Editing out the moral dimension

colum 1If you know anything about modern video games, then you know what the term "first-person shooter" means. This is a game in which the player's perspective is that of the shooter -- in a scene involving combat, crime, alien invasions or what have you. The shooter shots and shoots and shoots. That's what a shooter does to score points.

I thought about this while reading an interesting media-commentary piece, "Trigger Shy," in The New Republic by contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook. The subtitle on the piece stated the thesis: "Virginia Tech and our impoverished language for evil." The key for GetReligion readers is that Easterbrook is interested in how the mainstream media have, for some reason, become gun-shy when it comes to using moral language about issues of good and evil. Perhaps they fear moral absolutes after all. Easterbrook begins:

Katie Couric: "Just who was the shooter?" Charles Gibson: "Tonight--the survivors, their stories; the shooter, his background." Matt Lauer: "We've now got an identity of the shooter." Wolf Blitzer: "That is the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui."

Learning that there had been a mass killing at Virginia Tech, many in the press began to speak of the "shooter" who had brought horror to the campus: A shooter was loose, a shooter did this, a shooter did that. On ABC, CBS, and NBC news broadcasts in the 72 hours after the tragedy, the word "shooter" was heard roughly three times as often as "killer" or "murderer."

This is interesting, he argues, because it did not take long to find out that there was a real gunman, a mass murderer in fact, behind this rampage (as opposed to "killing spree," the popular term of the day). Yet the strangely technical, neutral "shooter" language remained the norm.

In fact, the latest A1 story in The Washington Post on issues related to the massacre carries this headline: "THE VIRGINIA TECH SHOOTER / Cho Didn't Get Court-Ordered Treatment." The story itself does not label Cho at all, for good or ill.

Here is Easterbrook's main point:

To call someone a "shooter" is to say he was holding a firearm that discharged, but to imply nothing about any moral choice involved or the fact that it's bad to aim a pistol at a helpless person and pull the trigger. Same goes for the word "gunman," also used frequently by journalists and pundits.

There are times when neutral words like "shooter" and "gunman" are justified. In police investigations and legal proceedings that involve the determination of guilt or innocence, dispassionate terms should be used. In news reports about accusations that have not yet gone to trial, cautious phrasing is wise. But there was no possibility that the Virginia Tech deaths were caused by legitimate use of force, mistaken identity, self-defense, or some dreadful accident; the only possible explanation was mass homicide. To call Cho a "murderer" would have been a simple statement of fact. Yet, according to a Nexis search of major U.S. newspapers and wire stories, in the three days following the massacre, 2,516 stories contained the terms "shooter" or "gunman," while just 746 used "murderer" or "killer." And, a full week after the calamity, many news outlets -- including CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News -- were still referring to Cho as a "shooter."

And why is this happening in so many mainstream news outlets?

There is no way to know with certainty and Easterbrook does not dwell on conspiracy theories. But he does a fine job of capturing the mood of postmodern journalism, when it comes to avoiding clear, defining language.

There is no way around the moral and perhaps even the theological implications here. This quotation that ends the piece is long, but worth careful reading or perhaps even reflection:

... (The) larger, more troubling explanation has to do with morality. The Western press and intellectual realms were scoffing at the concept of evil long before George W. Bush cheapened the word through constant bandying. Media and thought leaders don't want to say that the man who chained the exit doors of Norris Hall before he started killing had a mind taken over by evil; they want to dismiss him as no more than a confused gunman, because they don't want to contemplate his demonstration that evil is entirely real. And so they use words like "shooter" that remove the moral dimension, making it seem like terrible events just happen -- not that human wickedness causes terrible events. Many news reports spoke of the slaughter as if it had been a bad, bad car crash with no one really at fault.

That Cho became evil is distinct from whether society failed him at earlier points; you can sympathize with his earlier self and agree that someone suffering his condition deserved better care. But set aside whether evil results from psychosis -- or from supernatural temptation, genetic flaws, free-will choice, trauma, poverty, wealth, or ideology: Evil exists and must be spoken of as evil, not in euphemism. On a windy Monday morning in Virginia, evil armed itself and performed the most despicable of acts: pleasure in the taking of innocent life. Evil will arm itself again. As George Orwell showed, unless we call a thing what it is, we can neither think about it clearly nor oppose it.

PERSONAL NOTE: Speaking of conspiracy theories, I am receiving all kinds of email about the alleged contents of the Cho suicide videotapes and speculating as to why officials are not releasing transcripts. The assumption, of course, is that they contain waves of religious language -- specifically curses against Christianity. I am not interested in another wave of rumors. However, has anyone seen or heard a solid mainstream story on the tapes and the silence from authorities?

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