Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Voices from the Hellmouth, 8 years later

Today, eight years after Columbine, I'm reminded of one of the best examples of Internet journalism.

It happened on Slashdot, a haven for old-fashioned geeks and net-savvy teenagers worldwide. Slashdot is still popular, but in '99 it was the heart of the Internet. Jon Katz wrote a series of provocative columns called Voices from the Hellmouth. While the rest of the media was talking about kids, Jon was talking to them.

Kids who don't talk to anyone talked to Jon, in a forum where they felt safe.

Voices from the Hellmouth, April 26, 1999:

“People who are different are reviled as geeks, nerds, dorks. The lucky ones are excluded, the unfortunates are harassed, humiliated, sometimes assaulted literally as well as socially. Odd values – unthinking school spirit, proms, jocks – are exalted, while the best values – free thinking, non-conformity, curiousity – are ridiculed. Maybe the one positive legacy the Trenchcoat Mafia left was to ensure that this message got heard, by a society that seems desperate not to hear it.”

Jon projected human faces onto a pair of kids who had been dismissed as monsters, and whatever you think of his conclusions, I think his efforts were worthwhile, if only to generate responses like this:

“Yeah, I've had some fantasies about taking out some of these jerks who run the school, have parties, get on teams, are adored by teachers, have all these friends. Sure. They hate me. Day by day, it's like they take pieces out of you, like a torture, one at a time. My school has 1,500 kids. I could never make a sports team. I have never been to a party. I sit with my friends at our own corner of the cafeteria. If we tried to join the other kids, they'd throw up or leave. And by now, I'd rather die.”

Eight years ago, the Internet gave a voice to a group of kids who couldn't talk anywhere else. While parents and counselors were wringing their hands trying to think of ways to make these kids talk, they were on Slashdot talking to Jon — hiding behind keyboards and pseudonyms — sharing their anger and their fear.

Today we have another killer, another memorial, and another hate-filled manifesto. In '99, a lot of troubled kids sympathized with Dylan and Klebold. Columbine was seen as the symptom of a cultural problem.

But I'm not seeing a lot of sympathy for Cho Seung-Hui. I can't find a 2007-equivalent of Jon Katz, struggling to put his actions in context.

Maybe our culture has changed, or maybe this killer communicated too well. I think Cho sabotaged himself. When a killer is silent or mysterious, we can project things onto him. We can imagine his personality in broad strokes. But this time, we have a video, immediately following the crime.

NBC has taken a lot of heat for showing this footage, but I think they've done a real service here; not by humanizing the killer, but by stripping away the mystery and romance that could have made him a martyr.

Without the manifesto it might have worked. Our society has always been fascinated by killers. They're romanticized in movies and on television, glamorized in novels and tabloids. Without a clear statement from Cho Seung-Hui, misguided people could have projected their values onto him.

But when you see the real video his insanity becomes obvious and his rants sound hollow. Cho may have seen himself as a romantic figure, but the camera strips away his pretensions and shows us the banality underneath.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 20, 2007 at 12:12

Posted in Best Of, Politics

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