Monday, April 23, 2007

The Social Roots of Yet Another American Tragedy


David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has written an insightful commentary on the April 16 massacre of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech university in Blacksburg, Virginia, in which he explores the “social roots” of this “America tragedy.”

I find it amazing the number of folks who simply don’t want to acknowledge or examine such roots, as if the killer at Virginia Tech - as deranged as he was - just dropped out of the sky. Case in point: David von Drehle’s commentary in Time magazine, entitled “It’s All About Him,” in which he asserts that “the real problem can be found in the killer’s mirror.”

Well, it’s a nice sound byte, I'll give von Drehle that. But if we really want to understand and prevent events like the Virginia Tech massacre, than we need to be honest and brave enough to examine more than the gunman’s mental state of mind. If nothing else, we owe such a broader and more in-depth examination to the victims and their families.

Thankfully there are journalists and writers like David Walsh who offer such perspectives. Following are excerpts from his April 18 commentary, “Virginia Tech Massacre - Social Roots of Another American Tragedy.”

[The Virginia Tech massacre] was horrifying, but no one who has followed the evolution of American society over the past quarter-century will be entirely shocked. Such psychopathic episodes, including dozens of multiple killings or attempted killings in workplaces and schools, have occurred with disturbing regularity, particularly since the mid-1980s. A timeline assembled by the Associated Press and the School Violence Resource Center lists some 30 school and college shootings alone since 1991.

Official reaction to the Blacksburg deaths, one feels safe in predicting, will be as superficial and irrelevant as it has been in every previous case.

The appearance of George W. Bush at the convocation held on the Virginia Tech campus Tuesday afternoon was especially inappropriate. Here is a man who embodies the worst in America, its wealthy and corrupt ruling elite. As governor of Texas, Bush presided over the executions of 152 human beings; as president, he has the blood of thousands of Americans, tens of thousands of Afghans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands. His administration has made unrelenting violence the foundation of its global policies, justifying assassination, secret imprisonment and torture.


Speaking of the Blacksburg killings, Bush commented: “Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they’re gone—and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.” If he and his cronies were not entirely immune to the consequences of their own policies, it might strike them that they could be speaking about the masses of the dead in Iraq, who have also done “nothing to deserve their fate.”

The president, in his perfunctory remarks, appeared anxious, above all, to put the events behind him. Bush’s comment that “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering” comes as no surprise. He recognizes instinctively, or his speech writers do, that considering the “violence and suffering” in a serious manner would raise troubling questions, and even more troubling answers. When the president concluded, “And on this terrible day of mourning, it’s hard to imagine that a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal,” he said more than he perhaps wanted to. This is an admission that something has gone terribly wrong at Virginia Tech—and in this regard the university is a microcosm of the larger social reality—and will not easily be put right.

In general, those speaking at the gathering—school officials, politicians and clergy—seemed in haste to get past the event. In some cases, this may stem from a sincere desire to console and to lift the community’s collective spirits. However, a major tragedy, with broad social implications, has taken place and it needs to be considered.

The events at Virginia Tech follow almost eight years to the day the mass killing at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which 15 people died. At the time, the media and politicians performed a ritual breast-beating, with Bill Clinton in the lead. Much was made of the need for new gun controls, increased security in the schools and the need to counsel troubled students. Then, as now, official American public opinion refused to recognize the killings as a social disorder.

What has occurred in the intervening years? Can anyone argue that American society has developed since 1999 in such a manner as to make tragedies similar to Columbine less likely?

Everyday life in America has continued to have a violent, remorseless backdrop. In April 1999 US and NATO forces were launching cruise missile after cruise missile against the former Yugoslavia and inflicting lethal sanctions and periodic bombing raids on Iraq. Somalia and Afghanistan had also already come in for punishment from the Clinton administration.

American militarism, however, has truly flourished in the present decade. The US has been occupying portions of Central Asia or the Middle East for most of the eight years since Columbine. Following a hijacked election and making use of the terrorist attacks on September 11, the Bush-Cheney regime launched a war based on lies. The lesson taught by the ruling elite is clear: in achieving one’s aims, any sort of ruthlessness is legitimate.

