The Symbolic Construction of Mass Shootings

(Check out my previous two pieces relating to this subject here and here.)

Much of the internet has evolved into a mutated form of the famous New Yorker cartoon caption contest; except in the internet the cartoon is not a cartoon but the rapid procession of events that constitute the enterprise we monolithically dub “the news”. Twitter and Facebook exist to arbitrate these acts of framing and declare quantitative winners. Twitter in particular pushes the form of discourse toward the framing caption; as in The New Yorker a vast quantity of captions are submitted, unlike in The New Yorker their voluminous quantity is regulated in a decentralized fashion.

The traumatic event being read into as a form of literature is hardly a new thing. Thomas Carlyle’s account of the French Revolution is structured as a novel, and similar exercises exist in such a staggering multitude that to begin listing them would rapidly derail this article. However, the form of the novel suggests a different sort of interpretation of events than a tweet, an online news article, or a blog post such as this one does. There are certain grammatical structures that are favored; a novel composed entirely of declarative generalizations would be rather rough reading, but a Twitter feed composed of little else has been several people’s ticket to influence.

Soon after the Virginia Tech shooting, a package was delivered to NBC containing what could be considered promotional materials for the shooting by the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. It would seem, given the frequency with which mass shooters are delusional and prone to fantasizing, that the medium of the redemptive fantasy, the advertisement, would give tons of insight into what would cause a shooting. The police officials and a psychologist seemed to disagree despite a telling detail being right at the end of the statement. From Wikipedia:

“Police officials, who reviewed the video, pictures and manifesto, concluded that the contents of the media package had marginal value in helping them learn and understand why Cho committed the killings.[123][124] Dr. Michael Welner, who also reviewed the materials, believed that Cho’s rantings offer little insight into the mental illness that may have triggered his rampage.[125][126][127] Dr. Welner stated that “These videos do not help us understand Cho. They distort him. He was meek. He was quiet. This is a PR tape of him trying to turn himself into a Quentin Tarantino character.”[126]

Their roots seem to be fairly simple-some combination of major depressive disorder/severe anxiety/schizophrenia and an attraction to the aesthetics of a prior example of violence. These are, of course, far too broad as precursor symptoms to be of much use in rooting out shootings before they occur. Semiotic democracy, the decentralized readings of a shared text, will sometimes produce horrific outliers.

The almost daily occurrence and discussion of these sorts of shootings does not push the public into a state of enhanced sensitivity to them, nor does it get us any closer to figuring out their roots. It does, however, force the reader to start distinguishing them into categories mentally or to develop strategies of not engaging with the articles/events when they encounter them if they’d like to continue reading the national newspapers regularly.


This dilemma of internal media environment ecology has been dramatized in the NBC show Hannibal. The show, in its first season anyhow, exists as an unusual but still recognizable police procedural-serial killer is on the loose, brilliant investigator and his loyal crew of coworkers figure out how to catch him with the centerpiece of each episode being the virtuoso aria of an explanation provided by the brilliant investigator. The grand hero of any procedural, from House to Monk to Shark to…well you get the picture, is the character who can consistently pull off the magic trick of pulling sense from an overwhelming pile of seemingly contradictory information.

What sets Hannibal‘s Will Graham apart is the tone this procedural investigator-as-secular rationalist-mystic takes and the self-reflexive quality of the show. Graham, taken from Thomas Harris’s novels, is a freelance psychological profiling consultant for the FBI who specializes in serial killers. He has a form of “radical empathy” wherein he can enter the mind of the killers by looking at their crime scenes. The show recognizes Graham’s position as a mystic; the cops have to leave the crime scene for a brief period in order for Graham to channel the interior psychology of the serial killer. The crime scenes are very much gruesome art pieces and Graham treats them like an extremely astute art critic who focuses on the place of the “artist” in the piece.

Part of the reason for Hannibal’s steep ratings decline and cancellation is possibly a product of its hitting the point of procedurals too squarely on the nose. The primary comfort of the procedural, like that of the mystery novel, is the eventual catharsis of a mysterious world coming to clear coherence through the medium of the investigator. The increasingly prolonged periods of rather questionable but very calm and rationalistic explanation that always concludes popular programs in this mold such as  CSI in its various incarnations is a response to increased desire for explanations; the money shot. Hannibal meanwhile explores the ramifications of the procedural mentality and its aftershocks; Graham is frequently on the brink of madness and his knowledge is very much a grounds for suspicions that in his ability to read the killers he isn’t that far removed from them in his mental workings.

The distorted Krazy Kat triangle between Hannibal Lecter, Will Graham, and Jack Crawford on the show is a subject that will require its own essay. It’ll suffice for now to take away the lesson that the contemplation of crimes does not produce a unified response by any standard and that the desire to understand these events, if pursued in good faith, does not always lead to especially comforting conclusions. Much of the public is willing to write killers off as monolithic totems of “insanity”, an ill-defined category used mostly for gerrymandering the border of acceptable behaviors and thought processes.

This isn’t necessarily an unhealthy response, though it leads to the production of articles, news reports, and pop psychology books that frame these events as indictments of specific social trends in a binary that usually favors the agenda of the writer while fetishizing the less familiar detail. Columbine was a problem of “video games”, as though video games exist simply in a vacuum. The influence of video games probably played some small role in the manifestation of the shooting, but then so did a million other things.


In his suicide note, Williams positions himself in the cultural genealogy presented above going from Timothy McVeigh to the Columbine shooter to the V-Tech shooting. CBS reports on the suicide note:

“Flanagan (Williams) also said in the note that Virginia Tech shooter, Seung Hui Cho, was ‘his boy’ and mentioned the Columbine High School shooting.

‘Also, I was influenced by Seung-Hui Cho. That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got….just sayin,’ he wrote.”

More interestingly, he sets up his shooting as a response to the Dylann Roof shooting earlier this year. He writes “The church shooting was the tipping point…but my anger has been building steadily…I’ve been a human powder keg for a while…just waiting to go BOOM!!!!” There is a discourse of mass shootings, and among the isolated shooters a strange and horrible tradition with controversy over what belongs in the cannon.

The symbolic components of the shooting as its been reported seem to have been set-up, knowingly or otherwise, by Williams so as to make the news articles become self-reflexive exercises in examining the place of journalism itself. He shot the reporter and cameraman as they were in the process of shooting a news segment, creating the possibility the murders could have been broadcast live. At the same time, he also filmed the shooting himself and uploaded it to Facebook and Twitter while broadcasting his personal justifications for carrying out the shooting. It was calculated, like the others, as a performance meant for broadcast.

The place of the media in the emergence of copycat killers is not well understood.

Maybe the FBI ought to hire some theater critics.

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