Cho Seung-hui used the media to try and turn his killings from what would seem like the outburst of a deranged individual to one with a message, albeit a confused and incoherent one. With a pre-recorded video, he could hope to manage his message, to ensure he was seen as he wanted to be seen.Such self-glorifying videos have apparently become standard fare for a range of killers, writes Anton Harber in Business Day
In the midst of his killing spree last week, the Virginia-Tech killer took time off to pop into a post office and send his multimedia manifesto to a major television network. Then he went back to the campus to shoot more of his fellow students.
Cho Seung-hui, it seems, had pre-recorded a video, indicating that his killing was not an outburst, but a planned event. And, like all good event planners, he had his media schedule in hand.
He had decided how he wanted to be seen: striking a grand, filmic pose with his guns and speaking about his hatred of his peers with an eloquence and freedom that, it seems, he could not achieve in real life. His purpose with the media was to try and turn his killings from what would seem like the outburst of a deranged individual to one with a message, albeit a confused and incoherent one. With a pre-recorded video, he could hope to manage his message, to ensure he was seen as he wanted to be seen.
Such self-glorifying videos, it seems, have become standard fare for a range of killers ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ from Middle East suicide bombers to Midwestern mass murderers. And, of course, this has become one of the most downloaded videos on the internet, available now at dozens of sites spread across the world. It might be remembered as ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œthe first YouTube killing spree,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â one commentator said.
When the NBC television network realized belatedly what had arrived in their post, did they face a dilemma over showing this macabre footage? It is a familiar issue to editors and would have taken them over well-trodden ground. Would they be giving oxygen to killers, as Maggie Thatcher once famously said, in urging the media not to convey the messages of terrorists? Would they be telling troubled youngsters that they could indeed get their 15 minutes of notoriety if armed with both guns and cameras? Is the media right to give such an individual, posthumously, the attention he craved? Is there a danger of copycat activity? After all, he cited the Columbine campus killers himself.
And finally, was it fair to the families of his 32 victims to extend and prolong their pain? Would it be enough to just describe the video and use some key still images and quotes?
In this case, NBC editors first alerted the authorities. Then they edited out parts of the footage and showed the rest with prior warnings for those who did not want to see it. And they tried to put it in an analytical context.
But those warnings and edits are not on the thousands of downloadable versions one can access, whatever oneÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s age or disposition. The truth is that such horrific images ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ like that of Saddam Hussein being hanged ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ intrude directly into our laptops and those of our children and have become much harder to filter out.
For editors, the obligation is to strike a balance between the publicÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s right and need to know, and the possible effects of such sick images. We need to know and understand this killer and what lay behind such an event. We need the material to feed a debate about why campus authorities had failed to pick up the signs of a disturbed and dangerous youth and how easily he had acquired guns.
Some commentators suggested NBC had shown a bit much of ChoÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s rantings. Some said they had validated what he did, even glorified it. Most said the networkÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s over-riding obligation was to inform the public. In the end, the news value would have been too great for NBC to resist.
Just the other day, I picked up a copy of our own Daily Sun and counted a corpse picture on each of the first five pages. One of them was close-up of a girl who had been put in a fridge by her boyfriend, another of the legs of a youth lying underneath a taxi which had knocked him over. It was a striking reminder of how violent is the daily lives of South Africans, but it was hard to gauge at what point it crossed over to gratuitous imagery with a pornographic purpose. It was as much an illustration of our routine callousness as a contributor to it.
But in the Virgina Tech case, the most memorable story which emerged was one of redemption. It was of the aging science teacher who had survived the Holocaust and later flight from Romania after refusing to pledge allegiance to communism, only to end up at Virginia Tech and find himself face to face with an armed killer. Liviu Librescu blocked the path of the gunman and died saving his students.
ThatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s why we tell stories like this.
*This column first appeared in Business Day, 25 April 2007