False symmetry »« Reacting to other people’s tragedies

The Virginia Tech tragedy

What was your reaction when you first heard the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech? When someone in my office told me around noon on Monday that about twenty people had been shot dead on that campus, my first reaction was that this was probably another case of someone snapping under the pressure of something or other and setting off on a killing spree.

One thing that did not occur to me, despite the fear-mongering that has gone on under the guise of the so-called ‘war on terror’, was the possibility that this was a terrorist attack. After all, these kinds of killings happen periodically in America, though admittedly this was on a larger scale than usual. Although I checked the internet for news, I have long realized that you should never take seriously the initial news reports that emerge from such chaotic and fast-moving situations.

The first news that emerges almost always depend on reports, often second or third hand, originating from people having a slight connection with the incident, perhaps because of being nearby. But eyewitness reports given by most people in situations like this are notoriously unreliable. People often confuse what they actually observed with what they inferred, they re-order events, they confuse identities. Most of this is because they are not dispassionate observers, clinically taking notes. Instead they are trying to make sense of the events as they rapidly occur so that they can take action, often defensive action.

So I have found that it is usually after a few days, when the dust has settled and people have managed to get enough information from diverse sources, that reliable news about even the most basic aspects (how many people died, how many were injured, when and where the events occurred) can be gleaned. So I reserve judgment until that time.

Oddly enough, as even more time goes by, the story gets distorted again. This is because after awhile, an ‘official’ narrative starts to get constructed. People like to have a nice story line that fits a pattern and this official narrative begins to be constructed that tries to explain everything neatly. This is rarely an act of deliberate dishonesty. It can arise naturally, often out of good motives. The authorities want to get back a sense of normalcy, so they have a vested interested in acting as if everything is over and known. People want to get back to their lives and they can do that if they think there is nothing more to be learned. All these things conspire to pressure everyone to suppress discrepant data and discordant explanations and to produce an ‘official’ history of the events that then becomes ‘fact’.

So my view is that it is in a small window of time after the events, not immediately during or after, and not too long afterwards, that we get the most accurate picture of what really happened, with all its seeming contradictions and loose ends. This is why historians go back to the contemporary records of events they are investigating, to primary sources, and are often surprised that the actual history of some event is often much more complicated than the official version that was subsequently passed on.

So not jumping to conclusions and waiting for a few days to draw conclusions has always seemed to me to be a wise move. But clearly not everyone agrees with that approach. Some people, on first hearing the Virginia Tech news, immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a terrorist attack by Muslims and then tried to fit all the details that emerged into that pre-determined narrative structure.

One of these people was someone called Debbie Schlussel, a Third-Tier Pundit. Her immediate suspicion was that the killer was a Muslim and that this was a terrorist attack. Her suspicions were fuelled by initial reports that the killer was Asian. She immediately looked around for likely Asian Muslims, although no data was available to support her speculations. She wrote: “The Virginia Tech campus has a very large Muslim community, many of which are from Pakistan” and added “Pakis are considered “Asian.” ” (She seems not to realize that while ‘Pakistanis’ is an acceptable description of people of that nation, and ‘Paks’ is also sometimes used, especially to describe their sports teams, the word ‘Paki’ is considered a racial slur, especially in England. When someone pointed this out in the comments she reacted angrily and defensively)

She went on obsessing about the possibility that the shooter was a Muslim: “So who is the shooter? What is the shooter’s nationality? What is the shooter’s religion? Waiting to find out. And wondering why the police and media are referring to the shooter as “Asian” and not by specific nationality.. . Why am I speculating that the “Asian” gunman is a Pakistani Muslim? Because law enforcement and the media strangely won’t tell us more specifically who the gunman is. Why?”

She seems to have this bizarre idea that there is a vast conspiracy by the authorities to hide the killer’s Muslim identity under the broad umbrella label of Asian, and she tries to enlist other Asians to her cause by appealing to a bogus sense of grievance: “If I were Asian, I’d be legitimately upset with this broad generalization of the mass murderer’s identity.” I am not sure why any Asian should be upset at this. If someone saw me on the street, they would not know if I was Indian or Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi or Pakistani. If you don’t know for sure, ‘Asian’ seems a much better description, though still having the potential to be wrong.