At the same time, the social gap in America has widened in the past decade. By 2005 the top one-tenth of 1 percent of the US population earned nearly as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. Those 300,000 wealthy individuals each received 440 times as much income as the average person in the poorest half of the population, nearly doubling the divide from 1980. The rich lord it over everyone else, piling up fortunes that come directly at the expense of wide layers of working people. Society is divided starkly into “winners” and “losers.” For the latter, the future is bleak.

The decay of social solidarity, the domination of the political process by cash, the erosion of democratic rights, the transformation of the media into more or less a propaganda arm of the government and the Pentagon—all of these processes, under way in 1999, have now attained a far more finished state.

More generally, the past twenty-five years have witnessed a sharp lurch to the right by the American political and media establishment, driven by its relative economic decline, and an accompanying coarsening and degeneration of the social atmosphere. Brutality in language and action is now the preferred policy of the powers that be.

The proliferation of violence, the continuous appeals to fear, the incitement of paranoia—all of this has consequences, it creates a certain type of climate. American society has for so long tried to cover up or ignore its most pressing problems. What are the official responses? Punishment first, then the invocation of the deity. The suppression of contradictions, however, doesn’t make them disappear.

The culture as a whole has suffered. Without giving any ground to the right-wing morality police, the prevalence of video games, popular music and films that celebrate rape and killing can hardly be taken as a sign of social well-being. Every effort has been made to atomize people, to render them callous and inured to the suffering of others. Human life has been devalued and often held in contempt.

Clearly, there have been consequences . . .

Such [consequences] bring home how necessary it is for another way to be found, for more sensitive answers, real answers to problems. This, in turn, raises the need for a different social orientation, which calls into question the present foundations of American society. And such searching critiques should not be reserved only for moments of national calamity.



Not surprisingly, right-wing columnist Jeff Jacoby, in his April 22 commentary in the Boston Globe, took to task numerous individuals and organizations, including David Walsh and the WSWS, whom he claimed were exploiting the Virginia Tech massacre for political purposes.

Earlier today, in a WSWS article entitled US Media Hides Behind the Virginia Tech Massacre, Walsh responded to Jacoby’s claims.

As could be expected, Walsh’s response is a well-reasoned and insightful commentary on the social and political state of affairs in the United States. One of this commentary’s most interesting aspects is its examination of “recent research [which] suggests compellingly complex links between social inequality and mental health problems.”


Following are excerpts from Walsh’s April 23 commentary:

. . . [Jeff] Jacoby objects to a political discussion in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings because he doesn’t like the conclusions that any objective commentator would be likely to draw—that this act of madness had deep social roots. He is acting in defense of the existing social order and concealing its ills.

To feel horror over the crime and grief for the victims of last Monday’s shooting does not relieve one of the responsibility of determining what caused the tragedy. On the contrary, those who seriously want to see that this kind of mad act is not repeated have an obligation to examine unflinchingly why it took place.

If the Virginia Tech episode were an isolated one, one might be more hesitant about offering a sociological analysis. However, it is not. Shootings or near-shootings have occurred at high schools and colleges from one coast of the United States to the other in the past decade and a half.

Jeff Jacoby is seeking in a cowardly fashion to close down the discussion about Virginia Tech. This horrific event has taken place, the latest in a series of similar episodes, and no one in the media wants to talk about it. Jacoby and the overwhelming majority of his confreres in the media, conservative and liberal alike, are intellectual bankrupts, hiding behind the tragedy, unwilling and incapable of taking an honest look at American reality.

Jacoby is not alone in hollering “Shut up!” in the direction of would-be commentators. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, another inveterate reactionary, began his piece Friday like this: “What can be said about the Virginia Tech massacre? Very little. What should be said? Even less. The lives of 32 innocents, chosen randomly and without purpose, are extinguished most brutally by a deeply disturbed gunman. With an event such as this, consisting of nothing but suffering and tragedy, the only important questions are those of theodicy, of divine justice.” This didn’t prevent the columnist from carrying on in his habitually unpleasant and misanthropic style for another 725 words.

