Late in the afternoon Monday, a few hours after a 23 year old English major murdered 32 of his fellow Virginia Tech students and faculty, then killed himself, the parents of a girl, also a student but unhurt, passed sentence on the leadership of the university of nearly 25,000. The parents said the president and members of his administration should be fired. They said the dismissal should take place at once. It may be a record for instant analysis.
But, the European press and its opinion leaders were in the hunt for runner up honors. They decided that the villain was Charlton Heston, the aged, ailing actor and former leader of the National Rifle Association.
In fact, as most normal people who haven't appointed themselves opinion makers know, the ghastly and heartbreaking events in Virginia Monday will forever defy comprehension. Even after all the information that can be gathered by investigators, university leaders, prosecutors, and reporters is collected and indexed, we will not be able to say why. Even after the unbearable sequence of that April morning's events has been tolled, we will not be able to say that here is what we must do to keep such a day from dawning again. We will know what happened, but not how it could have happened.
The Virginia Tech murders are epic in our American experience, though common in remote, terror stricken parts of the globe. But, despite the easy certainty of the parents who knew at once and without question who should be punished, an understanding of how such sanguinary mayhem suddenly disfigures a rural university campus, for so long coddled by the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny mountains in western Virginia, will defy most of us. Of course, no matter the magnitude of the event, or the issue, for some there is always an answer, and there's no need to wait to deliver it. Especially among the nattering classes, the opinion makers, the OpEd columnists, the sociologists, the political consultants, the television reporters, the analysis that sums it all up is immediately available. But at what cost?
The cost, according to Michael J. O'Neill, writing in the Nieman Reports, a regular publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, is a "dangerous paradox ... the greatest outpouring of new knowledge in all of human history is undermining the very wisdom it is supposed to serve. Mass information hurled at us by powerful media, twisted into new forms by television and computers is democratizing knowledge the way higher education was democratized after World War II. But it is also diminishing our capacity for the rational analysis and deliberative judgment on which public wisdom depends and on which effective government depends."
The results are conclusions that come too quickly, based upon too little thought, "instant mass emotions, instant mass opinions, and then mass pressures which force policymakers to act without prior thought and against their private best judgment ... The national media are now no longer just observers and messengers but lead actors in government, creating, shaping and often distorting the informational base of decision-making, magnifying as well as reporting the conflicts of power, advocating, nagging and harassing as well as explaining. They are the targets of manipulation by every party to every issue, the objects of guile and deception, the victims of conflicting pressures, witting and unwitting participants in the management of crisis and in the formation of policy, both the collaborators and adversaries of government."
Rather than instant analysis, better a comforting word or two, such as these from Samuel Johnson, written hundreds of years ago: "With regard to the sharpest and most melting sorrow, that which arises from the loss of those whom we have loved with tenderness, it may be observed, that friendship between mortals can be contracted on no other terms than that one must sometime mourn for the other's death: and this grief will always yield to the survivor one consolation proportionate to his affliction; for the pain, whatever it be, that he himself feels, his friend has escaped."