html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: A kind distance.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A kind distance.

You don't have to, you know. You can choose not to look. They are people in a horrible situation, and you are sorry it happened. But you do not know them. You can't unmake the situation. You can't make it better by feeling bad about it. If you were going to do something useful, like offer comfort that will reach someone involved or promote policies and involvement that would unknit the rage before it reaches a killing point, then it might be worth learning what happened in detail.

If this is, in fact, a story that is relevant to you, it will come find you. You will get a call with bad news, and then there is every reason for you to find out what and why. But it is very likely that this is not a story that is relevant to you. It is likely that you are following this story for an emotional charge, to watch other people feel things very strongly and feel an echo of that yourself. Why? Why feed off other people's tragedy? Do you have nothing more vivid of your own?

There is some national communal grief to share, that a violent and senseless thing happened. We are sorry, so sorry that it happened, that we didn't know it was going to happen so that we could stop it with all of our wishes. But all you need to know to feel that grief is the headline. The headline itself tells us it was horrible. The rest is for the people who were involved to suffer, and us to wish them solace. You don't need details to wish them peace in this time.

If you are following closely, learning the names and details and watching every moment, I ask you whether you intend to use that for more than emotional voyeurism. Because of this, will you work closely with young men whose lives drive them into rages they cannot ease? You will be a Big Brother now, with this as your motivation? You will sit on a safety committee at the local university, where they spend long evenings planning evacuation routes and doing cost-benefit analyses of retrofitting windows for escape? You will lobby your city council person to include a larger budget for psychiatric help in high schools?

There is hard and honest work that could be done in response to this. Maybe reading about this killing is what you need to get involved. If you will do nothing useful with your fascination and awful thrill, avert your eyes from their grief. Offer them privacy in this agonizing time. Look to see if there is a genuine way to help them; I suspect if there were a role for you, you would already know it. Think on what harm is likely to effect you and yours, and use this reminder that terrible things happen to prevent that harm. At the same time, do not dwell on this, which is so dramatic that it will up-end perspectives on risk and violence and cause us to make emotional and extreme decisions about what to do. Hug your children tightly.

If, in a week from now, you will not still be feeling this with any intensity, do not join in the national wallow now. Look away from the screen; read the headline and the first three paragraphs tomorrow. It is very likely that today, this had nothing to do with you. Since it didn't, you can be thankful you were spared. You can contemplate how awful it must have been. You can take action to prevent another one. You can be sad that yet another terrible thing has happened in our world. You do not need to revel in the details and the faces to do those things.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. It's easy to feel almost guilty for not tormenting yourself with the details. As though you feeling as much pain as you can would lessen it for others...

5:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You blogged about it.

I didn't.

6:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make a good point, though I (respectfully, of course) disagree that there is something voyeuristic about seeking details. For most people, at least. Simple human curiosity is a very strong urge in cases such as this one. We want to learn the details because that just seems like the "normal" thing to do. It doesn't necessarily mean that we're taking an unhealthy amount of interest in the tragedy.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective, thanks for sharing it. Is this part of your plan to keep yourself from being afraid at night? I remember you blogging about that before.

As someone who wants to be a criminal trial attorney, I almost feel the opposite. I feel that I need to get used to seeing details so that they don't shock me. I should be able to keep an emotional distance better that way. (I mean this more generally than just the VA incident).

7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People process things differently. For some people, turning away from the coverage can make it harder for them to get the thing out of their head in the long run.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Megan on this one. I shut down my browsers as soon as I started to feel that my interest was becoming unseemly.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


I think it is a very human curiosity to want to know the details, but that doesn't mean that it is healthy for the distant viewer or useful for the participants. I'm suggesting that people set their boundaries at an intake level that is healthy for them.


I think I have a fairly consistent view that life is long and sorrow will come to everyone at some point, so why go looking for grief that isn't looking for you. I'd say this is another manifestation of that, mixed in with some notion of privacy.


Of course. It is up to each of us to understand what why we're following along closely.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I have given up consuming "news" in any form. It is decidedly unnatural to have all the happenings in the wide world passed through a filter that only allows tragedy, farce, and freak occurances to pass through.

I don't want any part of it.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Sheila Tone said...

