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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Suicide Shooters

Culture, Culture Culture & Society, Race

Well, this takes care of hearing about Imus all the time, doesn't it?

Nothing will point to how staged and formulaic the responses to Don Imus' "nappy headed ho" comment were last week than now with the news that a shooter murdered at the time of this writing 33 people at Virginia Tech yesterday morning—the deadliest shooting in American history to take place.

We deliberated over the nature of the "hurt" involved in what Imus said. We studiously stepped around the fact that impoliteness is a human universal. Pretending that talented young women cannot be expected to let impoliteness roll off of them, especially some shock jock's dumb remark, is treating them as lesser beings. We treated it as "complex" that most of the women themselves likely get a kick out of Kanye West's latest CD in which women are repeatedly discussed in disparaging terms—terms of the kind that have trickled down to Imus to season his remarks. We have been through a week�s worth of performances from reverends, corporations, and the press. Back to reality.

What happened at Virginia Tech was, like the Imus play last week—copycatting.

We should be skeptical at the wisdom we will hear for the rest of this week that the Virginia Tech episode is a symptom of the violence at the heart of American society. Yes, there was the old West. Yes, murder rates are rising in many American cities. Yes, it's easy to get a gun.

America was a violent place long before the Columbine high school shootings in 1999. Yet, only after that, has there been a regular spate of reruns of that episode, albeit never as horrific as this one.

Just as claiming massive insult is not the only human response one can imagine to a radio host's slam, shooting up one's school is a rather fantastical-seeming response to depression, ostracism, rejection, or other factors that turn up as triggers for this kind of behavior. It has become so common lately simply because disaffected young men have seen that it was done in Columbine, and this plants a seed.

In this copycatting behavior, these shooters actually shed light on suicide bombers in the Middle East. These persons� behavior can seem so counterintuitive to us that it seems to stretch the boundaries of being human, inspiring book-length examinations of what could be going on in their heads. Yet the guys shooting up cafeterias here in America and then killing themselves are nothing less than suicide shooters.

The suicide shooter would be unlikely, however, if he did not know that his act would be broadcast worldwide. The reason no one did this in 1920 was because news didn't travel as quickly and photographic technology was less advanced. The suicide shooter, like the suicide bomber, is performing for the vast audience that is the modern press.

There will always be persons among us who are born as performers, given to viewing themselves in the third person and indulging in the grand gesture. No society is without them. Unfortunately, there will also always be persons who happen to combine that trait with maladjustment.

The downside of being an advanced society knit together by a mass press is that there will always be persons of this kind who opt to act out their despair in a fashion designed to play to the nation, or the world, at large. The alternative would be if humans still lived as tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, where all members are intimately linked in a quest for survival and there is neither room nor motivation for existential angst.

Take, for example, the Piraha in the Amazon, the subject of an article in last week's New Yorker. The linguist who has investigated them told me last week that there is no such thing as depression among the Piraha—they're too busy staying alive. While their life expectancy is somewhere around 40, and they are thoroughly sexist by our, they likely would find Don Imus' comment pretty funny if it were translated for them.

I'm sure most of us would rather be us. But that means that we will always have to put up with people given to leaping up onto the public stage now and then to strut and preen. Sometimes, like all the wise heads last week, they will fashion aggrievement over something somebody said on the radio. But then there are will be others who get up there with a gun.

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun