Virginia Tech and Our Impoverished Language for Evil

Gregg Easterbrook
Gregg Easterbrook Contributing Editor, The Atlantic, Visiting Fellow (2000-08), Brookings Institution, Author, Arrow of History (forthcoming, 2018)

April 30, 2007

Katie Couric: “Just who was the shooter?” Charles Gibson: “Tonight–the survivors, their stories; the shooter, his background.” Matt Lauer: “We’ve now got an identity of the shooter.” Wolf Blitzer: “That is the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui.”

Learning that there had been a mass killing at Virginia Tech, many in the press began to speak of the “shooter” who had brought horror to the campus: A shooter was loose, a shooter did this, a shooter did that. On ABC, CBS, and NBC news broadcasts in the 72 hours after the tragedy, the word “shooter” was heard roughly three times as often as “killer” or “murderer.”

The fact that murder had happened at Virginia Tech was clear within hours, if not minutes, of initial reports. Yet plenty of media figures could not bring themselves to say that the killer was a killer, that the murderer was a murderer. Instead, they used “shooter,” a weirdly neutral term that practically sounds like a skilled trade. To call someone a “shooter” is to say he was holding a firearm that discharged, but to imply nothing about any moral choice involved or the fact that it’s bad to aim a pistol at a helpless person and pull the trigger. Same goes for the word “gunman,” also used frequently by journalists and pundits.

There are times when neutral words like “shooter” and “gunman” are justified. In police investigations and legal proceedings that involve the determination of guilt or innocence, dispassionate terms should be used. In news reports about accusations that have not yet gone to trial, cautious phrasing is wise. But there was no possibility that the Virginia Tech deaths were caused by legitimate use of force, mistaken identity, self-defense, or some dreadful accident; the only possible explanation was mass homicide. To call Cho a “murderer” would have been a simple statement of fact. Yet, according to a Nexis search of major U.S. newspapers and wire stories, in the three days following the massacre, 2,516 stories contained the terms “shooter” or “gunman,” while just 746 used “murderer” or “killer.” And, a full week after the calamity, many news outlets—including CNN, msnbc, and Fox News—were still referring to Cho as a “shooter.”

Similarly odd was the frequent use of the phrase “shooting spree” to describe the Blacksburg horror. A spree is a gay, carefree outing. Those who say “shooting spree” make it sound as if killing at random is therapeutic, even recreational: He felt depressed, so he went on a shooting spree. The only term that fits what Cho did is “rampage,” and a few reports used this word. But a disturbing number opted for “spree.”

Commentators even tiptoed away from using the term “madman” to describe Cho. We don’t need to be psychiatrists or even be aware of the demented materials he mailed to NBC News to determine that the Virginia Tech murderer was mentally ill. There simply are no circumstances under which a person of sound mind would slaughter 32 unarmed innocents. (Whether he was legally insane—unable to distinguish right from wrong—is a separate question. Most who suffer mental illness remain sane. Cho’s suicide sug- gests he was sane; presumably, he killed himself to escape punishment for his crimes.) Yet, even as Cho’s crazed messages and psychological-health profile have been revealed, news reports have treated the murderer’s history gently. In one story, the worst The New York Times could bring itself to say was that the killer suffered a “troubled mental state” and “imbalance.” Had the Times called Cho a “madman,” the paper would have been criticized—for using a judgmental term about a mass murderer!

But we should be judgmental about murderers and others who commit moral horrors. Of course, one explanation for the popularity of terms like “shooter” may simply be that, with the proliferation of TV crime dramas, cop slang like “shooter” and “perp” has seeped into everyday language and hence into public discourse. But the larger, more troubling explanation has to do with morality. The Western press and intellectual realms were scoffing at the concept of evil long before George W. Bush cheapened the word through constant bandying. Media and thought leaders don’t want to say that the man who chained the exit doors of Norris Hall before he started killing had a mind taken over by evil; they want to dismiss him as no more than a confused gunman, because they don’t want to contemplate his demonstration that evil is entirely real. And so they use words like “shooter” that remove the moral dimension, making it seem like terrible events just happen—not that human wickedness causes terrible events. Many news reports spoke of the slaughter as if it had been a bad, bad car crash with no one really at fault.

That Cho became evil is distinct from whether society failed him at earlier points; you can sympathize with his earlier self and agree that someone suffering his condition deserved better care. But set aside whether evil results from psychosis—or from supernatural temptation, genetic flaws, free-will choice, trauma, poverty, wealth, or ideology: Evil exists and must be spoken of as evil, not in euphemism. On a windy Monday morning in Virginia, evil armed itself and performed the most despicable of acts: pleasure in the taking of innocent life. Evil will arm itself again. As George Orwell showed, unless we call a thing what it is, we can neither think about it clearly nor oppose it.