January 23, 2022

Diary of March 30, 2009

As we approach the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre by a person who shall be here, as he should be everywhere and forever, nameless, school shootings are in the news again. According to today’s Washington Post, a man in Nevada who is said to have "idolized" the Virginia Tech murderer, has been arrested and charged with sending threatening e-mails to two other Virginia Tech students whose names had been reported as among those who had felt threatened — and in one case, stalked — by the killer. You can imagine their distress. Though police found a cache of weapons in the Nevada man’s parents’ house, where he lived, including many of the same guns used by his hero, he hadn’t actually harmed anyone, and his lawyer argued that the e-mails, which only implied a threat instead of making one directly, had only been his way of "initiating a discussion on causes of school violence."

Boy! You can get away with anything, so long as it initiates a discussion.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that the state of Texas is considering a bill in the state legislature that would allow students with concealed-carry permits to take their weapons with them into the classroom. The report quotes one John Woods, now of the university of Texas but formerly of Virginia Tech, who lost his girlfriend and other friends to the shooter there, as saying that he had once thought of acquiring a weapon of his own, but that "Then I learned pretty fast that wouldn’t solve anything." It doesn’t say how he learned this, let alone how he learned it "pretty fast"; maybe it is referring to how he felt before the massacre, and that that was what made him learn it pretty fast — though it is still unclear how he learned something so counter-intuitive. If he had had a gun and been anywhere near the murderer in April, 2007, it would presumably have "solved" a lot.

There must be some significance to the fact that, for the moment at any rate, while we in America have moved on from random shootings of schoolchildren and young adults to random shootings of old people the school shootings have started turning up in Europe. The most recent example happened in Germany a couple of weeks ago. Though not extensively reported in the American press, the latest massacre got a lot of attention in Europe, as did the fact that the murderer was a keen player of violent video games — which naturally led to an effort in the anti-"censorship" media to exonerate such games from any culpability in the massacre. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Michael Deacon wrote:

It puzzles me, this implication that violent "low art" is to blame. "High art" often contains shocking violence, too, yet one never reads an article that implies a connection between "high art" and murder. Nobody, I feel fairly sure, would suggest that Shakespeare is a dangerous influence on the young. Nobody would fret that reading Hamlet might encourage an adolescent loner to murder his uncle, or that Titus Andronicus might prompt him to butcher two men, bake their remains in a pie and feed it to the men’s mother. Nobody is campaigning for the removal from the national curriculum of Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that it glamorises suicide. Like video games, literature has a habit of presenting vile characters in a favourable light. The narrator of A Clockwork Orange is a rapist – a witty, intelligent rapist. The narrator of Lolita is a paedophile — a witty, intelligent paedophile. While I was a teenager, I managed to read both these books without a horrified teacher, parent or indeed journalist dashing them from my hand.

I can’t decide just how disingenuous Mr Deacon is being, or if he really can’t see the very obvious differences between Hamlet and Grand Theft Auto IV — now available, as I mentioned in a post last week, in a version for the Nintendo DS, the successor to the Game Boy. In case he can’t, it is this. The violence of what he calls "high art" — at least that which includes Shakespeare, Anthony Burgess and Vladimir Nabokov among its practitioners — has a moral context and that of video games has none. Is it credible that there could be no connection between a boy’s training himself up to a taste for contextless violence, violence for the mere thrill of it, and his obvious failure to have seen any moral context to his decision to gun down 15 of his classmates?

A more subtle argument was made by Daniel Finkelstein of The Times who argued that the German shooter’s taste for violent video games could not have made him shoot fifteen of his classmates by citing the analogy of John Wayne Gacy’s boyish enthusiasm for the vivisection of rats: "Anybody arguing that Gacy’s violent behaviour with rats caused him to be a murder[er]," he wrote, "would appear ridiculous. Obviously the same brain dysfunction caused both torture of rats and torture of boys." Well sure, but there doesn’t have to be a simple causal relationship between the two things. Obviously, there is not one anyway, since millions play the video games without killing anyone. But if the moral desensitizing in both cases is not a sufficient condition for mass murder, it would seem to me to be a necessary one. Given that we prohibit certain kinds of drugs that help prepare the ground for anti-social behavior, what is the rationale for allowing video games that do the same?

Not that any such argument is at all likely to make any difference to our culture’s consensus in adopting a laissez-faire approach to children’s entertainment — especially now that good old science, always ready to do its bit to expunge old-fashioned, moralistic thinking from our view of the world, is reporting that video games are good for you because they improve your night vision. So what if we’re raising a generation of moral illiterates? At least they’ll be able to see in the dark, like cats. Let the good electronic times roll!

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