You can say the same things about good books: They make you feel for people you normally don't give a hoot about. Likewise the movies: You see tough guys who just killed somebody weep at the sappy mishap of a fictional character played by an actor. Or you see someone (yourself) look at the photograph of a school friend they haven't thought about in years, and they are flooded with sentiment.
On the other hand, the news pours forth from the real world and no one feels much. Another 500 Iraqis killed. Fifty U.S. soldiers dead. Ten thousand earthquake victims somewhere in the Pacific. Buses full of children plunge off the cliff. Miners trapped in Peru. Landslide destroys medium-city in central Asia. One million people displaced from homes to make room for a dam in China. Iranian nukes being screwed to long-range balistic missiles.
We did feel something about the students killed at Virginia Tech. We felt that they could have been us or our children, and we momentarily felt the chilly creepiness that used to be a component of daily life in the '70s, when serial killers ran loose and there were deadly insurrections in U.S. cities. We felt for the VT victims until the media shifted its focus from the victims to the killer. The nation took to its favorite pastime these days: armchair psychology, forensics, who done it and why. My students, good people, kept the victims in mind when they wrote essays about the massacre, but they were also drawn ineluctably to the killer, just like everyone else.
One student wondered where all the testosterone had gone: Under different circumstances, after a football game say, some of those killed might have been intensely aggressive and jumped their opponents like tigers. Fueled by bourbon, the writer added, thereby introducing a novel mode of self-defense on our campuses: bourbon. Students don't need to carry guns to school, they need to carry bourbon. Just so long as they don't carry both.
There were other opinions, some very sensible, but hardly teeming with feeling, emotion, despondency and other empathic tremors. That will change as soon as somebody writes a song about the tragedy. The odd thing is that we don't much care for facts until they are sentimentalized. Art workers, to the baricades!
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).