More than a decade ago, as a friend and I were brainstorming a screenplay about the media circus surrounding a hostage situation, we would sit across the desk from each other and vigorously debate just how absurd to make our fictional worst-case scenario. In particular, I recall arguing over whether it was too implausible for our hostage taker to demand an appearance on Larry King Live, fielding questions from callers while still holding more than a dozen captives, most of them schoolchildren. We decided to go for it - we were, after all, writing a dark satire.
Sure enough, when the movie was eventually made, there was the King of Talk himself, moderating a live call-in with a criminal in the act of committing his crime. I have no idea whether Mr. King wrestled with the ethical issues raised by his appearance as much as we did. Maybe when it comes to doing a cameo in a movie, Larry King is just a snappy-suspendered ho. But by agreeing to play himself in this situation, he certainly erased any qualms we may have had that we'd gone too far. In fact, some of our leaps of imagination proved so prescient that, in the time between the writing of the script and its brief flickering across America's cinema screens, the media's coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial and the death of Princess Diana had made our once-outlandish "what ifs" look like mere stenography.
In the aftermath of an event as horrendous as the Virginia Tech mass murders, it's natural for us to seek answers, to see if there are any clues that would reveal why one human being would do something this grisly, this colossally inhuman. I admit, with some guilt, that I even read the killer's dreadful, twisted "screenplays" - chock full of sociopathic red flags to be sure, but probably no more vile and poorly written than much of the sub-Tarantino dreck through which Hollywood script readers must wade on a daily basis.
But as the television coverage continued for hour upon hour, what bothered me the most was simply the endless loop of photos of the killer and the repetition of his name.
His picture. His name.
Everyone knows who he is now.
Just the way he wanted it.
Which is why Wednesday's arrival of the murderer's ghoulish "press kit" in the mail at NBC didn't shock me at all. To me, it was the next logical step. Welcome to mass murder in the YouTube age. Hello, QuickTime immortality.
What deeply disappointed me was NBC's decision to run with this material, airing footage of the seething killer, raging against all the unnamed forces who "made" him do these unspeakable acts, in a monotonous Napoleon Dynamite fury that no doubt has already inspired a thousand parodies from sick webcam jokesters. Yesterday's benign headshots have been replaced with a slide show of the assassin's self-portraits, in which he aims the very weapons of his murderous rampage at the camera - at US! - and at his own head. He knew he would not emerge alive from this dreadful act. He didn't care if he lived. Clearly he didn't WANT to live. But by mailing these materials to NBC, he knew that he would live on, that he would get the attention which his damaged psyche somehow believed he deserved. You know, the kind of global notoriety which all brooding friendless loners in obscure college towns have truly earned, just for being who they are.
He had already killed two people BEFORE he mailed the package, for Christ's sake! During his two-hour mid-murder-spree time-out, he went postal, venturing to the post office to ensure that the world would know of the horrendous act he was in the midst of perpetrating. Had he requested a live call-in show with Larry King during those two hours, he might actually have gotten it. Or maybe CNN would have held out 'til there were more bodies.
I was pleased to hear at least one person, former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary, voice his concerns on Countdown with Keith Olbermann that, if it were up to him, he would not have shown the images or played the video from the killer's manifesto, precisely because it might inspire copycats. Frankly, I expected Olbermann, if he truly wished to claim the mantle of Murrow, to have been the one island of integrity and restraint in the coverage of this story, but throughout McCrary's segment, and as soon as it ended, there were those photos of the gun-wielding killer again. And again. And again. Exactly as he wanted the world to see him. Will Olbermann give the same airtime and analysis to the video left behind by the next suicide bomber in Iraq? And the dozen after that? Don't we need to understand their motivations just as much, if not more, than the rationale of one isolated and deeply disturbed undergrad in Virginia?
NBC could have reported that they received a package from the killer. They could have told us that they turned it over to the authorities. They could have discussed in general terms what was contained in the package and whether those contents offered any insight into this tragedy. They could have exercised editorial restraint for the good of humanity. And, in the process, they would not have been fueling the morbid fantasies of the next murderous malcontents lurking in countless otherwise peaceful colleges. Or high schools. Or food courts. Or churches. Other fractured minds whose American idols are the killers from Virginia Tech and Columbine. Violent, gun-worshiping misfits who dream of emulating the "martyrdom" of their heroes, knowing that they too can get their moment in the national spotlight, with their faces, their sneers, their incoherent ramblings blasted on every television network and across every internet site, if only they kill enough people and leave behind a wicked MySpace page.
Perhaps the media will learn from this and act differently next time.
Sadly, there's sure to be a next time.