Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: Nightmare 2.0

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In the current Time, some thoughts on the Web 2.0-ness of the Virginia Tech shooting and its aftermath. Half the length of my usual columns and thus, at least by that standard, twice as good.

In the essay I liken Cho’s Quicktime manifesto to a deranged parody of a MySpace page, by which I don’t mean that users of social-networking sites are psychopaths, though I’m sure someone will take it that way. Rather, there’s a fine line between the creative impulse of self-expression and the lunatic’s rationalization.

That doesn’t just apply to online media. Take fiction. A lot of people have seized on Cho’s disturbing creative-writing assignments as evidence that he was deranged, and even implied that, therefore, people should have seen danger coming.

In Cho’s case that turned out to be correct. His writings were creepy and disturbing. But then so was the writing of the weirdo with the evident family issues who wrote about turning into a bug. Not to mention the bizarre, dreamlike psychodrama about a son whose father suddenly attacks and berates him, then orders him–successfully–to kill himself.

I know, I know, Cho was no Kafka. But it’s not as if being a bad writer was the only thing that rendered him a danger and Kafka a genius. (His actions, such as his reported stalking of women on campus, were a more salient tip-off than his writing.) The uncomfortable fact is, creativity can be disturbing–whether it’s from an artist like Kafka, an entertainer like Tarantino or a murderer like Cho. But it’s only in hindsight that the distinctions are obvious–I took enough writing workshops to read unsettling, bad manuscripts by classmates who never, to my knowledge, killed anyone.

There’s such an urge after tragedies like this to wish for simple answers and reductive equations: loner + weird fantasies = killer. The hard thing to acknowledge is that life is complex, and the human mind is sometimes damn near incomprehensible. It takes a Kafka to fathom some of its dark corners, and that’s disturbing work indeed.