Megan, as a former reporter I have to take issue with these accusations regarding people's motives for caring about what happens to other people. :)

I respect your right to focus only on what interests you. But if everyone did it your way, there'd be hardly any need for reporters, or media, at all. No investigation, no breaking news, no public officials scrambling to do things right due to public accountability in the national spotlight. No sunshine.

I don't look because I'm a bloodthirsty gawker. I look because I think it's my duty to know the truth. Especially when it's ugly and horrible.

10:33 PM  
Blogger billoo said...

Great post (again). I wonder, though, if you think you get an "emotional charge" by telling people what is an appropriate way to feel?

I saw the press conference (briefly) and was sickened by it.
Sorry to disagree with you Spungen, but I think there is something twisted in the media's and our fascination for detail and for breaking news and I don't think it is *all* natural but , rather, constructed, accentuated to keep people dazed by the 'spectacle'.

People asking all sorts of stupid questions...did the school have a policy, will they change it, was he related to the girl whow as shot, and so on. Surely there's a time and place for such questions. In the immediate aftermath of such events-as with 9/11-I, personally, think a few moments of quiet reflection or a prayer would be better than the undignified and ridiculous speculation induced by the media. But that's just my tuppence worth.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Couldn't have put it any better myself. My fear is that all this will lead to another round of metal detectors, "zero tolerance" policies, and other intrusions into students' privacy and dignity in America's schools, now only including the college level.

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think it's interesting that most of the comments here are missing the whole, if you are going to watch then take *action* part.

Reporters make the information available for those that choose to consume it, presumably if people merely got the gist and moved on rather than wallowing there would still be a market for news, it just might be more focused on how people could make a contribution rather than if it bleeds it leads. Is the job of a journalist really to convince us how bad life is? or how depraved humanity can be? with a sappy human interest story to make up for it at the very end?

7:44 AM  
Blogger bobvis said...

I am not terrifically interested in the details of this tragedy. However, I was voraciouly consuming information about the Columbia break-up. I don't know if that was wrong because I don't know why exactly I did it.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not interested in the names and the faces and the pictures so much as the stories and interrelationships. Information about the shooter and the victims and decisionmakers can help make sense of the situation - I want to know the why not the who, and the broader-how. Knowing what happened helps one understand the problems that led to the event and how it was managed.

In your post, you presuppose that you know what steps can help prevent something like this again: working with young men, joining safety committees, etc. Are you sure those are the right steps to take? Maybe knowing a little more about the situation will help you become more informed and better decide how you can improve your community in the future.

There is a lot of grief, those involved directly do need some privacy (note most names have not been released yet), but there is still a very public community nature to the event and I think it is important that we can all understand and digest what happened.

With all the preoccupation with celebrity lives in the media (which I think is ugly voyeuristic entertainment), I think this is in fact an example of the sort of event that does merit our keen interest and investigation.


8:59 AM  
Blogger Megan said...


Unless you're saying that newspapers must cover these events thoroughly in order to support their coverage of local and political stories (which is plausible, perhaps the readership for this stuff is what supports their other departments), I don't think that sunshine and accountability are at stake. You don't have to pursue every aspect of terrible emotive tragedies to do good work on other stuff.

I look because I think it's my duty to know the truth. Especially when it's ugly and horrible.

But, see. I know that some truths are ugly and horrible. I've read the Holocaust literature. I've gone to the Innocence Project website. I know people who've lost their children. I know this was horrible. I don't have to look at crying parents and look at the students' facebook pages to know what we lost.


I want to challenge you a little on that.

I want to know the why not the who, and the broader-how. Knowing what happened helps one understand the problems that led to the event and how it was managed.

I think this is in fact an example of the sort of event that does merit our keen interest and investigation.

Why? Why do you want to know? What will you do with your improved knowledge? Are you a college administrator who can change something? Is your child in college, and you want to train him to look for danger signs? Do you have some reason to know this? Will you do something in response to this, or will you have a refined opinion that you never exercise?

And if you do have an interest in this that will last longer than a week, what will you get out of watching the initial news that you couldn't get out of reading the university's final report on this issue in six months? They will do serious work on how and why and what responses to adopt. Will you (the broader you, not A828 you) read that?

I guess I don't understand how you justify the middle ground, where you watch enough to feel really bad, but remain a spectator.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

I agree that it's rubbernecking at a car wreck. This one was a comparatively easy call for me; my interest felt like voyeurism.

