Virginia Tech: a massacre without meaning

The response to the horrific shootings runs the risk of spreading fear and loathing beyond VT’s dorms to society at large.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

The random killing of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech has sent shockwaves through our societies and rattled our collective conscience. If such an outrage can occur on that apparently safe campus, then ‘who is safe?’, many horrified Americans will ask. Meanwhile, for some in Europe the tragic shootings confirm their prejudice that America is a violent and uncivilised society.

It seems everyone has a theory about why such meaningless acts of destruction periodically occur in American schools and campuses. ‘How many mass killings does the American public have to witness before its government gets serious about gun control?’ asks one British-based journalist. The idea that guns are to blame for the events at Virginia Tech is the dominant view in the Anglo-American media. Those who are in to guns take the opposite position, arguing that if everyone at Virginia Tech (VT) packed a Colt then the lone gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, would have been deterred from murdering so many.

Sadly, the search for answers often turns into an advocacy free-for-all. Some individuals and organisations are using the VT tragedy to bolster their own agendas. Those who loathe violent computer games assert that this latest massacre may be the action of a deranged young man who was addicted to blowing away targets on-screen or online. Some point to the other usual media suspects – violent films and TV shows – and claim that they can incite acts of violence. Predictably, sooner or later some criminologist will recycle the tired theory of these shootings being ‘copycat crimes’. Those who work in the ever-expanding security industry will point the finger of blame at lax security on campus, and argue the need to turn universities into high-security institutions.

In reality, we will never really know why Seung-Hui decided to transform himself from an alienated loner into a mass murderer. The emotional note he left behind denounced ‘rich kids’, ‘debauchery’ and ‘deceitful charlatans’. Perhaps the shooting spree was the act of an estranged youth dominated by the powerful mood of nihilism and self-loathing that prevails in society today. Outwardly, at least, his note bears an uncanny resemblance to the messages of so-called ‘homegrown terrorists’, who also seem to have an intense hatred for what they see as a decadent consumer society. But perhaps not. Estrangement does not turn individuals towards mass murder – and nihilism, puritanism or anti-consumerism do not incite people to go out and buy a gun. If it were so, we would be living in a violent jungle rather than a world where a campus massacre dominates the world’s headlines precisely because, mercifully, such events are very rare.

Indeed, in the aftermath of such a bloody episode it is easy to overlook just how rare campus shootings are (see No law can stop a school shooting spree, by Kevin Yuill). Yet despite their rarity, we remember them because they have the capacity to undermine our sense of existential security. Historically schools and universities were regarded as safe places; they were seen almost as sanctuaries from day-to-day pressures and harms. Thus the killing of children and young people in a supposedly safe environment can knock an entire community’s sense of security. Shootings in schools or on university campuses are events that everyone remembers and talks about. When I visit friends in Montreal, they still discuss the mass killing of 14 female students at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique in 1989; indeed, some refer to that shooting spree as the ‘Montreal Massacre’, demonstrating its impact on the entire city’s sense of self.

Understandably, massacres of young people can haunt a community for generations. But despite the deathly consequences of school shootings, it is important that we do not allow our highly charged reaction to them to further disturb and disorganise our everyday lives. Arbitrary acts of meaningless violence have always been part of the human condition. We should not seek to endow such acts with meaning, because we can end up turning an isolated incident into something that can fundamentally change our lives – and usually for the worse. That is what happened after the Columbine school shootings in 1999, when two teenage students killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at a school in Colorado. Then, a panic about school violence wrongly convinced many that America’s educational institutions are unsafe places. One outcome of this panic is that many schools have been turned into mini-fortresses, with metal detectors and CCTV cameras, and parental anxiety for their kids has been intensified.

Tragically, our obsession with finding meaning in a meaningless act like the Virginia Tech massacre can help to spread fear and uncertainty beyond the VT campuses and dorms and across society at large. We have already seen how society’s response to acts of terrorism has encouraged illiberal attitudes towards freedom and civil rights. As many observers correctly point out, if we encroach on freedom in response to a bombing then the perpetrators of terrorism effectively win a moral victory. In the aftermath of an act of terror, the demand for greater security, more repressive laws and the expansion of police powers is understandable; it is also wrong. The expansion of security measures creates an impression of security, but it does not make us any safer. And it comes with the unacceptably high cost of compromising our liberty.

Those who have expressed concern previously about the introduction of authoritarian anti-terrorist laws should now challenge the likely attempt to contain university shootings by expanding campus security or banning the right to bear arms. Some commentators have even demanded greater vigilance against ‘loners’. The idea that somehow people who don’t fit in should be placed under surveillance and treated as potential psychopaths speaks volumes about the illiberal temper of our times.

A mature society can accept the fact that, occasionally, human beings do very destructive things; a confident society does not have to search for special meaning in every act of human degradation. We will never really know why he did it. However, what we can do is talk to each other a little more, look out for each other, and not turn away when someone is hurting.

Frank Furedi is author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Kevin Yuill argued that no law can stop a school shooting spree. In 2001, Helen Searls explained that despite the now forgotten shooting in San Diego, California, high school shootings are still a rare occurence. In response to the 2005 Red Lake massacre, Kevin Yuill pointed out that over-reaction causes more harm than good. Brendan O’Neill examined Britain’s gun culture and Josie Appleton explored the grief-fest which seems to follow every tragic event. She also explained why vetting won’t stop any tragedies – from Soham to Dunblane. Or read more at: spiked issue: USA.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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