The accusation of “anti-Americanism” leveled against the World Socialist Web Site is the default setting of the McCarthyite witch-hunter. The more background material that emerges, the more it becomes clear that Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman in Virginia, was affected by social inequality and the generally grotesque state of social relations in America. . . .


Cho had his own personal torments, some of them perhaps physiologically based, but the manner in which his paranoia and sense of injustice emerged has everything to do with the character of present-day life in America. What does a young person, even the most mentally stable, confront today in the US?

A nation in which one’s accumulation of wealth is the measure of all things; in which, yes, the ruling elite demonstrates every day by word and deed all over the globe that “in achieving one’s aims, any sort of ruthlessness is legitimate”; in which cutthroat competition in schools and the workplace prevails, where anyone who falls behind a step is left to his own devices; in which no helping hand for the weak or defenseless is ever extended; in which official culture and the media attempts relentlessly to dehumanize and brutalize its consumers; in which college campuses are sharply divided between haves and have-nots, with the former lording it over the latter.

Recent research suggests compellingly complex links between social inequality and mental health problems. For example, in a 2002 issue of Psychiatric Services, a journal of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Carl I. Cohen, professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York (SUNY) Health Science Center in Brooklyn, concludes, “Regardless of causality, studies have consistently shown that socioeconomic factors affect the course and outcome of mental disorders.”

An article in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2001, based on work carried out at the Division of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, concluded that “Indicators of social inequality at birth are associated with increased risk of adult-onset schizophrenia, suggesting that environmental factors are important determinants of schizophrenic disorders.”

An international study summarized in the American Journal of Epidemiology, “Socioeconomic Inequalities in Depression: A Meta-Analysis,” in 2003, observed “Socioeconomic inequality in depression is heterogeneous and varies according to the way psychiatric disorder is measured, to the definition and measurement of SES [socioeconomic status], and to contextual features such as region and time. Nonetheless, the authors found compelling evidence for socioeconomic inequality in depression. Strategies for tackling inequality in depression are needed, especially in relation to the course of the disorder.”

Contrary to Jacoby, a discussion on the roots of the Virginia Tech mass killings, including the growth of social inequality, is vital. The coverage of this event on the World Socialist Web Site has generated a considerable response from readers, including young people. As part of the effort to create a different social climate in the US, we will pursue this issue.



To read David Walsh’s “The Virginia Tech Massacre – Social Roots of Another American Tragedy” in its entirety, click here.

To read David Walsh’s “US Media Hides Behind the Virginia Tech Massacre” in its entirety, click here.

Image 1: AFP/Kim Jae-Hwan.
Image 2: Reuters/Larry Downing.
Image 3: AFP/Tim Sloan.
Image 4: AP Photo/Virginia State Police.
Image 5: AFP/Getty Images/Mario Tama.

2 comments:

Mystical Seeker said...

I think there is validity to the idea that the culture of violence in our country bears some relationship to the social injustice of capitalism and imperialism that characterizes American political culture and society. Ruling classes require violence, or the threat of it, to hold power, both internally and when they exercise it abroad. Bush's hypocrisy on this subject, as pointed out by the WSWS article, is pretty glaringly obvious.

Winnipeg Catholic said...

Oh bother. Everyone wants to turn tragedies into 'agree with my call for reform or bad things happen'. It's like ancient pagans claiming the sun won't come out of eclipse without child sacrifice. You're just one more loud mouth blogger with an opinion on this one. Culture of death you say. Well, did you know that with Montreal there are now 8 serial killers with diaries and blogs glorifying the film 'Natural Born Kilers'? And now this Cho is all about Wu and that other film? Why not listen to the killers themselves about what motivated them?

Cho said:

(1) I'm crazy with a narcisstic anti-social complex
(2) I love these violent films

That's it. He didn't say:
(1) Abortions make me violent
(2) Foreign Wars make me violent
(3) Guns make me violent

Seems open and shut to me. Explain to me how we can have freedom of speech and still censor violence. Explain how we can have the right to bear arms, and still prevent killers from getting them. Explain how we can have news without glorifying narcissist murderers.

I think the powers that be are working on those 3 questions and hopefully we will start to see some answers.