Cho Seung-Hui, the mass murderer who killed 33 people (including himself) in Blacksburg, Virginia, was a sick individual, both in the literal and figurative senses of the word. That gives an explanation, maybe a rationalization, but no excuse for what he did. Evil is evil even when someone as disturbed as Cho commits it.
Such a crime echoes widely from Blacksburg -- especially here in sister college town such as Chapel Hill.
I started writing this column without having seen the video Cho sent to NBC -- and having read barely anything about it. I didn't need to in order to know what a horrible thing it is for NBC to broadcast it. Beyond the pain that this video will cause for the families of the victims, and the fear it has spread across the world, this video was an integral part of a planned mass murder. NBC is now an accomplice after-the-fact to it.
NBC may call their actions what they will but glorifying a mass murderer is glorifying a mass murder.
Cho is dead, so airing this video is not going to make him do anything. But to those teetering on the edge of anti-social action, this video will entice them to go and do likewise. Consider how much dedicated effort normal and healthy individuals are willing to put forth to obtain a fraction of the recognition that Cho has received for this heinous crime. How can this attention, especially that provided by the broadcast of his video, not lure some to follow in his path?
The fundamental mode of human learning is imitation. We do what we see. We say what we hear. (Did any parent ever really teach their child to walk or to talk?) Others, already sadly predisposed to such thoughts and even actions, will with varying degrees of mimicry and varying degrees of success imitate what happened at Virginia Tech. With millions if not billions of people exposed to these images it almost has to. With an amplification of the necessary news coverage, especially NBC’s broadcasting Cho's self-exalting video, such fatal imitation is even more likely.
How do I know that? Because it has happened before -- with far less powerful images on far less widely distributed media than television. Goethe's novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," in which the protagonist killed himself with a gun, was considered to have spawned a number of suicides in the late 1700s. So apparent was its impact that the phenomenon of copycat suicide has been since called the "Werther Effect." Almost 200 years later, the 1978 movie "The Deer Hunter" appears to have elicited many suicides by Russian roulette, similar to that shown in the film.
But beyond these widely observed correlations of depictions of suicides and actual suicides, many studies have shown outwardly directed aggression being evoked by exposure to such behavior. The patterns, processes and effects of these types of media depictions are pretty well established. But like smoking to the cigarette companies, apparently not well enough established for NBC.
Before I read about the contents of Cho's video I had assumed, and would have guaranteed, that he was more than aware of the Columbine killings and the associated video the killers there made. I now know that he was. Eric and Dylan were "martyrs," according to Cho. And role models, it appears.
If and when more such killings occur by individuals who may have been inspired by what they saw on the news regarding this latest horrific event, will anyone be able to hold NBC responsible? Probably not.
As far as the networks are concerned, to the best I can see, they don't think, or at least would never admit, that their broadcasts do anything except entertain, educate and sell things. It this case, they may do just that: help sick minds entertain thoughts of the secular immortality of fame, teach them how to obtain it and motivate them to close the deal by going out and doing it.
Whether or not this video will spawn more mass murders may be difficult to ever know with any degree of certainty, but when you watch the next set of videos made by our next mass murderer on your local NBC affiliate, perhaps then you will know.
I pray I'm wrong; I am afraid I will be right.
Gary D. Gaddy has a doctorate from UNC, was once a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and now lives in Orange County, North Carolina.
A version of this article was published in the Chapel Hill News, Wednesday May 9, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy