Write and Wrong, Part I

In the six weeks that have passed since the major TV news networks neutered their coverage of the troubled Virginia Tech student who single-handedly authored in blood the most brutal chapter in American mass-murder history, we’ve learned almost nothing about Seung-Hui Cho in mainstream sources…

And as you may already know, it’s my belief that this is NBC’s doing.

In my opinion, the peacock network — after monopolizing the ratings-intensive initial hours of coverage, of course — chose not to parlay its status as the sole recipient of the gunman’s multi-media “manifesto” into a proper fulfillment of its ostensible raison d’etre (informing the public). Instead, they leveraged their own role in the story in an attempt to position themselves as the new standard-bearers for journalistic integrity and temperance by suppressing coverage of the killer…

Supposedly, this was in response to pressure from Virginia Tech staff, victims’ families and the public. However, I maintain that it was a purely Machiavellian play aimed at stealing the story — and at muzzling every other network’s coverage for fear of being perceived as ghoulish, voyeuristic profiteers next to NBC’s “restraint.”

It was a brilliant chess-move, and it worked. After the images of Cho with guns and knives and hammers evaporated from the airwaves, there continued much buzz about NBC’s groundbreaking new approach to coverage of tragic events. The dialogue soon expanded (as it has in the past, to a limited degree) to include questions of whether the media should change its M.O. entirely in reporting on mass murders — specifically, whether they should give any details at all about the triggermen…

But in my opinion, the less we are told and shown about those imbalanced (or simply evil) souls who do us mass harm, the more likely we are to imagine innocent people in our midst being capable of such heinous acts — especially if the things we ARE shown are open to a wide range of interpretation.

Like creative writing.

“Writing is both mask and unveiling.”
— E.B. White

Regardless of the reason why Americans haven’t learned substantively more about Seung-Hui Cho from the major media since the half-day or so in which all the networks were broadcasting the images NBC hand-picked for its initial coverage, we have seen, heard, and read a good deal about one aspect of his twisted world: His writing.

Much has been made of Cho’s written works in the “why didn’t we see this coming?” context. Educators at Virginia Tech have commented publicly on the nature of these writings. They’ve been called “angry,” “twisted,” “grotesque” and similar things by professors, fellow students, other writers and the media alike. In fact, several sources have reported that at least partially because of his violent writings, it was a recurrent joke among his classmates that Cho was the kind of person that would “walk into a classroom and start shooting people.”

All of this begs a question that a lot of folks — both in the media and around the water-cooler and dinner table — seem to be asking:

Does a propensity to write edgy prose equal a propensity to commit evil acts?

Now, I’m no psychologist. But I’m certain the numbers are firmly on my side when I maintain that many are the students at all levels — from kindergarten through college — who write less-than-sunshiny things for a grade in class, yet who don’t harbor any urges to shoot the teacher or their classmates.

I’d also point out the obvious fact that lots of people through the ages have written some twisted and violent stuff — and yet weren’t mass murderers. For their day, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and John Webster were as edgy as any of today’s horror or thriller writers. And let’s not forget the monsters spawned by the gothic literary period of the 18th and 19th centuries, perhaps best embodied by the one true Prince of Darkness (Ozzy Osbourne is but a pretender to the throne), Edgar Allan Poe. Unless I’m fuzzy on my history, none of these luminaries of literature were homicidal maniacs…

Also, as a consumer of modern fiction, I can testify to the fact that much of it is based in the violent, grotesque, shocking or macabre. James Patterson, Tess Gerritsen, Patricia Cornwell, Karin Slaughter, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and hundreds of others mine the darkest depths of human nature every time they sit down behind a keyboard. Are all these folks killers at heart?

To hear the whisper in the mainstream winds, the answer is likely “yes.”

“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”
— Lord Byron

A fair amount of the coverage and commentary I saw after the massacre seemed to carry an accusatory tone against Virginia Tech’s writing professors for not concluding — based on his written works — that Cho was a ticking time-bomb of murderous rage.

This is no doubt equal parts because an outraged and vulnerable-feeling American public has been conditioned by the “no-fault” major media to look for someone to blame (besides the killer, of course), and also because we’re all hoping to find some kind of clue or indicator that can prevent this kind of rampage from happening ever again…

However, it’s my opinion that far too much weight is being given to the notion that Seung-Hui Cho’s plays and other writings, in and of themselves, could have been a reliable predictor of his rampages. And it’s my great fear that under a “responsible restraint” media model that leaves the public starved for information, this notion will become widely accepted in the mainstream — and result in a new paradigm in which educators double as mental health or crisis prevention personnel, to the detriment of everyone.

This is a VERY slippery slope to walk, on multiple levels. Here’s what I mean:

WRITING AS THERAPY — What if writing about violent acts has a therapeutic or purgative effect for a certain percentage of people that may prevent them from carrying out those acts in real life? Is it not reasonable to believe that some are writing twisted prose as a way of working out their rage or imbalances without taking violent action?

