The first reason might be called spiritual laryngitis. Like Melville’s Billy Budd, my first reaction to any severe emotional shock is loss of voice. I mean this quite literally. It is not only that I am not sure what to say, but also that I am quite unable to say anything at all. I sweat and strain, but my larynx remains frozen. As the parent of college-age children, my identification with those left to mourn is strong. I truly identify with them and the senseless loss they are experiencing. So the primary cause of my inability to speak is grief.
Second is the foreboding sense that this has happened before, and, quite likely, it will happen again. Our country has neither the political will to control gun availability, nor the compassion towards the mentally ill to fully support appropriate treatment. My paralyzed reaction to this disaster, my shock in the face of the incomprehensible, is also due to latent, inexpressible anger.
In terms of typing a post to this blog, this paralysis extends to that part of my brain that allows me to compose my thoughts for writing and enter them into my computer. What is the appropriate thing to say in the face of disaster? How do you express sorrow in a mass medium?
The bios I have read and seen of the killer describe him as a silent, withdrawn individual, one who appeared have something in common with another Melville character, Bartleby the Scrivener. Bartleby brooded in silence and chose, in his despair, to end his own life. The Virginia Tech killer’s self-immolation required, for reasons we may never fathom, the inclusion of 32 innocent lives and the wounding of any equal number of others.
One way you don’t express your sorrow was illustrated by NBC this past week. NBC’s decision to air the VT killer’s video was not due to a lack of other ways to deliver the newsworthy content of the recordings. There has been quite a bit of controversy over the appropriateness and/or newsworthiness of airing the killer’s self-aggrandizing video. It was not speechlessness that required the airing of the tape. It was competitive, commercial considerations which trumped a sense of decency, an acknowledgement of the damage such a viewing might cause, both to the families of the victims, and to the country at large.
In reacting to this tragedy we tap more deeply the sense of astonishment and outrage we experienced during the Don Imus imbroglio. Imus, who certainly has not ever experienced speechlessness, turned his mock but racist ire toward non-public, innocent Rutgers students. Accomplished young women all, they didn’t deserve such treatment for the sake of Imus’s ego or his radio ratings.
Here, I think, lies the key to the impact this event has had on many of us who have no direct connection with the Virginia Tech population. They were innocent. They were not the cause of the killer’s grievance and should not have been part of his ghastly personal catharsis. That we could react as a nation in horror of these events shows that we can still distinguish between fiction and reality, even if both are delivered to us in a mediated form.
It was also an instance of one of the major gatekeepers of television succumbing to the biases of the medium itself. Neil Postman noted that:
“What is not televisable doesn't exist on TV... What gets on the news are those things for which you have film footage.”(1)
While the medium of television may have a bias toward the visual, the human gatekeepers of the medium could choose not to succumb to it. One of Postman’s gift to his students of Media Ecology is the mandate that we must adopt a moral stance to the impact of media and technology on our society and we must speak out.
Thus in the space of one week I experienced outrage to the killings at Virginia Tech, which left me speechless, and outrage to NBC’s decision to engage in exploitation journalism, which gave me back my voice.
(1) Postman, N. "TV Has Culture by the Throat: A Conversation With Neil Postman." U.S. News and World Report, December 23, 1985. p. 58.