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Virginia Tech

Yesterday's incident at Virginia Tech was, it goes without saying, distressing and appalling.

What makes it moreso: these mass-murder/suicides have become sufficiently commonplace that they now feel familiar. Even with a gruesome record body count for the cable news to tout in their on-screen graphics.

We think of fiction as having genres but reality, as shown to us on the news, is often rendered accessible by resort to formula. This is especially true of catastrophes, from bombings to natural disasters. Killing sprees at schools fall into this category now. They’ve happened enough times now that they’ve developed their own enveloping narrative into which any breaking incident can be plugged. The authorities’ press conferences, survivor accounts, interviews with experts, the search for other institutions or people to blame—they reflect the reality of what happened, but also function as genre tropes. Like their counterparts in fiction, they exist partly for the convenience of the storyteller, partly because they’re the natural way to arrange narrative elements, and partly, through their familiarity, to aid our comprehension, and to comfort us.

Because we know the narrative structure already, the news cycle can move quicker. We know the drill already. The pipe has been laid for denser storytelling. The news cycle has so sped up that you cut reflexively to the political debates on gun control and the supposed violent influence of video games before the authorities have even had time to ID the killer.

The maladjusted S.O.B.s who decide to take a bunch of people with them before they shoot themselves are taking part in a pre-programmed discourse. What they’re enacting is spiteful, callous, sadistic—and a hideous cliché.

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