC had received the tape without his actual shootings, they would have considered it a bit odd, but probably not news-worthy. His spoken-word manifesto is much more rambling than some of the people I knew, but much of the content is the same (with the exception of the allusion to Jesus Christ). It is his act that makes a post-massacre reinterpretation of his video seem like a warning….


roy belmont 04.21.07 at 6:04 pm

A family of three was hit head-on on the freeway near here (central California) on Wednesday, the wife and son died, the husband’s on life-support.
How much time are you going to spend on that? Especially if, without the emphasis of my writing this, you’d only encountered it on some news aggregator, assuming it even showed up there. Especially against the exciting news from Virginia Tech, or the far less exciting but nonetheless numerically more ponderous news from Iraq.
Yet WHO just released a report confirming a very clear and simple fact – car wrecks kill more kids than anything else does. 400,000 worldwide a year.
The issue may not be guns, or militias, or the murky intent of the founding fathers, or anything to do with Cho, or psychotics in social spaces, or atomized media creation, or Bush in Iraq, or even Islam v. Western civilization.
It may be that the issue is what we’ve been trained to see as important, and what we’ve been trained to discount, and how that signifies against what is in fact, in the very long run, truly important.


Christopher B. Hayes 04.23.07 at 4:42 pm

roy belmont #12 –
Well spoken. With most car accidents being accidental, they will probably always garner less notice than intentional violent acts, though we do seem to have some skewed perspectives. How many are ready to question something as ubiquitous as automobile travel in the same way gun ownership is questioned? Those few who do (most Amish and Mennonites for example) are decried as quaint Luddite zealots. How many other parts of the status quo kill us regularly without a thought? (the average American diet and its relation to fatal health problems comes to mind).

As for the video, I don’t believe for a moment that people are hitting this video on YouTube because they want to “understand” anything – they are rubbernecking just like fools on the highway, hoping to get a glimpse of the macabre. The mind of man tends towards the carnal.

My heart and prayers are with the victims and their families. To maintain my charity, my empathy, I won’t watch the video, nor will I watch the infinite number of “news” stories that will replay the tragedy again and again, just like they did with the World Trade Center. Folks like their death just like 9/11 – from 110 stories below. It’s easier to just marvel at the flames that way, without all the emotional baggage of realizing that those flames were killing people right then. The same distancing is applied in the womb, and in Iraq, with the same results. It is carnal. It is pervasive. It is profitable. It is convenient. It is the status quo.

If I want to see the results of anger, publicly displayed, maybe I’ll subject myself to a museum exhibition containing a Jackson Pollock piece. At least afterwards I can depurate myself by viewing something beautiful around the corner. Changing the channels on a TV rarely affords the same opportunity.


Anderson 04.23.07 at 8:45 pm

I am mystified by the mindset of anyone who thinks that NBC should’ve decided, “well, the public really can’t handle this kind of thing — we’ll keep it under wraps.”


Christopher B. Hayes 04.24.07 at 6:04 pm

anderson –
It’s not that the public “can’t handle it” – it’s the fallout and blowback that become the problem. 1. If we bait mentally disturbed individuals with the kind of attention this is receiving, we’re basically giving them the equivalent to the virgins in paradise that await suicide bombers – good idea? probably not. 2. By airing this in the same venue as entertainment, it becomes entertainment – good idea? probably not. The idea of violence as entertainment is not a new one, and has never been a good one. Is violence a part of life, and should art deal with reality? Sure, but when violence is the focal point and summation of entertainment, we’ve lowered ourselves to animals, killing for fun. We are capable of more, and a livable society demands more.


Anderson 04.25.07 at 1:47 pm

By airing this in the same venue as entertainment, it becomes entertainment – good idea?

In other words, “the public can’t handle it.”

If you don’t like everything’s being reduced to entertainment, I happen to agree with you; but that’s democracy for you.


Christopher B. Hayes 04.25.07 at 2:55 pm

You got me there. You’re absolutely right.

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