Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Evil of Banality: An alternative approach to the Virginia Tech Tragedy

I've been following the saga of the Virginia Tech shooter with some fascination. Yes, it's a tragedy and no, the students' deaths are no less senseless and outrageous than -- just to name one example-- the 198 people who perished last Wednesday in Baghdad. Americans have come to expect that kind of violence in the less "civilized" parts of the world, so they are not shocked nor do they comprehend the grief of losing your child to liberation bombing or the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East. Most Americans don't shop at market places so the Baghdad market bombing seems remote, outlandish. They do however aspire to send their kids to college, which is why the killing spree of Seung-Hui Cho (misidentified as Cho Seung-Hui for the past week) qualifies as "senseless" while other more political tragedies are met with indifference (unless they claim the lives of "our boys").

For days now, every television station has broadcast the video clips Seung-Hui Cho mailed to NBC in between his morning and afternoon shooting rampages (with a disclaimer, of course; these "disturbing images" are being screened to satisfy your inner amateur psychoanalyst.) The emphasis is always on the pre-meditated factor of his killings; not a word on the presentation or content. "It shows he meticulously planned and carried out his murderous spree." No shit, sherlock.
The plays he wrote as an English major in college are available online. Not to encourage the starving and neglected playwrights out there to follow Cho's example and have their work widely read and critiqued, but always apologetically presented as further evidence of a disturbed and violent mind. People seek to comprehend why Cho committed these crimes. To prevent a similar tragedy from transpiring, creative writing instructors must henceforth learn to distinguish between assignments that reveal actual violent intent or just plain old shock value.

That violent intent is rather harmless without the liberal means to commit such an act (purchasing guns requires a five-minute transaction; ammunition is readily available 24/7 at your local superstore), is not up for discussion. Not over Bush's dead body.

Well here's my two cents on the disturbed and violent mind of Seung-Hui Cho:

Reading the plays and watching his video manifesto, it strikes me that the killer must have suffered an immense inner void. The dialogue in his plays is as lame as the plot, the violent episodes unoriginal ("You want me to stick this remote control up your ass, buddy?") and childish (stuffing a half-eaten candybar down somebody's throat.) Cho's play "Richard McBeef" is an astounding testament to a confused assimilation into American culture; his use of violent phrases and insults are muddled in their grammatical use and context, a bland and banal expression of unfocused rage. He might as well just have scrawled Shitfuckshitfuckshitfuckshit over 12 pages. Home Alone is fifty times as originally violent and macabre.

The video-taped manifesto is eery not only because of the violent intent it expresses but because his presentation seems so apathetic and insincere. For the most part he is seen reading off of a paper, stumbling over his own awkward cliche-riddled phrases: "You made me do this... I did this for my children." "Have you ever wondered what it feels like to have your throat slit from ear to ear?... Thanks to you I die like Jesus Christ, who inspired generations of the weak and the defenseless people." If Cho had auditioned for his own role as mass murderer in a play, he would not have gotten the part.

Seen from this angle, Cho's killing spree at Virginia Tech perhaps exemplifies the "evil of banality" and nothing more; that someone as empty and stupid as Cho can be driven to madness by his creative shortcomings. Cho's suicidal rampage could embody a case of mediocrity of the mind turned murderous. Hitler too was a bad artist and apparently frustrated and driven to megalomania by his lack of talent.

My father complained after two days of non-stop TV coverage that he was "profoundly bored" by the whole affair. I myself was slightly disgusted by the crowd roaring, "Go Hogies!" at the funeral service for the deceased, or whatever their silly varsity team is called. What did make me very very sad, is the public letter written by his sister and the interviews conducted with his ancient toothless great aunt in Seoul. "I loved my brother. Now I don't feel like I know that person anymore", his sister wrote. TV psychologist Dr. Phil generously recommended that one must have "sympathy" for the family for "they too require our support." May his victims rest in peace.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ban Ki Moon, british sailors & the good news from Iraq

I'm back.

I lost my sense of humor for two months and a few weeks, after watching fourteen year olds bash their skulls in during the "opposition" strike on January 23rd.

I left Lebanon the next day, chain-smoking in the cab en route to the airport, where I was finally made to part with the canister of tear gas I have been lugging around in my handbag for the past six years. The baggage screener smiled sympathetically when I told him that my concealed weapon had sentimental value-- it was with me when I departed JFK airport from New York a few days after the World Trade Center attacks ("Ma'am are you carrying nasal spray in your handbag?" the baggage checker asked me, to which I responded "naturally"); it was in my possession at Heathrow airport just a few days after the liquid bomb scare.

He didn't seem to care why I carry it in the first place, but rather inquired when I was coming back. "After yesterday? Perhaps never", I said, instantly regretting the bitterness of my response. Before I boarded the flight to Dubai my duty free purchases were handed to me in an "I love life" plastic bag. The final insult.

The following day a student brawl at Beirut Arab University turned bloody when snipers shot at students and army personnel. The surrounding neighborhoods were soon patrolled by militiamen who set up checkpoints. The army enforced a curfew for the first time in ten years. I got my first taste of what it's like to watch Lebanon descend into violence from a distance, surrounded by Lebanese who register the events with a pained resignation. Ever since then, I couldn't bring myself to contribute lofty "anecdotes" about the state of affairs in my favorite banana republic. And so I remained silent here on these pages.

