Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Cruelest Month

The massacre at Virginia Tech in April has somehow achieved a disturbing normalcy for North Americans. As horrific as it is, somehow it now fails to shock. We seem to expect no less from American society (or Canadian society to a lesser extent - because we are not without our own sins in this area).

A template for sorrow seems to be developing: the bewildered roommates anxious to give their version of the story, the long shots of trembling hands clasped in prayer with heads bowed, tears streaming down the faces of the affected students, the innumerable flowers and memorials, the media converging like locusts to interrogate the survivors. Perhaps we have all just accepted that this is the new norm in the 21st century?

Then there is the inevitable handwringing and finger pointing: movie and TV violence, excessively violent video games, sadistic pornography, liberal parents. As a Canadian you may think, as I do, perhaps finally, the Americans will do something about the proliferation of guns, the easy access to firearms, the speed with which you can acquire a gun despite your past criminal or medical/psychological history. There is a brief tumult of emotion and angst in the media, denials from the NRA and conservative politicians about the need for gun control and then … nothing, absolutely nothing.

Karen Von Hahn's insightful article, Tacky balloons and rotting flowers, in the Globe and Mail on May 5, 2007 appears equally mystified by the new rituals of mourning surrounding the school massacres (and other death rituals which she cites in her column).

And as a writer, you start to wonder how much the homicidal rantings of the killer on paper fueled his behavior - did it provide the impetus to act, or was it “merely” a manifestation of his disturbed mind? Certainly those writing professors who read his work at Virginia Tech were sufficiently disturbed to try and intercede on some level but to no avail.

I recall in past writing groups or workshops reading the work of fellow classmates in which there was some pretty disturbing material - fairly explicit depictions of rape, torture or murder. Does it become a safety valve for certain writers? Does to commit the act on paper eliminate the need to commit the act? We, the primarily female readers of the work, all tiptoed around the writers in our critiques. In all instances the writers were male (I’m not making a comment on the male psyche here, that’s just how it happened to be in these particular instances). One writer was, I’m not making this up, a postal service employee and perceived to be quite strange by the majority of us.

And I always thought how odd, if a fellow female writer wrote an explicit story about disfiguring a male, or killing a male, or torturing a male, the rest of group would be very disturbed, quite anxious. Would we be more vocal in our critiques?

The women in the writing groups remained quietly diplomatic in their analysis, perhaps there was a raised eyebrow or two and a look that passed around the room amongst the women. No one wanted to appear to be a prude or over react to the work it seemd to me - in most instances the writer himself appeared normal enough, whatever that means, and, I seem to recall, a little bit surprised if someone raised the issue of the gratuitousness of the violence. What did we do when we read the disturbing stories: we raised our eyebrows, looked covertly at each other in a meaningful way, muted our comments and shrugged. Why, because, secretly, we think this is what men are? That this what they, not so secretly, think about?

Of course, one can never know when the creator of the work is merely expressing him or herself or quietly setting the stage for future actions of violence (obviously in almost all instances they are not acting on these ideas). I think that whether the writer acts on his or her impulse or not, his ability to put it down on paper will not push him into a horrifying scenario such as we witnessed in Virginia.

But why this propensity in Americans specifically? Violence is not particular to America only. Open a newspaper on any page, scan the headlines on any news website … But why do such specific, formulaic explosions of violence occur there specifically in a school setting? To perpetrate violent crimes against people who really have no bearing on how you have lived, or suffered, in your life?

Americans are, indisputably, the most indulged, the most privileged people on the plant earth with the highest, most unrealistic expectations of success, fame and wealth (even the transplanted "nationals" such as Cho). And with such an inflated sense of what they can, or should accomplish, when they fail in the most mediocre way as we all do, every day of our lives (we can’t find a girlfriend, we are not the best in class, we didn’t get the job we wanted, we have trouble making friends, we hate our roommates, our lives are boring), they want to register their misery in the most graphic and explosive way possible. To ensure that when they go down they will go out in a blaze of glory.


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