The question gets deeper for me with the news from the middle east (Iraq and the calls for war against Iran). Our political system is carrying this out on an ongoing basis, and doing it in my name. The factual truth is that there is little I can do to affect it, beyond letters to Congress. But I follow it obsessively and it drives me nuts.

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with your general point that morbid fascination with societal tragedy is unproductive in the best case scenario, and toxic in the worst. However, the same can be said for a lot of things -- being stuck on a crush for too long, being bitter about perceived failures, etc. At this point in my life, I am okay with not making every facet of my humanity an opportunity to better myself and the world.

My entirely too personal question is: is it an active struggle for you to turn away from the news? Because what you are proposing that I do -- NOT read for the details, NOT learn about the crime, NOT empathize entirely too much with the victims -- is hard. I know that I shouldn't wallow, but I can't help myself. Not on this day, anyway.

My boyfriend, by the way, is the opposite of me (and perhaps, closer to you). Whenever there is some national tragedy and I want to talk about it at any length, he actually gets very frustrated with me. His arguments are much the same as yours -- it's unproductive to be too close to the situation, what's the point of wallowing, etc etc. But I believe at the heart of the matter is this: Alex simply doesn't face the same compulsion that I do to get all the details. He just doesn't have that curiosity. And that's why it baffles him when I, along with many others in society, voluntarily close that "kind distance".

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Megan, I've recently come across your journal and am unsure about the rules of posting, but I reacted to this entry.

I understand your points and may only be reacting because I'm guilty of what you discourage. But something instinctual keeps me from thinking it's entirely wrong--maybe the same instinct that makes me want to know about these people, but I question whether that instinct is a bad one.

It's one thing to grieve about a group of people, and an incident, a state of a country ("another terrible thing"). It's another to avoid the dehumanization that the onslaught of these things, day in and day out, produce, by looking at the individuals. As a recent college student, it was hard not to see myself and people I know in the victims, and to get a sense of the randomness. The awareness that it could be anyone, coupled with the knowledge that it was in fact THESE people, touches on something deeper than just sadness over lives lost.

You're right that most people won't actively do anything to prevent this, after wallowing in the emotion of it. People pick and choose their causes, some are already devoted to ones that consume their lives. The small ways in which a person can be good, and indirectly counteract such hate and hurt, are things a person probably would continue to do, whether or not he indulged in the details of this incident.

But is it so bad to take a moment to actively practice empathy, even if it doesn't lead to a concrete action? Empathy, unlike sympathy which can be had through the headlines and practices you mention, requires understanding of a person's situation. To know what students physically and emotionally felt at the time, what their lives were like before and after, to know their names so that they become people and not numbers--I think it might be a good thing that people want to imagine these.

I don't know you, but I might guess that you come from a standpoint where you already actively practice empathy on a regular basis. This might make it harder to see that this isn't the case for some people, locked in the daily grind. That it does take a tragedy for that natural urge to empathize, buried under obligations and self-absorption, to resurface. And while this moment may not lead to something like becoming a big brother, I feel it is significant still. I optimistically feel that empathy, as possibly self-serving and indirect as it is, contributes to something larger and more important.

Thanks for writing and making us think about it. Your entry forced me to think about how to take these moments further. -Kim

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't have (by what you send as examples) any concrete reason to know the information, no. But there are many, many, many things I don't have such reasons to know but still find interesting, socially and intellectually. Is there some sort of sensationalism coming into play with my desire to know about this, now? Of course there is. But I am also interested in how it happened and why as a way of thinking about our world.

If I have to actively exercise all of my refined opinions, I should really stop reading much of the paper and for sure should be glad my New Yorker subscription ran out, since those many articles often get me thinking about things I wouldn't normally think about - occasionally to the point of getting a somewhat refined opinion. Looking at all that information, discussing it, hashing through different theories of why things happen and how we respond helps me understand the world I live in, whether my personal pocket of it is affected all the time or not.

I can't say I'm watching all the initial news, but I read the newspaper online, and I listen to the radio in the morning. I don't think I'll be buying any glossies or special editions just on this subject. And I'll be glad to hear (probably again through general news) what the final evaulations say when they come out in the future.

