Thursday, April 19, 2007

Horror and empathy

Where there is no imagination there is no horror. -- Sherlock Holmes

More details are emerging from the Virginia Tech horror. It seems that, following earlier complaints and suspicions that he may be suicidal, the killer had voluntarily gone to the Police Department, who referred him to an off-campus psychiatric institution; but he was not determined to be dangerous (though he was mentally ill) and it is not known whether there was follow-up counselling.

He was not the only student on campuses around the world to face problems. The_Girl_From_Ipanema has a heart-warming post about her friend V who was pulled from the brink by the timely intervention of a good doctor. But many students aren't so lucky. Several commit suicide (on top campuses, in the US and in India, it could be one a year; in my six years at graduate school were at least three suicides that I remember, and one thankfully unsuccessful attempt). But somehow a suicide doesn't capture world headlines the way a massacre of 32 others does.

Why are we horrified by Virginia Tech? One reason is that we can relate to the students, imagine their lives, put ourselves in their shoes: many of us have been on US campuses, or know young people who study there. In fact, two of the victims were Indian: one a professor from a very modest rural background, whose parents and brother had never even visited the US in his lifetime and are making their first trip to administer his last rites; and another a young student, like so many others we know, extinguished at the threshold of her life. I wonder whether a massacre in Peru or Poland, countries not much visited by Indian students, would command so much attention. Cenk Uygur (who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers) points out that many Virginia Techs happen in Iraq every day, and we somehow remain unmoved.

So part of our horror comes from how close we feel to the victims. But why aren't we horrified by the number of suicides on campuses? Those victims are people like us, too. According to some estimates, there are about 1,100 suicides on US college campuses every year. That's over 30 times the Virginia Tech toll. I don't know the numbers in India, but I suspect they're pretty high; and they're even higher in our schools -- the papers regularly report children committing suicide as a result of being pressurised by parents or chastised by teachers, or for even more avoidable reasons; but such news is confined to the city pages and does not make national, far less international, headlines. Why don't these things occupy our news-space and our attention?

Is it that we can't relate to the depressed and unstable? If so, why not? Many of us have known depression and almost all of us know people who are depressed.

If we could empathise better with those that need help, would we be able to prevent future massacres like the one at Virginia Tech, as well as some of the thousands of annual suicides that dwarf the Virginia Tech toll?

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic (attributed to Stalin)


Tabula Rasa said...

hey, i made the connection between vt and iraq as well! (here).

in fact, lots of people have. the one thing i haven't seen anyone comment on is the fact that the second-most common image that the msm is choosing to flash is that of cho posing as the taxi driver.

funny to see you go ga ga over someone whose name means war :-D

pleased to meet you
hope you get my name

Rahul Siddharthan said...

funny to see you go ga ga over someone whose name means war :-D

Who's that -- C. Uygur? My Turkish is a bit rusty...

Tabula Rasa said...

cenk - pron 'jangk' = jung in urdu.
uygur of course = denizen of central asia, mainly xinjiang province in northwestern china.