(Note: I am not a fan of Penn State University in general insofar as I generally despise Big 10 schools other than the University of Michigan. Second note: I personally was saddened and dismayed by the VaTech shooting, and recall reporting stong feelings of sympathy and frustration at the loss of the victims in such a seemingly unnecessary and arbitrary manner.)
Recently, 2 Penn State students attended a small private costume party. They dressed up as “shooting victims” from the Virginia Tech massacre (see link above). When considering the outrage that this incident has prompted, I am reminded of a scene from the movie “Dances with Wolves” whereby Kevin Costner’s character is inquiring about the ex-husband of a woman and is told abruptly “It is not polite to speak of the dead. But you are new, so I will tell you.”
Thinking about this admonition and the event in question, I wondered at the actual harm done by the Penn State students, and the actual point of their display.
Consider the following quote: “That somebody would have the nerve to mock [the victims]. They were really good people,” said local business owner, Carol Gwin. [note: Gwin knew three of the victims in the shootings and considered them cherished friends.]
Of course, the victims are dead. They are not insulted. They are not anything. (Even if you had theological or metaphysical commitments that assume their continued existence in some form, does anyone really believe that any of those 32 individuals would feel insulted by such a trivial event in a realm of existence which they departed?). So the effect of the PSU students “mockery” (if that’s what it was–they are unclear on this point) can not possibly be directed at the victims themselves.
Perhaps their message targets the family and friends of the victims? Certainly that is the group (presumably) most deeply affected by the incident, as the example of the Gwin quote instructs. Indeed, it is my view that the family/friends were a target, but only an incidentally derivative one.
Consider the following:
“After seeing the pictures, a Virginia Tech student created a Facebook group called, ‘People Against This Costume.’ Some of the upset members have left threatening messages to the Penn State students.”
Although it’s not mentioned in the article, my understanding is that the Facebook group mentioned above has reached in excess of 10,000 people. Temporarily breaking the Native American maxim, I would venture the supposition that the 32 victims of the Va Tech shooting did not have that many family/close friends.
Thus, the observation that ” ‘This is a group of college students who now think it’s trendy to be upset about their friends being killed,’ one of the two Penn State students who wore the costume said.”
Now consider the response by one of the accused: “The thing is, everybody’s making a big stink about Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech was 32 deaths out of the 26 thousand that happen in America everyday,”
Thus, the family and friends may be a receptive target–not because they grieve the loss of their loved ones, but because their appropriately private grief is foisted upon the rest of us by the media. Of course, that is not to say that it is the victims or the families/friends fault that the media does this. It is what the media does. So, the targeting of their grief , is based on evaluation without desert. We should assign blame to the media (which Michael Moore does rather subtlely in “Bowling for Columbine”). Ultimately, though it seems unfortunate to do so, a way to attack the media presentation involves regrettable collateral damage to the friends/families. Perhaps there is another, more effective and less regrettable method. But I am currently unable to think of one. Perhaps someone will offer a response?
In some sense, perhaps, the PSU students have further fueled the dramatization of the VaTech incident by their actions. And so, given the myopic view, their display was self-defeating and incoherent. But in a more circumspect appraisal, taking the forseeable consequences into effect, their actions shed light on a signficant problem in our society.
Of course, I am defending their actions–not them personally (whatever that means). Indeed, despite some of their insightful comments, the motivation of their actions (sadly) bleeds through: ” ‘It’s not that it was funny, it’s that we are notorious and infamous in the state college, so we have to do things that push the envelope just for shock value,’ he said.”
My final thought:
“Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful” –Albert Camus (Lyrical and Critical Essays, 1970).