Perhaps suspecting that at this point she may be have gone too far, Schlussel tries to hedge her bets. “Even if it does not turn out that the shooter is Muslim, this is a demonstration to Muslim jihadists all over that it is extremely easy to shoot and kill multiple American college students.” Really? She thinks that people don’t know that college campuses in the US are open places where people wander around freely?

But then news emerged that the shooter was “Chinese,” thus destroying her Muslim theory, so she jumps to another conclusion, to tackle another pet project which is exploiting xenophobic anti-immigrant feelings. “The shooter has now been identified as a Chinese national here on a student visa. Lovely. Yet another reason to stop letting in so many foreign students.” Of course, that also turned out to be wrong. The student was from South Korea and had been here from the time he was eight, and did not need or have a student visa because he was a permanent resident.

So then what to do? One of her commenters tries to salvage her Muslim phobia by suggesting that the shooter might be a Chinese Muslim, helpfully providing a Wikipedia link to show the existence of such people. (When I read the angry tone and language of the comments on her blog and her responses to them, and compare them with the kinds of thoughtful and sophisticated discussions that go on here, it is like night and day.) Schlussel still tries to find a Muslim connection by referring to some other incident that happened elsewhere last year and adds darkly: “And remember: Just because this attacker was not Muslim, doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of potential and hopeful ones among the thousands Muslim nations are sending here to “study” under Saudi King Abdullah’s scholarships.”

But meanwhile she is also hints that such a mass killing had to have greater planning and done by more than a lone lunatic, and also pushes other pet projects such as this atrocity proving the need to allow everyone to carry guns, and decrying the wimpiness of current American students who should have rushed and overpowered the gunman instead of hiding or running.

Then she struck pay dirt. A report came in that the student had the words “Ismail Ax” written on his arm! Ismail! A Muslim name! The smoking gun at last! This news has set off another furious round of feverish speculation in the blog world that the killer might secretly have been a Muslim. I find it curious that all these people seem to want a terrorist attack by Muslims to occur in the US. Why is this?

Was the shooter a Muslim? Who knows? That information will eventually come out. And if so, what of it? Maybe he was just a fan of Moby Dick. Maybe “Ismail Ax” was some literary creation of his highly disturbed psyche. We know he was an English major who had strange creative impulses.

I am spending so much space on a fairly obscure person’s rantings because it provides a useful case study to indicate what can happen when you jump to conclusions right at the beginning of fast moving events and then try fit everything to meet that conclusion.

We all have some kind of immediate reaction to any event but the sensible thing, it seems to me, is to realize that our initial guess could be way off and wait until we have at least some reliable data before shooting off at the mouth. Otherwise you end up looking like an idiot. As Sherlock Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Keith Olbermann takes to task the people who said the most idiotic and insensitive things about the Virginia Tech tragedy. Schlussel merely gets the bronze medal, which gives you an indication of how bad the others must be.

POST SCRIPT: New episode of Mr. Deity

Mr. Deity is the hilarious set of short films that feature God (Mr. Deity), his occasional girl friend Lucy (Lucifer), his assistant Larry (who seems to have a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship with Mr. Deity), and Jesus.

Episode #9 is now available, where Mr. Deity is annoyed with having his name publicized as creator of the Bible.

The full set of clips can be seen here.


  1. Jeffrey Quick says

    My initial reaction? Not much. But then, I’m the guy who was saying at 8:45 on 9/11 “Plane crashed into a building? Somebody needed better pilot training.” As surrounded as we are by tragedy, I usually need an extra whap with the clue-by-four.

    I had no idea Schlussel was the origin of the Cho-as-Muslim meme, though I should have figured. You do her way too much honor by calling her a “Third-tier pundit”. She’s a 4th-tier pundit writing for a 5th-tier paper in a 6th-tier city. (I’m from Michigan, so I get to say that.) She’s an active embarrassment to conservatives everywhere.

