When Reality is Murder

Posted: Apr 19, 2007 12:01 AM
When Reality is Murder

We search for meaning in tragedy, particularly in the sudden deaths of our young, and a tragedy like that at Virginia Tech emphasizes the poverty of language and image as we grasp at solace and hints of understanding. Investigators look into security issues, psychological clues and missed opportunities for prevention, but that's only with hindsight.

On the campus, greening with early spring within its aura of tradition and the timelessness of buildings set in elegant stone, the bright young men and women who had set disciplined goals for their future were wiped out in an instant. They were betrayed by an environment in which they felt secure and protected. Television screens overflowed with repetitive sound and fury, popping shots, sad and angry students, bloody casualties. We were overwhelmed by dread and horror, of grief and numbing pain, spectators at a bad movie made with a handheld camera, depicting blurred images that awkwardly scanned the landscape, moving away from the personal dramas.

Most of us are accustomed to watching suspense stories and murder mysteries that quicken the adrenaline and keep the viewer fixated on the storyline. Reality, the inexorable chronology of events of the world beyond make-believe, marches to a very different tempo. I was running on a treadmill, watching a rerun of the television drama "24," when the first bulletins from Blacksburg interrupted television's fantasy. I cut back and forth to the cable shows for news, any news, from Virginia Tech. Television dramas about terrorists are told in tight, terrifying plots; male and female characters react to life-threatening peril punctuated by heavily charged musical soundtracks. We look at the bravery of heroes with admiration and the cunning of cowards with contempt. There is little ambiguity as good battles evil.

Real life cannot compete on that level. Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum is no doubt a hardworking man skilled in fighting crime and mischief in his community, but his close-up during the first press conference at the university showed merely a mortal man who had fewer answers than questions himself, and whose double chin lent him anything but a heroic countenance. The immediate horror lay in the numbers, and we focused on those, not the details of precious lives lost to friends, family and loved ones. Only later, when the first of the names began to dribble to the reporters, and we saw the faces, could we begin to mourn as a nation.

Watching television as the narrative of this story unfolded was a numbing experience. Instead of empathy or grief, we were kept at a synthetic distance, helpless voyeurs who could perceive the horror with cold curiosity rather than wrenching emotion. All those discussions about television blurring art and reality seemed moot; this was reality in all its messy complexity. No answers, no analysis and nothing scenic. Television has its merits in delivering breaking news, but this was a story about more than facts. We quickly learned there were 33 dead, with many injured, but no answers to questions that begin with who, what and why. Such answers would come later.

Actors playing cops on television employ the latest technology, playing out the crime before us, enhancing images in high-tech laboratories. Virginia Tech is a high-tech school, but the cops, stuck in reality, could only be low-tech operators. The university, it seemed clear in the immediate aftermath, erred by not announcing immediately that two persons had been slain in a dormitory, and students should be on alert. Virginia Tech officials defended their decision not to cancel classes based on what they knew at the time. Like it or not, recriminations were inevitable. When so much is lost, someone must answer questions.

Eyewitness videos could tell us something, but the available images were awkward and raw, the interviews suffering from cliched attempts at spontaneity. Life is not scripted. The dead do not get to return another day to play different characters in a new drama. The popping of these bullets were not sound effects. The men and women cut down in the springtime of their lives would not enjoy another television season on the screen. This was reality, but not reality television intended to make voyeurs of us all. When the medium is the message and the message is a massacre, the horror endures.