Now, imagine what happens if edgy creative writing becomes (more) stigmatized. We’d be giving already too-meddlesome educators the license to bring the full focus of the modern mental health juggernaut onto these soul-searching scribes. It likely wouldn’t take much of this kind of scrutiny to drive those who are desperately battling their demons in ink into silent exile. Wouldn’t this then increase the likelihood that they’d turn to violence?

READING AS A “VIOLENCE FIX” — What if, for some on the edge of violence, the reading of twisted or macabre fiction has a sedative effect on the urge to kill? Is it not reasonable to think that if we create a climate that’s hostile to the writing and publishing of such prose, these people will have fewer ways to satiate their bloodlust vicariously?

If our society, led by an activist media and vote-grubbing politicians, starts marginalizing or otherwise red-flagging young authors who write unpleasant, angry or violent (fill in your adjective) stories, it won’t take long for the effects of this kind of persecution to be felt in the literary marketplace. Is it so inconceivable that a drought of violence on the page and screen might spur some maladjusted folks to start monsoons of it in real life?

REPORTING AS PUBLISHING — What if, in the absence of a receptive audience for violent genre fiction in classrooms or the open market, “borderline” souls start shooting up schools and malls because it’s the only way they can be assured that their twisted thoughts and judgments on the rest of us will see the light of day?

If the media actively quashes images and details of mass murderers, but continues to publish and talk about their writings, might not a certain kind of psycho take that as a sign that he has no choice but to commit violence to get his voice heard? Again, I’m no expert, but aren’t a lot of mass murderers driven by some sort of delusions of grandeur? Don’t some of them see themselves as ignored seers or instruments of some kind of higher-purposed judgment? And couldn’t the act of showing the world their writings (which they think are brilliant, timeless and relevant, remember), but NOT how sick and twisted and stupid and small-minded and ugly they are as people, actually play into certain mass-murdering mindsets?

Aside from these points, there’s this: If a link between edgy prose and murderousness does exist (I’m not saying it doesn’t, only that there are a lot of more telling co-factors), isn’t the media exacerbating the danger by reporting on it — and is not the establishment doing the same thing by raising red flags about it at the school level?

Here’s what I mean: Under such a model, wouldn’t those inclined to kill learn very quickly to suppress edgy stories for fear of being targeted by the powers-that-be? Wouldn’t they, instead of turning them in for grades, stockpile them into a twisted canon for the ages to decipher and bask in the profundity of — AFTER their author commits his (or her) heinous crime?

Bottom line: If violent or angry creative writing becomes any more stigmatized than it is already, we’ll have fewer indicators of murderous pathologies. Almost overnight, we’d breed a nation of “Stepford Students,” a certain number of which would be writing nice little PC-themed stories about diversity and the evils of America — all the while nursing/hiding murderous urges…

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
— Ray Bradbury

If the future trend will be for news outlets NOT to give us the whole story about mass murderers like Seung-Hui Cho, I think a more relevant question than the one everyone’s asking about a possible link between violent writing and violent acts is this one:

Should the media be filtering/censoring/suppressing what we see about the killers in our midst — especially if it leads people to doubts or assumptions about their friends, classmates, or children?

Specifically, that if they write something angry, disturbing or violent, they must be a closet psycho on the edge of murder…

Now don’t get me wrong, here. I think it’s altogether proper that John Q. Public should be able to read the disjointed, violent words of mass-murderers. It’s also appropriate that some in the media should editorialize on those words. This is the way the “fourth estate” is supposed to work — exposing (even overexposing) the public to all points of view and interpretations of events, so people can make up their own minds about them…

This having been said, I think we’d be granting the media far too much power over what we see and hear if we stand idly by and allow them to decide what — and how much — we learn about those among us who’ve gone “DEFCON 1” (to quote Stephen King from his April 20 essay in Entertainment Weekly ).

The thing I’m most afraid of is the logical progression of this confluence of the media as “Ministry of Information” and educators acting as mental health screeners: Shrinks and cops and forced medication and government agencies and restrictions of our rights and even more interference in our lives from pointy-headed, tax-funded pedants (if you think this isn’t beginning, you’re mistaken — details in Part II of this series).

There are really two things to consider here…

First, do we want to give the major media — who are already demonstrably over-reaching and agenda-driven — any more license to color our perception of events than is absolutely necessary? Do we really want to give them a rubber stamp to paint, via omission and under the guise of journalistic temperance, whatever portrait they want about whatever’s happening in our world?

And second, do we really want creative writing teachers and guidance counselors to wield over young students the power to stigmatize them for life (and have their rights stripped away) simply because they may have enough actual skill or intensity to write something edgy or bare enough to get under a reader’s skin? Isn’t this to stifle and punish the very excellence they should be nurturing and rewarding?

I say that if the answer to these questions is “yes,” then we’ll soon all be that much closer to becoming the very thing that seems to be what a lot of killers are…

Brainwashed, deluded, mind-numbed paranoiacs whose perceptions of violence and death are far removed from reality.

Always edgy, never hedgy,

Jim Amrhein
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

May 30, 2007