On Wednesday NBC News chose to air portions of video, photographs and documents sent to Rockefeller Plaza by Seung-Hui Cho in the hours between his initial dorm-room shootings and the subsequent classroom massacre at Virginia Tech on Monday.
While introducing the package on Wednesday night, anchor Brian Williams was careful to emphasize that NBC News had agonized over the decision to air portions of the video and select photographs. He seemed sincere about the concerns that NBC would be sensationalizing the moment.
"We know we are in effect airing the words of a murderer tonight," Williams said as he introduced reporter Pete Williams.
But those words were not just of a murderer. They were of a sick man who had regressed so far into delusion that he considered his actions necessary. He claimed he had no choice but to slaughter the 32 people who became his victims. Airing the video ultimately was disrespectful to the victims and their families. It also was exploitative of Cho's condition and that of all severely mentally ill people.
The effect of releasing such material goes far beyond the simple circuit of broadcaster and viewer. Now loosed upon the world, people soon will morph these files into all sorts of statements to serve their own agendas, both positive and negative.
No broadcaster can control how its work is used in this age of cheap and easy editing technology and distribution. But every broadcaster should expect the worst. And with this material, that’s precisely what it will get.
We will soon see irresponsible, hateful mashups on YouTube. We will see sick attempts at humor, bigoted jokes about Korean immigrants and chilling calls to violence. And we will see a proliferation of hateful material that will be an assault on the mentally ill and their families.
All over the country, families of mentally ill people are worried that because of Cho's attacks and his frightening visage on our screens, our society will further turn against their loved ones, moving from malign neglect to outright hostility.
We already systematically fail to provide care for the mentally ill. This neglect often results in tragedy but rarely ends in violence. Already we hear calls that the mentally ill are inherently defective or, as an op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday claimed, "born evil."
My friend Kim Hewitt wrote an e-mail to me that I think sums up how the families of the mentally ill feel:
"Almost ten years ago to the day my brother committed suicide. Ravaged by mental illness, he was unable to make good decisions about his healthcare. Geographically distant from his family, evicted, homeless, unable to obtain appropriate care in a hospital emergency room or community clinic, possibly paranoid, possibly psychotic, he lost touch and disappeared in the city of Portland, Oregon. Months later he killed himself in a public place in an extremely violent manner. At the time, my one comfort was that he had not hurt anyone but himself. The loss of my only brother, an intelligent, talented musician, was devastating, but I wasn’t able to bear the thought that in the tangled depths of his mental illness that he may have inflicted harm on others. I can’t imagine the grief of Seung-Hui Cho’s family."
So, does this video collage help or hurt the cause of confronting mental illness in this country? I am afraid the latter. Even if NBC News did not intend to do such harm, it did.
Cho reveals himself to be a frightening and uncontrollable young man. The level of mental illness that afflicted him, so well documented by healthcare professionals, had clearly taken over his thoughts and feelings.
In the images, video and text released by NBC News, Cho comes off as rambling, incoherent, profane and deeply ill. The photo of Cho posing with his two handguns at arm’s length is sure to reach iconographic status. The Cho video itself is a mashup of John Woo film poses and Al Qaeda and Hamas martyrdom videos and contains at least one reference to the two young men who opened fire on their classmates high school at Columbine, Colo.
There is much worth celebrating in our new mashup culture. When people got hold of the horrifying photos of U.S. soldiers torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, artists immediately recycled the most powerful of them to make stunning comments about the policies at stake. Mashups give everyday people the power to affect public perceptions and deliberations. But they can just as easily be shallow, hateful and harmful.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is an associate professor of Culture and Communication at New York University. His latest book is The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System (Basic Books, 2004). Siva blogs at Sivacracy.net.
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