This is going to be a stretch, but maybe I won’t seem too off the mark by the end.
Monday, a man took a couple of guns to the Virginia Tech campus and killed thirty-one people. He wounded another twenty-nine. At least, those were the totals I remember from the stories I read. Immediately, before the bodies were even counted, the airwaves were full of people talking about why someone would do such a thing. Most notably, to me anyway, was Jack Thompson. I’m not going to provide a link, if you want to know exactly what he said you can find it. He certainly doesn’t need my help getting his message out there.
Jack, and he probably was not alone, came forward immediately to lay the blame heavy at the feet of video games, violence in the media and today’s popular culture. I’m sure if pressed he’d blame music and television and movies, but his favorite target is video games. He believes that violent video games are a training ground for violent action. He was blaming video games before the gunman’s body was cold, before we even knew the name of the shooter. Jack is a fool, but he’s a grandstanding fool who knows how to work his audience.
People… and I do mean to make a sweeping generalization here, because from time to time I’ve been known to do it too… seek out external sources for problems. They want to point a finger and say, “Ah ha!” They want to be able to identify a specific action or object that can be blamed for the problem so that it can be removed. But issues like these are usually more internal, more specific to the individual than can be dealt with by calling for blanket legislations and bannings.
People hate cancer. Cancer comes in three forms. The one cancer that everyone hopes they have if they get it is the kind that is someone else’s fault. Be it living next to power lines, or cell phones, or second hand smoke, or radiation they were exposed to at work, they want it to be not their own fault. That kind of cancer is, unfortunately, the rarest kind. The other two forms are the most prevalent. The second is self-inflicted cancer, the kind you get from smoking, the kind that comes from laying out in the sun too long too often, and people hate this cancer because they could have avoided it, probably knew the risk and ignored it. The third is the unknown cancer. You are in perfect health, don’t smoke, don’t lay out in the sun, don’t work with radioactive materials, live far away from power lines and cell phone towers, you’ve got no reason at all to have cancer, then one day you go to the doctor for an indeterminate pain in your gut only to find out you’ve got cancer. This is the one that scares the crap out of people.
It is scary because there is not anything you could have done to prevent it.
When there are shootings, like this one at Virginia Tech, or previous ones at other schools or other public areas, when one person just kinda flips their shit and kills a bunch of people, it is important to examine that person’s life and try to understand what the hell went wrong. But it is the kind of thing you cannot go into with an existing theory. If you approach it with the idea that video games did this to him or influenced him, then if you find video games you will assume that they had an effect. Jack Thompson would love nothing more than to find out this guy had a PC full of First Person Shooters or a couple of Grand Theft Auto titles for his PS2 because it would justify his theory. But the reality is that the games themselves are not justification, they are just evidence. The gunman is dead and can’t tell you if he even played those game. Now, of course, we know that he was an English major, and a playwrite, who wrote some very disturbing works and was even thought to be the school shooter type by his classmates. But at the time of the shootings, as all these talking heads took the airwaves, no one knew that. Now we know that he made videos and wrote things and had a sketchy medical history and previous encounters with faculty and staff, but even though from here it looks like a giant pile of “Hey! Look am me! I’m a nut job who is going to shoot people!!” you have to keep in mind that all this information, all this stuff, was in different people’s hands. No one saw a complete picture until it was too late.
There was a guy at my high school, he was a creepy kind of dude. Very tall, shaved head, ROTC gun nut kind of fellow… not that all ROTC guys are nutjobs, but I’m trying to paint a picture here… in addition, he was standoffish, not a whole lot of friends. I didn’t really know him that well. After graduation, during that first year when I was going to college and working full time, I woke up one morning to a horror story. This guy I didn’t know very well killed his parents and his sister. Sure, he was weird and a loner, but kill his family? His brother had escaped, jumping out of a second story window. This guy got caught, they piled up the evidence against him and his accomplice and threw him in jail. About a year later, I hired a new kid to work in my department down at the Kroger. It was the brother. After working with him a while, one night while closing up, I asked him about it. He paused, then after a couple minutes he finally spoke. Now this isn’t an exact quote, I mean, hell, it was nearly 15 years ago, but… “My brother killed my parents and my sister, and he tried to kill me. There is no question he did it. I don’t think I’ll ever understand it. No one really expected it. He was weird and all, but the truth is all the stuff they found in the garage, the knives, the bows and arrows, the kerosene and stuff, it wasn’t his. He kept all his stuff in his room. The stuff in the garage was mine. Nobody ever asked me if it was though. Isn’t that funny?” And I clearly remember all the newspapers from back when it happened talking about all the things they found, the “indicators of violence.” But this kid, the brother who got away, he just liked target shooting with the bows, collecting knives and setting things on fire. Dangerous? Sure, but he was no killer.
I remember at the time thinking of a quote, that really doesn’t apply if you consider the context of the story that it comes from, but the words, the phrasing, fit. It comes from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:
“And last—if it helps any, just think of me as a very crazy fellow who went berserk one summer day and never was right again. It’ll be a little easier on you that way.”
And I thought of this again on Monday. Maybe this guy had his reasons. People will view his tapes and read his words and look at the pile of evidence and try to understand it. And maybe somewhere, somehow, it will make sense. But maybe it won’t. Perhaps it is impossible to know why he did it until you are afflicted like him, troubled like him, and if you are that troubled, that afflicted, would you act the same? Even if it somehow made sense, would you really want it to? Would knowing all the hows and whys lead us to the magic moment where his life could have been fixed if just one action had been taken, and one person could be blamed for not seeing the problem? I’m not sure that’s a road I want to go down.
You really can’t prepare for the extreme. You can’t prevent it, you can’t legislate it. You can try to keep the middle ground large and even, but nothing we can do can stop the determinedly broken from doing what they do, not without compromising the rest of us.
I think perhaps I’m better off believing that he was just a crazy fellow who went berserk one day and never was right again. It’ll be a little easier on me that way.
Next week I’ll return you to our regularly scheduled game design and commentary; book, movie and TV reviews; and the rest of the usual random crap that comes from me emptying my brain onto the internet…