Wednesday, April 18, 2007

This post doesn't have an argument

I have a friend. I've known him for a long time. I lived with him after college. From college through present, I've shared houses with more than 30 people -- at one point I did a census but I've since lost count.

That three-bedroom apartment was the most fun. We were all pretty close. I know their families and I've stayed in their houses.

It wasn't until his wedding that I learned one of his college housemates committed suicide in spectacular fashion -- enough that I remember reading about the event in the news. At his wedding reception, I was seated with his college housemates. They talked about it fairly openly. When the best man gave his toast, he referenced what they "all went through together" at the time.

I'd known my friend for years but he never talked about it.

***

Seung-Hui Cho's roommates talked. The video is available on CNN's website. These two guys, they're so normal that you want to be friends with them, so laid back that their account of living with this guy made it sound like any other awkward-roommate scenario that happens at college.

You're struck by how goddamn nice these two guys are. They lived with someone who refused to speak to them and woke them every day with a terrible Collective Soul song. They went about their lives with their friends and their classes and came home to this person. The whole time they acted with compassion and concern, like they were doing their best to reach out to this guy and integrate him to the world.

That's the kind of thing that makes you crazy. The more you read, the more it seems like good people were reaching out to him. There's a natural preoccupation with blame and attribution, sure, but it's kind of extraordinary how good people were to this guy.

Details you might have missed:
  • He told a roommate that he had an imaginary girlfriend named Jelly. She is a supermodel. She called him Spanky.
  • He woke up every morning and played the horrible Collective Soul song "Shine" on his laptop.
  • His sister graduated from Princeton (Princeton!) and works in the State Department, where she helps facilitate aid to Iraq.
***

Right. One reason this feels so absorbing is that this craziness happened in the middle of lives that were content and familiar. I grew up in a college town. It was in the middle of nowhere. I drove by at least two gun stores on my way to high school every day. My dad and almost all of my friends' parents taught at the university. I mean, by comparison, Blacksburg is Paris and Virginia Tech is the Sorbonne, but I remember the kind of low hum and insularity of these places, where the professors knew each other for decades and you were far away from any metropolitan area or easy air travel. Towns like these, they're in their own worlds.

The other reason it's so absorbing is this weird funk of pop-culture effluvia. The pictures reminded me of Taxi Driver, but one, apparently, was drawn from Oldboy. And the dude's plays -- Jesus Christ. I mean, they're not worth reading for any purpose aside from morbid curiosity (although the former classmate's descriptions are worth glancing) but "Richard McBeef" reminded me of the fake sitcom embedded in Natural Born Killers. The one with Rodney Dangerfield as an abusive, molesting father. If I read his plays cold, I'm not sure whether I'd recognize them as lousy, or whether I'd think that they were supposed to be ironic satires.

***

Do not read this.

***

Hey, I haven't thrown around words like "news judgment" since I was in college, when we cared about things like that and treated them like they mattered. I remember reading about how newspapers agonized over whether to publish the Unambomber's manifesto. They feared that publicizing it would function as an encouragement.

I remember learning that you don't necessarily cover suicides, because it might encourage likeminded people.

NBC's wall-to-wall coverage of this guy's suicide propaganda is unforgivable. It's the worst, most irresponsible media transgression, like, probably, ever. There is no news value to this, nothing of relevance that hadn't already been reported -- only a lightly edited spotlight, giving him the last word and all of the attention that he wanted. These pictures of him, posing all Travis Bickle-like with his goddamn guns, ranting into a camera about Mercedes and vodka -- NBC has given him all that he wanted and more than he deserves. NBC news has defined "irresponsible" and "salacious." This is as bad as airing the martyr tapes that suicide bombers make before they go out for their last runs.

I resent the hell out of this. I worry that in the minds of likeminded people, this attention is perceived as a reward: if you don't have anything left to lose, might as well go out in a blaze of glory. And I resent the hell out of myself for lapping it up.

***

On Monday, a couple of college football blogs that I frequent (and love) posted heavily about the events at Virginia Tech. At the time I thought that this smacked of grandstanding -- as in, who the hell are they to inject themselves into something of this magnitude.

When I listened to the Tuesday convocation in my office, streaming it into my office computer via NPR, I changed my mind.

Virginia Tech is a football school. Among college football fans, Virginia Tech is the kind of place that only an alumnus could love. I've never heard anyone speak well of its team. Marcus Vick and Frank Beamer don't inspire admiration.

Then Nikki Giovanni spoke and I understood. College football people love their universities. You can divide college graduates into those who think that college was the best part of their lives and the others, who think of it as a place where they got a degree. I'm condemned to be in the first category, and I'm going to guess the same is true of the football guys who blogged about this. So you hear Nikki Giovanni's lines ("We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.") and you think about your own school, and you think about how much VaTech means to these people, the same way that your school means to you.

And then you think to yourself how great it is that there are institutions and communities like this all over the country, and how lucky some people are to have that and how sad it is that not everybody does. There's something different about these places that distinguishes them from the rest of life. Nikki Giovanni's remarks jumped out of my speakers. I understood what she meant. The college football bloggers recognized right away what it took me a day to process.

Nikki Giovanni was already famous. I've never read her poems, but I love her. There's a lot to be said for righteous indignation. Here's what she told the Associated Press: "I know that there's a tendency to think that everybody can get counseling or can have a bowl of tomato soup and everything is going to be all right," she said. "But I think that evil exists, and I think that he was a mean person."

3 comments:

Flop said...

I have resented the holy living hell out of this coverage ever since I got over the original jolt to my system. I'm not sure why.

Maybe it's because I had to go from sobbing students to Nissan commercials and ads for home loans. Maybe it's because CNN's usual morning anchors were so obviously in over their heads (as they are when anything other than unscripted banter and cooing over animal videos are the order of the day). Maybe it's because I knew that it was only a matter of time before all the stories about this started being "branded" with a graphic and a somber, tinkling piano.

Yeah, probably all of that.

CrimeNotes said...

Disagreed. I thought CNN performed quite well. As much as I loathe them for overplaying tabloid stories, they seem to step up when the big stuff happens. The speculating psychologists I can do without, but all in all, they know what they're doing. My viewing was limited to the prime-time shows, so maybe I missed the junk.

It's NBC that hit an all-time low. It looks like there's been a lot of backlash, which is richly deserved.

Mr. Met said...

Tuesday in Slate, Jack Shafer wrote a piece saying that we were about 24 hours from the first stories coming down on the news networks and other journalists for overplaying this .