Well my sense of humor is back thanks to Ban Ki Moon (try saying his name in a Scottish accent: Baan Key Muuuun). Mr. Moon apparently stepped out onto the balcony of his hotel room while he was visiting Beirut and expressed astonishment at the dazzling view of the "Atlantic Ocean."

One of my favorite features of living in Beirut is the frequent visits of expendable dignitaries such as the newly-crowned UN Secretary-General. I understand that it's hard to be briefed in short on the Lebanese mess. I don't blame Nancy Pelosi for spouting all that nonsense about the "historic Cedar Revolution." Everybody knows full well that she doesn't have a fucking clue what's going on here. But you do get a sense of how out of touch these world leaders are and how their words fall on hollow ears with the local population when you foolishly attempt to go from A to B while they are being shuttled around the city. The only tangible effect of their diplomatic efforts are excruciating traffic jams. I love waiting in the midst of angry cab drivers while the police and army block the streets. Then when a motorcade finally goes whizzing by everyone is outraged.

Ban Ki Moon's motorcade consisted of the usual jeeps and 4 x 4s filled with the nation's most able armed men. But Moon himself was whisked around in a low-riding Mercedes Compressor, to which my cab driver remarked, "A small car for a small man."

The rest of this post will be dedicated to my favorite masochistic pastime, watching CNN.

For the first three weeks of the July war, I couldn't bear to tune into Fionnuala Sweeney and Hala Gorani reporting from downtown Beirut. Late one night I caught a glimpse of Wolf Blitzer braving the "northern front" in a helicopter embedded with the IDF. I'd had enough. But by the third week of the war, during the "lull" when Israel concentrated its missiles and bombs on the south and out of my hearing range, I felt guilty for the increasing normalcy that returned to my three-block radius in Hamra. I wanted to share just a bit of the pain of people in the line of fire. And so I turned on CNN to hear their narration of the day's events.

Twenty-minutes of coverage that evening was devoted to 12 IDF reservist soldiers, struck by a katyusha missile in a parking lot in Galilee when they failed to heed to the warning sirens. That was followed by -- no, not extensive coverage of an airstrike in the Beirut neighborhood of Chiah in which 56 civilians perished when two apartment buildings were flattened -- but rather by the "Arab Anger Exclusive", which sought to answer the question on everyone's mind: Why are they so fucking angry?

Two weeks ago I again reached for the remote control and searched for CNN, curious to see their coverage of the British sailor hostage crisis. (Note that they are always referred to as "sailors" as if they weren't military personnel, but rather a jolly bunch of fishermen whose love of adventure drives them out to sea, time and time again.)

I happened to tune in just in time to catch CNN anchor Jonathan Mann narrate an "exclusive special" (they love specials, don't they?) on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Except that in this case the emphasis was on Iranian REVOLUTIONARY guards. "This isn't an ordinary army or batallion, Sue," that blue-eyed lout told the other anchor. "Much like the PARTY of GOD Hez-bow-laaa, the REVOLUTIONARY guards are..." and so on and so forth. Doesn't that just strike fear in your heart? These REVOLUTIONARY guards want to deprive your children of their well-earned right to consume cookies and milk and spend slothful hours in front of the TV.

Notice also that CNN anchors always strike a cheerful tone when announcing the bad news. "FIVE-HUNDRED people were killed at a fishmarket in Baghdad today" comes right on the heels of "Billy Sue McGee miraculously lost FIVE-HUNDRED pounds on the new tape worm diet." Get off the prozac, I say. They also have regular specials entitled "The Good News from Iraq", where they interview three little girls at a dance school in Irbil who are finally fulfilling their life-long dream of learning ballet. Just now there was a "special" on university students. A CNN anchor visited a class at Baghdad University. She asked the students if they identify as Iraqis first rather than Shia, Sunni or Kurd. Many of the students shook their heads. The anchor concluded that "Yes, yes, yes, they feel Iraqi" and that there is "hope" in this classroom.

CNN's obsession with Ahmadinijad almost trumps that of AIPAC. Frequently I have heard the newscaster confuse Iran with Iraq. A few days ago I was watching the weather report when the world map behind the weather woman was suddenly replaced with a full-screen picture of Ahmadinijad raising a clenched fist in the air. The weather woman continued to detail the tsunami warning for the southern Pacific to this backdrop of pure evil.

Finally I would like to say that I have nothing but contempt for the ruling elite in this country. The last months have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that while street-level violence might seem spontaneous, it is in fact always ordered and controlled from above. The streets of Beirut are as calm are as ever while the respective war lords, semi-mortal cultish clerics and heirs to their political thrones battle it out in Riyadh and on TV.

At the end of Nasrallah's most recent televised address, I didn't like his ceremonial kissing of children and the revering shower of kisses on the forehead he received. Call me squeamish, but it reminded me of Stalin or Hitler. I was almost waiting for that scene from "The Great Dictator" where Charlie Chaplin (as Hitler) picks up a little child for the cameras and it pees on him. Also I'm glad that gigantic billboard where he is depicted raising the back of his hand has been removed from Fuad Chehab bridge in downtown and on the airport road. Humility goes a long way in my book. And I, too, am a people of the book. Whatever that means. I like saying it.