The senseless use of language threatens us all


Some words pour forth automatically whenever a loss of life occurs, especially when it is unexpected. "I'm so sorry," you tell a colleague whose loved one has just died. "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help." During those times, you simply reach for the words closest to your mind; anything more complicated would seem insincere or calculated. Heartfelt, lengthy expressions of condolence are for later occasions, when the grieving person can absorb them.

But because these words spring readily to mind, they reveal some disturbing truths about how we view plainly evil deeds -- that is, willfully malicious acts committed against innocent people. These words have been ubiquitous in the last two days. The first word is "tragedy," which is an exceptionally polite term. A tornado destroying a house and killing an entire family is a tragedy, an event beyond human agency. Shooting strangers in their heads is mass murder.

The second word is "senseless," as in "senseless violence," "senseless acts," etc. By this, people cannot mean "unconscious," as if the Virginia Tech murderer was sleepwalking. And they cannot possibly mean "foolish" or "stupid," as if the murderer made a careless series of errors. They must be saying that it is meaningless, the third definition of "senseless." That cannot possibly be true, and if we believe that these murders had no meaning, we will maintain the conditions that produce these "tragedies."

Right after the "tragic events" of September 11, 2001, an artist — possibly a composer or conductor — commented that the whole thing was a spectacularly effective work of performance art. He was roundly lambasted for his insensitivity, and he publicly apologized for insensitivity. (I'll be grateful if anyone can identify this man, because my googling skills are failing me.)

But the guy shouldn't have backed down, because he was onto something. The September 11 hijackers were not collectively insane, and destroying lives and property were the means to an end: they were trying to convey a meaning, or rather a densely packed series of meanings. They hated America and decadent West for its moral decadence; they hated capitalism for undermining religious purity in Muslim countries; they wished to show the American population how vulnerable it was to the holy warriors of Islam.

We can debate whether the hijackers meant all of those things, and how many other things they meant. But we cannot possibly call their actions "senseless," as they were invested with deeply symbolic meaning. For one thing, al Qaeda's leadership chose the World Trade Center as a target because it stood for America's leading role in the global economy. Knocking down the buildings and murdering thousands of workers didn't stop the U.S. from trading with the rest of the world, and the Islamofascists knew it wouldn't. What they wanted to do was announce themselves, to force America to listen to their concerns, and show that they were willing to commit seriously "transgressive" acts to shock their audience into reacting. Just like performance artists.

Likewise, the Virginia Tech murderer, Seung-Hui Cho, intended to make some kind of statement. If the initial reports are correct, he murdered a freshman girl out of unrequited love. Like most crimes of passion, he probably saw this as vengence, the righting of an injustice, and it had no larger meaning. (I hope it goes without saying that I do not agree with his reasoning.) But how can one explain his subsequent murder of 30 students whom he probably never knew, except as self-expression run amok? Cho wrote an explanatory note about his killing spree, and we will know what it says in the coming days or weeks. The note might not be coherent or consistent, but it will almost certainly say that he was making a point about...something.

In that, the murders themselves and the national "outpouring of grief" are two sides of the same coin. I don't mean the families of the victims, nor Virginia Tech students and alumni, nor Blacksburg residents, nor anyone else directly affected. I mean people who see a horrifying news event presented through the mass media, and feel the compulsion to express themselves through MySpace and other social networking sites, as well as other media. Our cultural ethos says that every emotion, no matter how synthetic or contrary to reality, can (and probably should) be broadcast to the world. Respectful silence in the face of devastating loss is no longer acceptable. Now the focus must be shifted from the victims' families and loved ones — the ones who truly do need comfort and support — to those who merely observe as voyeurs.

Mass murders cannot be entirely attributed to a culture of narcissistic self-expression, as there are other contributing factors, and each killing spree is unique. But the culture plays a catalytic role, when it should be encouraging self-correction and self-restraint. Changing the culture is the only way to diminish if not eliminate these kinds of mass murders, but in a world with YouTube and blogs, self control will be a tough sell.


It was Karlheinz Stockhausen. He's mostly known for his 60's era electronic compositions, and for a violin quartet that is played with each musician in their own helicopter. He referred to it 9/11 as the greatest work of art ever, and later clarified that it was the greatest work of art ever, by Satan.

I have always thought (incorrectly perhaps) that tragedy implies human complicity and disaster is something that happens regardless of how people may scheme, connive or make plans with the best of intentions... i.e. Katrina was a disaster; collective lack of preparedness was a tragedy.

Thanks for the clarification, Joe.

Ellyn, in my recollection, the literary definition of tragedy has meant different things through the centuries -- in some cases, the subject of the tragedy is complicit, and in some, the subject has misfortune thrust upon him entirely. It's too late in the evening right now, so I'll concede that you could have a point. I'm still uncomfortable with the usage, because it can be used to mean something beyond human control.

Before you judge me and my writing, take a lissen, girl. Bullying has grown and evolved to gargantuan proportions throghout this erring and faithless society ---> Got a wee bit-O-wisdom for you, America, which you pro’bly past-over in thy hypocritical condemnation. It wasn't completely Cho's fault. Yes, HALF the culpability was his, but HALF was the big, bad joks who're NOW dead. Serves them right. FACT: America now has grown far too callous and hateful of the meek. YOU should've treated Cho with a lil’ bit more compassion and respect. Will you ever learn? Will this be like Columbine? Will this ever stop, Almighty Jok Holes? Probably not, with your damnable pride and vanity. How unmistakably un-cool --- 33 dead?? O, boo-hoo. What America gets for slapping God in the face. STOP abortion. STOP homosexuality. STOP picking on the Losers (which are human beings, too - humanity falls under His Divine Judgment when we perish BTW). Or God’s not gunna STOP with His destruction --- Our worthless ego, not Jesus, is what’s preventing U.S. from reaching Heaven-Above. Let go, America! Let God! Choose right. Choose the Light. And win thy fight -Galatians 4:16 ---> My two novels, telling U.S. how to do it RITE. God bless.

Does KK_f actually think that the 33 dead people were campus bullies who persecuted Cho? What a repugnant suggestion.

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This page contains a single entry by Eric Johnson published on April 17, 2007 11:12 PM.

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