A few weeks ago, a student in the US murdered 32 people before killing himself. Although this event was widely reported, there was little discussion about its most puzzling side-effect -- oddly, the New York Stock Exchange rose in response.
The stock market is a sensitive barometer of the confidence investors have in the US economy. Once it was clear that the killings weren't terrorist-related, the stock market increased by more than 100 points. How can these two factors -- violence and confidence -- go together?
The explanation lies in the inadequacies of public stories. The shooting itself was triggered by a strain between local notions of belonging and those of an alienated young man. On a national level, the US' role as a pioneer is also becoming strained, as it is increasingly associated with Iraq instead of images of entrepreneurs, cowboys and high technology.
US citizens yearn for the old narratives. A homegrown shooting recalls a past era, and investors responded positively to the scenario they understood.
The debates following the massacre have focused on handguns, instead of the deeper problem of national identity. The US character is such that its guns will probably always be legal, in spite of evidence from Australia that suggests that outlawing semi-automatic rifles prevents people from killing each other with them.
Through their preferences, opponents of gun restrictions demonstrate that they are more worried about losing this part of their story than confronting a shotgun in a shopping mall.
The reality is, people live inside their stories every moment, whereas they only enter shopping malls occasionally and without reflection.
The US isn't the only country that builds communities around polarized identities, but it is renowned for its amplifications of them through movies and mass media.
In addition to the usual dislocations that might have been experienced by the Virginia shooter, Cho Seung-hui, his university had a particularly strong culture of kinship.
Virginia Tech is a second-tier research university where sponsorship of the computer and engineering disciplines is often supplemented by military funding. In addition, there is a visible training program at the school, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
The campus is built around a parade field and military uniforms pepper the student population. During a war, this military presence makes a conspicuous statement about "otherness" in an institute of learning.
Religion also bonds this region. In fact, the university is not far from Jerry Falwell's megachurch in nearby Lynchburg.
At a memorial for the tragedy, after US President George W. Bush and the governor of Virginia spoke of this "tight community," they were rewarded with the chants normally associated with sports events. Kinship is not a reason for murder, but it can seed alienation.
Cho had already indicated that he saw no role for himself in the story shared by this community. At the commencement of his British literature class last year, it is said that the students were asked to introduce themselves, but Cho refused to speak. On the roll-call sheet, where others had written their names, he had drawn a question mark.
"Is your name question mark?" his professor is reported to have asked.
People are able to reconcile apparently irresolvable differences by exploring them through narrative, so it is not surprising that Cho penned scripts for a creative writing group. Contrary to media reports, his plays depicted little actual violence, only characters experiencing destructive emotions. In two scripts, a teenage boy uses violent language to insult an older man for being responsible for a past trauma, but the injustice is not resolved in either play.
Discord can be a source of creativity if its tensions are reconciled through storytelling, but if the strain cannot find adequate expression, it will cause ruptures instead. Unfortunately, when the global media casts Cho in the role of incomprehensible outcast, the problem is reinforced. If an issue can never be heard in one arena, it will eventually burst through in another.
Between killings, Cho sent photos of himself in combat poses to NBC, finally writing himself into the shared public vision. By stamping his act with poster-style images, he created a signifier for a particular kind of male distress.
Four days later, the school district of Yuba City, California, was shut down when an armed man announced that he would make the body count at Virginia Tech seem "mild."
The following weeks saw further shootings and hostage situations. Public violence doesn't resolve angst acceptably, but it is one of the few strong roles available for men who cannot create a sense of fitting in on their own.
It ironic that the stock market did not see the Virginia shooting as terrorism, because at root, it had similar dynamics. Acts of terror provide a role for angry men and will continue until those frustrations can be resolved another way.
Set in the usual media templates, Cho's acts were defined as incomprehensible, but many likely judge Wall Street investors' response to his actions as equally disturbing.
Inadequate venues to share narratives make violent alternative expressions inevitable. It is time to start telling better stories.
H.T. Goranson is the lead scientist of Sirius-Beta Corp and was a senior scientist with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; B. Cardier is a media analyst conducting research into narrative at the University of Melbourne.
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