The most important post-crime aspect of the Virginia Tech tragedy is that Cho Seung-Hei couldn’t conceive of the massacre without justifying it through media.
In the videos Cho mailed to NBC, he repeatedly refers to himself in the past tense. He has a meta-cognitive view of himself. In filming the piece, he was already looking at himself, postmortem, through the lens of the news. So in some ways you have to assume that, to Cho, the killing itself wasn’t the important thing. The important thing was imposing his ego on the world.
How appropriate, given that Cho thought the world imposed its ego on him. Cho’s video and photos were lifted from movies. The two gun pose, arms spread, straight out of Boondock Saints, or Snatch, or Layer Cake, or The Transporter, or any number of mainstream action movies. The hammer pose, straight out of Oldboy. In a very disturbing way, Cho was doing what the movies told him to do.
And so the images Cho sent to NBC provide a social timeline: We tell ourselves how to kill ourselves. We kill ourselves. And then, in killing ourselves, we tell ourselves how to kill again. That’s the danger of repeating Cho’s video. We’re closing the loop: From killing fantasy (movies!), to killing (news!), to killer’s fantasy (I’m on TV!). Meanwhile, Gus van Sant waits to make another Elephant-style dramatization. What a horrific lesson for a culture addicted to fame.
Thus, the danger of “copycat killers.” Last night on CNN, Anderson Cooper interviewed a psychiatric expert while showing Cho’s video. The expert said, repeatedly, that showing the video might inspire copycat killers. Anderson: “We considered that.” Considered, and ignored.
But here’s the most disturbing thing about this perennial debate. Yeah, the video isn’t exactly a healthy thing to watch. But despite the psychologists protestations, and Cooper’s relative nonchalance, the “copycat” topic as it pertains to Cho is actually moot. After all, Cho himself was a copycat killer. There’s a greater danger that someone will try, again, to copy Oldboy. Or Layer Cake. Or whatever story appeals. The problem is already metastasized in the culture. No getting rid of it.
So what lesson to learn? It’s beyond pedantic to suggest we curb violence in movies. Even if there was political and social will to do so, that genie is long out of the lamp. Instead: Guns are dangerous. Be nice to loners. Wait for the next tragedy. Cover it.