A dubious record

By James Alan Fox  |  April 18, 2007

LONG BEFORE Guinness published the first book chronicling various world pace-setting achievements in virtually every walk of life and death, Americans have been obsessed with records -- the good, the bad, and the dubious. And, apparently, with Monday's mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech, more than one record was broken.

Even while the local television stations focused their cameras on Boston's famous foot race and lamented that no new time records should be expected given the weather conditions, the 24-hour news networks featured marathon coverage of the "Massacre at Virginia Tech." As usual, the news networks devoted full attention to every possible detail, complete with special on-screen graphics and somber music interlude leading in and out of commercial breaks.

With nearly gleeful enthusiasm, the anchors of the various cable channels tracked the rising death toll in Blacksburg, Va. When the carnage reached 20 dead, reporters proclaimed this a new record for school shootings -- a breaking development embellished by streaming and screaming alerts on the screen.

The Virginia Tech shooting had indeed eclipsed Charles Whitman's infamous 1966 tower-top shooting at the University of Texas, a murderous mark of distinction that had survived for more than four decades despite the bloody episodes at Columbine High School and elsewhere. The TV anchors, talk-show hosts, and various talking heads all seemed to be quite impressed, if not obsessed, with the enormity of the Virginia Tech carnage.

Within hours, as the death toll climbed higher and higher, there was more "breaking news." With over 30 victims dead at two locations on Virginia Tech's campus, the record for the largest mass shooting of any type and at any venue -- previously held by George Hennard for his 1991 massacre at the Luby's Restaurant in Killeen, Texas -- had been shattered.

For the remainder of the day and evening, viewers were told repeatedly and ad nauseam that this had been the biggest, the baddest, the bloodiest, the absolute worst, the most devastating, or whatever other superlatives came to mind.

Notwithstanding the cruel absurdity of treating human suffering as any sort of achievement worthy of measuring in such terms, there is little positive that can be derived by keeping or highlighting such records. But there is one significant negative: records are made to be broken.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Americans, who watched the news and listened to the videotaped sounds of semi automatic gunfire, would have identified with the pain and suffering of the victims, their families, and the entire campus community. However, a few would instead have identified with the power of the perpetrator. Therein lies the danger.

There are Americans who share and perhaps empathize with the frustration and hostility that likely led to Monday's rampage, and some of them may come to see the Virginia Tech gunman as a hero. Imagine a narrative in which the campus shooter is lionized as someone with the guts to take matters -- and guns -- into his own hands and strike back at some perceived injustice. This has happened before; the Columbine killers, after all, have had their admirers. An intense focus on records invites challengers to mimic and even outperform their role models.

Locally, the Boston Herald, a newspaper descended from the old Record American, featured this new American record for mass shootings by setting the number "32" in 4-inch-tall type on the front page yesterday. (For what it's worth, I was a regular contributor to that paper in the past.) The tabloid's simple, striking headline was obviously meant as an attention grabber. But what about this horrible saga does not capture America's fascination with violence and murder? Is it not sensational enough without the gimmicks, the sound effects, the logos, and, most of all, the obsession with the record body count?

We are all painfully aware of the unparalleled enormity of the Virginia Tech massacre. It serves no purpose to focus on "mass murder trivia." Instead, we should focus on what responses may be appropriate based on the fact that seven of the eight largest mass shootings in US history have occurred over the past 25 years -- during which access to high-powered weapons has become far too easy.

James Alan Fox is professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and co-author of "Extreme Killing."