I think you can't help but walk the middle groud - people do it not just with this, but for so many issues. The list of issues I'm deeply concerned about, that I read about with interest, and that I do not take action on is long. The list of actions I do take, ways I change my behavior and seek to influence that of others, is also long.

What is the justification for taking the low-ground - where you don't watch any of it and don't take any action?

Or maybe we're just not connecting on the fact that I'm not "following closely, learning the names and details and watching every moment" - just reading the news, and trying to learn the basics (other than the sensational headline). - A828

11:43 AM  
Blogger Andrew Kujan said...

I am directing all my friend to this post, as it is the best written on this subject to date. Thanks.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


Yeah, it is an active struggle for me to turn away from the news, especially if I get a taste of it. Salon is showing a picture of the shooter on its front page. Oh, that little boy, who looks like so many little boys I've known. If I started on that, I would read and read and read. I can only stay by not starting.


You wrote a beautiful comment. My rule is kind thoughtfulness, and what you wrote is a great example.

If watching this in detail contributes to more empathy and connection, than that is a good place to start.

Of course there is some reason to know about things humans do, and of course you should have a wide curiosity, and if you are keeping up with your New Yorker subscription, you are a better woman than I am.

The low-ground, disinterest in anything beyond self-interest and no action, is no more respectable than voyeurism. The extremes are easy to condemn, and I'm sure we both would.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Sheila Tone said...

But, see. I know that some truths are ugly and horrible. I've read the Holocaust literature. I've gone to the Innocence Project website. I know people who've lost their children. I know this was horrible. I don't have to look at crying parents and look at the students' facebook pages to know what we lost.

OK, now I see. You're disputing the validity of the focus on the victims. Correct? That's different. You're not disputing the worthiness of people's interest in logistics, proper responses by law enforcement, and the psychology and motivation of the shooter. That's all useful information. Maybe I can't earmark a specific way it will be useful to me in the immediate future, but it's the sort of information that aids in my understanding of how things work and why people do what they do.

I thought about this a lot when I was a reporter. Any time someone was killed (unless they were a killer themselves), it was standard to give their family and friends a chance in the paper to talk about how great they were and what they did in life. Not really an objective news story; sort of a news obit. Deep down, sometimes I'd think about how just because something bad happened to someone doesn't necessarily make them a saint. People who beat their kids get shot in holdups, too.

But in the end I agreed it was the right thing to do. It's partly done to support the friends and families of the victims. We don't always know who in our audience that is. But support isn't normally the role of an objective news vehicle. No, it's right because it humanizes the tragedy. There are faces behind these events. It's part of being in the human family. No one is supposed to be murdered, and when they are, we have to care, just because they're human.

As a reader, I'm actually not that interested in Facebook pictures and family remembrances. But as a reporter I'd be all over it. It's obligatory to give the victim that voice.

3:35 PM  
Blogger CharleyCarp said...

One need not wallow, to be sure. But to simply act as if the people affected by the thing are total strangers, and can/should be ignored, is just as wrong. Even you, Megan, are at less than 4 degrees of separation from the actual individuals here (I'd bet -- counting somewhat liberally, I'll grant, by including internical friends) and less distant from the roles people were playing as the thing played out.

I'm not quite saying that 'any man's death diminishes me' but if one allows oneself to see the commonalities, and understand just how close we are to these things, I think maybe empathy goes up, and stupid political posturing goes down. (Not saying you're engaged in the latter -- other people willing to look away from the actual human beings in the tragedy are, though).

4:14 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hey CharleyCarp:

My sister sent me much the same thoughts:

hi meggie
i see what you're saying. but also i think what if the other extreme happened, and that story only made it on the local news and didn't get front-page coverage by every paper in the country. i think that would make the people who were affected by it feel worse, like nobody cares (not the folks directly affected, because they're probably beyond caring for a long while). so i think the story HAS to be on the cover, and people HAVE to buy copies, because it lets those people know that their countrymen care about them. i don't know, you can't let that stuff go unnoticed.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

Come on, this from the same person who thinks it's society's place to stick it's nose into everyone's business anytime anything bad happens. You think it's ok to ban anything you find too risky or dangerous. And, now you're telling us you base all of that just off the headlines? Without even knowing details?

