There is a look on the face of someone trying to understand the recent mass killing by Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech. Blank eyes, a furrowed brow, a slowly shaking head. The brain hits a wall of comprehensibility. The part of the mind that imagines what happens in other minds reaches its limit; a rational person simply cannot identify with what Cho did.
There was something familiar in that look. I realized it was the same look I have seen over and over in the past four years on the faces of those I talk to in other countries about what Bush has done in Iraq. “Why?” they ask me, as if my nationality might shed some light. “Is he mentally ill?” I have no simple answers. They shake their heads. I remember the eyes of a woman in Argentina tearing up at the senseless tragedy.
Within two days of the Virginia Tech shooting, people in the United States had moved through three stages: 1. Shock; 2. Realizing there is a problem and trying to identify it; 3. Grappling with ways to avoid a similar disaster.
The absence of this process with Iraq was, and still is, startling and eerie. A souring toward the Administration’s Iraq policy has moved into the mainstream, yet we skipped the shock. Critics rebuke the “management” of the war in the same measured tones used for other bad policies.
Should there be a difference in the level of moral outrage between the Cho shooting and something that killed 10,000 times more people? Yes. According to standard utilitarian morality (the greatest good for the greatest number, or in this case the least bad for the fewest number), one event was 10,000 times worse than the other.
The reason there was not 10,000 times the reaction is simple, and all the more troubling for its simplicity. Virginia Tech is closer to home, had a single perpetrator, and is easier to imagine. It happened to people who speak our language, whom we imagine to be somehow in our community. There was a single person responsible who did it with his own hands. And as horrific as it would be, we can imagine sitting in a classroom and being shot, whereas we have no idea what it is like to be bombed.
What single person can we hang the invasion on? Wolfowitz? Cheney? Bush? Rumsfeld? And even if Cheney made the decision, it wasn’t him in the cockpit pressing the button that delivered the bomb. Cheney wasn’t the one who gunned down 24 civilians in Haditha. (I’ll hang it on Cheney for the moment, less for the sake of alliteration than the fact that his snarling mug would go well beside the sort of “Mind of a Killer” stories that proliferated beside Cho’s picture. Given that Cheney favors bombing Iran, and still seems to relish the Iraq occupation, why haven’t we seen any “Mind of a Killer” stories beside Cheney’s picture? Why haven’t we seen stories speculating about how weak those five Vietnam draft deferments must have made the young Cheney feel?)
If this diffusion of guilt confuses people, so does the hazy area of rationale. So many voices were (and still are) flooding our airwaves with messages that there was a central aim of the invasion that justified the human toll. This propaganda requires a modicum of critical thinking to see through, and when our journalists bought it we were sunk. On the other hand, there is no central aim behind a classroom slaughter that could justify it in the minds of any healthy mind. In Cho’s case, of course, we are talking about a clinical mental problem; in Cheney’s we are not. That should not make one more shocking than the other. I would argue the reverse, that the lack of a diagnosable mental illness makes the latter far more dangerous. People like Cho may be able to buy guns, but people like Cheney lead the nation into war.
Two things must be explained: why Cho caused shock domestically but the invasion did not, and why the invasion caused shock around the world but not here. The answer lies in a growing intellectual and moral vacuity that leaves our journalists and citizenry not only vulnerable to blatant propaganda but devoid of the moral imagination that gives people around the world a gut feeling that something, such as a massive unprovoked invasion, is wrong.
To feel shock at something happening far away as if it were happening nearby; to feel shock at something happening to people who do not belong to one’s culture as if it were happening to people belonging to one’s culture; to feel shock at people being killed by airplane bombs even though one has not seen bombings depicted in movies as vividly as shootings; all of this requires a sort of moral imagination.
The death of this moral imagination in the United States is why there was such a discrepancy between reactions around the world and reactions here after the Iraq invasion in 2003. It is also why whatever U.S. administration wants to persuade the U.S. public that an attack on Iran is necessary will have an easy time of it.
Going back to the post-massacre process outlined above: Because there was no Number One (shock), there will be no Number Three, no serious work done toward figuring out how to avoid the next one. If Bush and Cheney decide to bomb Iran, for example, they will snow the people with propaganda and pull it off just the way they did Iraq. The disastrous ramifications for the United States, and the question of whether or not Iran poses a real threat to us, will be irrelevant.
BRENDAN COONEY is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org