Posted by: L | May 3, 2007

Not the worst US massacre….

Carla Blank, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle (reprinted in Counterpunch), points out the way in which the media sensationalized the Virginia Tech story.

Her piece is thoughtful, but it does two things that I think are mistaken — it racializes the issue (what happened to Waco, for instance?), in this case I think in an unwarranted way; and it moves away from incidents involving one or two individual shooters to group confrontations. Intentionally, I suppose.

“The mass media coverage of how 32 students and faculty members were fatally shot and at least 15 injured on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., is punctuated by phrases such as, “the worst massacre in U.S. history,” or, as the New York Times put it, the “Worst U.S. Gun Rampage.” CNN called it the “Deadliest Shooting Rampage in U.S. history.”

This was followed by San Francisco Bay Area’s FOX affiliate KTVU Channel 2’s claim that it was “the worst massacre ever in the United States.” TV commentary did not qualify these claims, and at least one Virginia Tech student, an Asian American himself, echoed the phrase when interviewed on national television, pondering his presence at the “worst massacre in U.S. history.”

In reality, an accurate investigation of mass killings of this magnitude would quickly reveal that the Virginia Tech massacre, as horrendous as it was, was not the worst massacre to occur on U.S. soil.”

There were much bloodier massacres before Blacksburg, she writes, including the Gunther Island Massacre of 60-200 Wiyot Indians, committed on Feb. 26, 1860 and encouraged by a local newspaper; the massacre on April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, near Memphis, Tenn., by Confederate troops under Gen. Nathan Forrest of 227 black and white Union troops”; the Colfax Massacre on April 13, 1873 of 280 blacks by armed members of the White League and the Ku Klux Klan; the Ludlow Massacre in 1913 that killed more than 66 people, including 11 children, and two women (burned alive) and was sparked by a strike against the Rockefeller family-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation by the mostly foreign born Serb, Greek and Italian coal miners after one of their union organizers was murdered;the 1921 shooting deaths of at least 40-300 people, most of them black, in an area known as the “Negro’s Wall Street,” home to 15,000 people and 191 businesses. Police eventually dropped bombs from private planes to break it up.

Read more here.

My Comment:

I think it’s fair enough to point out the sensationalism involved in the coverage of V-Tech. But, it’s also fair to say that people really do find crimes committed by identifiably psychotic or evil individuals more interesting, psychologically, than political or social confrontations between groups.

The media plays on that bias and lets something like V- Tech distract us from bigger issues, while also handing the state another excuse for imposing more security laws.

But that said, people are really interested in this case.

We’re always fascinated by stories that combine just enough of the visceral and the violent with the coldly analytical. It’s why Jack the Ripper or Ted Bundy still fascinates us, even though statistically, the damage such killers do is miniscule next to more endemic social and political problems, like war.

People like to argue that it’s the violence in our lives that drives this fascination. But I wonder about that.

It might be, instead, that we don’t really run into violence much at all — outside our TV screens; our worlds are fairly antiseptic. We don’t deal routinely with anything as intense, sensual and emotionally raw as violence….which is why we can’t take our eyes off when it finds us.

We have a yearning for deep experience, even when it is savage and even if it is vicarious. That, I suppose, is what accounts for the popularity of war as a spectator sport…


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