This whole story is stupid, 32 people died. Put it into perspective, that's 1/10,000,000th of the population of the US. The hysterics are ridiculous. Some of the students are questioning whether or not they want to continue going to school at VT? Seriously, grow up.

Anyway, why watch? Because we all know these hysterics are leading to rash decisions. The same day it happened people were already bring up gun control arguments. And on the other side, people were bring up the immigration debate.

You yourself have said before that it affects you when someone else gets hurt. Of course that's total nonsense. It's none of your business if you don't know these people. But, that's not going to stop anyone from using this to drive their own political agenda.

So, people are going to watch, and they're going to pick up every stupid little detail and then they'll go on and on about how society failed, and how even one death is too many, and how we need to give up all of our freedom in the hope that something like this won't ever happen again.

We'd all be a lot better off if everyone would just admit to themselves that they don't know these people, and they don't care. Sure it's a tragedy, but it's not mine.

And, as far as life being full of suffering and tragedy, I don't buy that nonsense either.

If you live in the US, chances are life is good. You're likely not going hungry, you likely really don't really want for anything. You've got more entertainment options than you know what to do with. Life may not be perfect, but it's certainly not miserable.


8:37 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

And, now you're telling us you base all of that just off the headlines?

C'mon, shug. I explicitly said that basing your work on this information is a good reason to read it in detail. And you've read here for a year. When I talk about the stuff I work on, does it really sound like I'm going off a headline's worth of information?

8:58 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

Ahh, that's not what I'm talking about. I've heard people on here jump to conclusions about mountaineering in winter, and car wrecks with bikes, and smoking, and all manner of other things.

This is all the same issue. People want to make everything their business. For some reason people can't just be content to live their own lives and say, "Oh, that's a horrible thing that happened, I'm glad it doesn't affect me."

The Imus thing isn't really any different than this. A bunch of people who no real stake in the matter flipped.

You wrote at least a couple posts on that one.

It's all the same nonsense. Paying too much attention to things that really aren't your business. Followed by a lot of ridiculous conclusions, and calls for new legislation to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again.


11:15 PM  
Blogger Jens Fiederer said...

You know, Justin, while I am generally in agreement with you on matters of politics, and you are really hot as younger guys go (is that enough affirmative kindness?):

I must say that although this particular incident doesn't much interest me, I am DAMN GLAD I don't have to restrict my meanderings to topics that are actually legitimately my business.

My head would explode.

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We daily hear news of terrible explosions in Iraq killing many. Often US soldiers are killed. None of it has touched quite the same nerve as the VT story in a long time. I think this story is important not for its actual particulars, but that it has particulars Americans can relate to. We see ourselves in these victims, or in their friends and families. The US has waged a war that is no less terrible, but its price is paid by a few; its tragedy feels surreal, perhaps unreal. While there is certainly a voyeuristic component to following these stories, I think more people follow them to legitimately question their own ethics. It's easy to develop ethics in a vaccuum or on a mountain top. It's easy to justify war when it's half a world away. But this story involves people, makes them angry, ellicits their empathy and their sympathy. We take issues, like gun-control and security, and ideas, like non-violence, community, and education, and momentarily question them in the light of something very raw. I think it's a rare moment when someone unrhetorically asks, "How do I feel about that?" I'm not reading this story thinking, I need to be more alert about evacuation routes, but I do read it and feel reminded of all those things in life I take too much for granted, and all the little things I can do each day to build a society that is shocked by such an incident as at VT. -J

5:20 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

I do like to know more about a situation like this than a headline, though. And it's not rubbernecking or emotional thrill-seeking. (I don't follow television news though - it somehow feels icky to me in a way I cannot quite define).

Facts help. They help make sense of what happened (even though it is senseless, I believe it's important to try to create some sort of narrative about it - otherwise it becomes a sort of, "BAD things can happen..." buzz in the back of my head).

And facts help tell someone else's story. I think it is respectful to try to learn about the people involved. Not what they had for breakfast or who they took to the prom - that is just weird. But what they thought when this happened. They deserve a chance to tell us about it. I have been the person that something awful happened to, and there was something in me that did NOT want the world to ignore it and go on. I really wanted to people to realize, "This happened. It was wrong."

Again, though, I am not watching television. Something about that coverage just repels me.

7:49 PM  

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