  2. says


    My first reaction was that it was a disgruntled American student. This is probably because it normally is (not that this happens everyday). I think I was justified in this as well. Muslim terrorist? Why on earth would she think this-it just isn’t their MO. Now if a plane had been highjacked or if a suicide bomber had been involved or if hostages had been taken, then I could have understood it (although you could still be wrong). The schema we create to make sense of the world are often based upon a reasonable rationale. If a cross is found burning in a black neighborhood our first reaction is an ultra-right, white, self-professing Christians from the south. I think this reaction is justified especially in the area of law enforcement when you have little else to go on but you are right that you have to be open to the possibility that you are wrong. Looking at it through the eyes of law enforcement changes it a bit. I mean, my initial response as some middle aged joe whose biggest concern is what I am going to have for lunch today is inconsequential in comparison.

    Your Holmes reference was a good one although I think it is just common human nature to have an initial response and to form a theory almost right away. It is just that for most of us the response and theory are extremely tentative.


  3. says

    Initially I was confused about the time separation between the morning dorm shooting and the later classroom shooting. Though I assumed they were connected I wondered if this was just one person or if there were more involved.

    That said, I assumed that the one or more involved were Americans, some person or persons who had crossed that line between being troubled and acting on his/her impulses. It never occurred to me to blame some outside force, because these types of incidents seem always to involve a member of the local community.

    Cho Seung Hui turned out to be just that, a troubled American student who, hindsight shows us, was clearly in need of help. The fact that he was born elsewhere doesn’t change this. He is still one of our own.

    I find it disturbing that pundits such as Schlussel so often look for some outside explanation, blaming “them” because it can’t be one of “us.” Or if it is one of “us” then it is one who was influenced by “them.” I don’t find this at all useful, though I suppose it is a result of our species’ inclination towards tribalism that you have discussed in previous posts.

    Rather than placing blame, as the Schlussels of the world like to do, I’d rather know how we as a society can identify and help the Cho Seung Hui’s, Biswanath Halder’s and Dylan Klebolds of the world before they cross that line from wierd/troubled to angry and dangerous.

    On a related note, while the world is united in sympathy for everyone at Viriginia Tech, I also feel for Cho Seung Hui’s family. I’ve not heard much about them, but they must be feeling incredible pain and confusion.

  4. Mary says


    I think jumping to conclusions too quickly is a response based on fear. It’s another example of being uncomfortable with “not knowing”.

    My first thoughts were with Cho Seung. Similar to the Columbine killings, my thoughts focused more on Dylan and Eric. I think of them as messengers, spokesman for how dysfunctional our society as a whole is. This dysfunction rumbles just beneath the surface, and we are all a part of it.

    Yet unfortunately, then like now, we never heed the warnings. We label these individuals as lunatics or evil-doers, and don’t try to understand at all. We do the same on the global stage, with the Bin Ladens and Ahmadinejads of the world, we dismiss them as evil, while patting ourselves on the back for being so honorable.
    We go from one tragedy to the next, refusing to look at any of them too closely. It keeps us from being aware of what we all know deep down, that there is no “us and them” – there’s just “us”.

  5. catherine says

    Mano, my first response was the same as it always is in such a situation, before the shooter’s identity has been announced: “Please, whatever gods there may be, don’t let him be black or any other non-white.” Because of course most Americans can’t deal with a crime committed by an individual – as an individual – unless it’s committed by a white. But I never thought for a second that it was a terrorist attack, because this kind of event – college massacre – is specifically a mostly American phenomenon (yes there have been others – Montreal, Scotland, etc., but the vast majority take place in the U.S.)

    I don’t know anything about the uninformed Ms. Schlussel, and hope your brain has recovered from the assault it underwent while you were on her blog.

    Heidi, I agree, I wonder about the Hui family. Given the media’s ability to track anybody down, I sincerely hope they have closed their dry cleaning business and gone into temporary hiding. Those poor people, the Huis, their son, and all his victims.

    The media as usual are pumped up beyong belief. Even if you don’t watch the cable stations, you can’t help seeing the ads for upcoming programs as you flip around the dial (how do they get these hour-long shows together so fast?)

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