04/22/2007 09:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Murderer and the Media

Killers like Seung-Hui Cho are damaged, hugely resentful men who set out to punish the world because they consider it so stupid, or unjust, or negligent, or otherwise damnable as to have failed to recognize their true worth and strength. Thus do diminished men puff themselves up as avenging crusaders. They don't really know who diminished them, but it doesn't matter. As their idea of the original damage is vague, so will their targets be indiscriminate. The whole world is going to be diminished, and so these endlessly bitter men turn themselves into walking arsenals.

They turn themselves into broadcasters as well. These killers are in the communication business. They will send messages to prove they are not, after all, tiny. They claim recognition as giants, virulent in their potency. They are going to force the whole world to suffer their purported greatness. And the means toward this end are double: The killers are going to kill whomever they please, and they are going to make the rest of the world know it.

Having left behind a record of depravity, the killer then is going to exit. He will vanish into an eternity of fame. As his markers, he will leave corpses behind. He will be unforgettable - not only a killer, but a great killer. And in a world saturated with media, a great killer must also be a famous killer. Notoriety is immortality. So to complete his glorious task, he turns to accomplices - the media.

Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, turned to NBC News - and the network proceeded to broadcast, and rebroadcast, and re-rebroadcast, his chilling video rant. So did all the other news networks. NBC News President Steve Capus said the network had an obligation to air the video in order to enable the public to get "inside the mind of a murderer."

The broadcasters do not share the killer's purpose, exactly, but they serve it. In his eyes, they are fools who will serve as tools - his tools. As once the killer was humiliated, he will now humiliate these powerhouses of image by turning them into his instruments. For he understands that broadcasters share a purpose with him - getting attention. As so, in the strictest sense, those who broadcast the killers' messages are complicit.

The broadcasters, of course, have their own reasons - they are professional bearers of information, and profit-makers besides. But it is naive to deny the overlap. Maybe the killer would have killed without an amplification system, and maybe not - it's unknowable, just as it's unknowable in advance which of many desperate, deranged, damaged souls will some day resort to mass murder. But it is undeniable that the broadcasters are accessories after the fact.

Osama bin Laden knew that. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi knew it. So did the man who kidnapped and beheaded Danny Pearl - Khalid Shaikh Mohammad or whoever it was. So did Cho.

The difference was that Cho was devoid of any ideology commensurate with his staggering rage. He was a terrorist with only his own glory as a rationale for terror. The political terrorist commandeers the news, turns it into his organizational video. Cho was an organization of one. He composed his self-advertisement, waved his guns at an audience he would symbolically menace, carried his parcel to the post office, mailed it to the network of his choice, and then returned to the campus to emblazon his name and image in collective memory.

The NBC News officials who decided to broadcast Cho's hate manifesto profess a plain professional motive - to make him comprehensible, and thereby to enlighten their audience. There is no reason not to take them at their word. Their logic was elementary: Evidence of Cho's depravity fell into their laps. It was a matter of public concern. It would have been wrong to keep private evidence that had been given them as trustees of public information. The viewers had a right to know - what? How depraved the man was? What a depraved man looks and sounds like?

The viewers did, and do, have a right to know that there are monsters in their midst. But didn't we already know the monster by his monstrous works? Weren't the corpses counted already? Weren't the witnesses heard from? Now that we've seen the pictures, what do they reveal that is so illuminating as to counterbalance the fact that the killer, thanks to his killing, got to commandeer the national screen?

In 2002, the American media, given the video of Danny Pearl's beheading, decided to forbear and not air it. "News value" was outweighed by a countervailing moral commitment. Taste prevailed, along with respect for the family, and a desire, perhaps, not to encourage any imitators, not to grant victory to the murderer.

This time around, NBC yielded. The killer proved his point - the world could be forced to pay attention. Killers-in-waiting may not take notice - this time. Or they may.