Worst in US history?

Worst in US history?

It’s understandable that a lot of people, including journalists, have been shaken up by the killings at Virginia Tech last week, but you still have to wonder at the short-sightedness and historical illiteracy—you might even say “current-events illiteracy”—of the (quite a few) journalists who have called it the “worst mass murder in US history.”

The Savannah Morning News is pushing the “worst mass murder” line: “Little is known about the shooter who killed 31 people and apparently wounded another 29 in the worst mass murder in U.S. history.”

The San Jose Mercury News is selling the same story: “When I awoke the next morning, the name of the perpetrator of the nation’s worst mass murder was all over the news, and I had another reaction: Oh, no. He’s Asian.”

The Bradenton Herald: “…the father, also named Juan Ramon Ortiz, learned hours later that his son was one of the 32 people gunned down in the worst mass murder in US history.”

Canada Free Press: “Seemingly within minutes of Cho Seung-Hui killing himself and bringing the worst mass murder in U.S. history to an end, Virginia Tech president Charles Steger and Police Chief Wendell Flinchum came under a barrage of criticism for not locking down the campus after the first double murder two hours before the main shooting spree began.”

The Trentonian: “Andrew Williams of West Windsor walked out of the building at Virginia Tech minutes before the killer showed up and started shooting, committing the worst mass murder in U.S. history.”

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog is closer to the mark, but not by much: “Virginia Tech’s students are in horrific shock after the second-worst mass murder in American history. No doubt CNN has a wide range of highly respected authorities to call upon, people could lend some perspective, wisdom and the appropriate solemnity to the day’s news.”

Are we forgetting something?. Okay, then second worst, they might say. Nope. Third? Wrong again. And it’s not even the fifth.

This isn’t to denigrate the horror or tragedy of the Virginia Tech shootings, but to point out what we might call the willful, if not culpable, ignorance of too many journalists who jazz up their reporting with sensationalism and activism to push an agenda or just grab readership.

Journalism is supposed to be about reporting and even some very mild analysis, unless of course you say right up front that you have a particular viewpoint you’re coming from. But none of the “worst in history” stories ever did that. Why? We can surmise that it helps an anti-gun agenda or some liberal cause, but we don’t know that for sure. It could just be laziness, ignorance, and an attempt to sell more newspapers.

Whatever it is, it’s bad journalism.

Update: Bill Cork notes a few more terrible gun-related massacres that weren’t in my list, like the “Massacre at Sand Creek in Colorado, where Methodist minister Col. Chivington massacred between 200 and 400 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, most of them women, children, and elderly men” and other attacks on Indians in the 19th century.

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  • Seems to me a significant difference between Blacksburg and the situations you reference here, Domenico,  is that at Virginia Tech, the killer individually gunned down his victims whereas in the other stories the attacks, though claiming more lives, did not involve the perpetrator one-on-one with his victims.

    I doubt that these journalists have somehow forgotten the tragedy of 9/11.  Perhaps their language is imprecise, even sloppy, but I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they are manipulating the facts for the purpose of some agenda or to sell more newspapers.

  • I was wondering that myself when they started claiming the “worst in U.S. history”.  Seemed a bit over the top.

    I saw something too that he shot over 100 times.  With two semi-auto pistols.  Plenty of time for someone to respond by taking him down while he reloaded.

  • Fr. Fleming, that’s a huge reach. The only essential difference is that this was a crime perpetrated solely with firearms, whereas the others used other means. (In Bath, the killer used explosives and guns.)

    That’s what makes it the worst, in their eyes, the fact that guns were used and thus this becomes fodder for the anti-gun agenda.

  • Very interesting manipulation of the news. All mass murders seem to have unique differences if you look hard enough. So find the right difference to be able to compare it to other mass murders with less murdered. Then Voila!!—you have the worst mass murder in American History.

  • I don’t have a problem with people using the word “worst.” Any murder is bad, worse, worst..whatever. The numbers? Do they matter? The point is that murder is the worst.

    (As perhaps a parenthetical aside, I personally think the murders outlawed by Congress and their outlaw upheld by the Court were some of the “worst mass murders in the history of the United States.”)

    The word I object to is “tragedy.” As in “the tragic events of September 11, 2001.”

    We were attacked. People, innocent people, were murdered. As they were in Virginia last Monday.

    The sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy. An earthquake is a tragedy, as is a hurricane.

    Okay, so maybe there have been other events where more people were murdered. What, are we running a contest here?

    Personally, if journalists are willing to call what happened last Monday what it really is—murder—I’m not going to object to the comparative adjective.

    When they label this mass murder as a “tragic event”…that’s when I object.

  • Kelly,

    I, too, object to the use of the word “tragedy,” but not for the reason you do. “There is only one tragedy; not to be a saint”-Leon Bloy.

    Tragedy has to do with the condition of the victim.  It is, in its true meaning, a moral term.  I’ve always had a problem with using “tragedy” regarding events like this, and then Fr. Groeschel, in his first series after his accident, talked along the same lines.  He says we should distinguish between a “tragedy” and a “catastrophe.”

    In some ways, Virginia Tech *is* a tragedy.  It’s the tragedy of how society misuses people, fails to treat people’s mental conditions, and how people think that their constant ridicule of “nerds” and other social outcasts is somehow OK. 

    Earthquakes, etc., are disasters or catastrophes. 

    Also, in regard to what is the “worst” mass murder in US history, let’s not forget approx. 4,000 babies a day being slaughtered.

  • KaleJ said:
    “I saw something too that he shot over 100 times.  With two semi-auto pistols.  Plenty of time for someone to respond by taking him down while he reloaded.”

    I cannot believe you wrote that. I tell you what, the next time some crazed gunman is shooting up YOUR kid’s classroom, make sure you tell him/her to go ahead, step over all the bloody bodies, and try to jump the guy. These kids did absolutely everything they could to survive.They jumped out windows, held doors shut as the gunman shot through it, played dead, whatever they could do.  They were in their classrooms, sitting at their desks and had no idea what was going to happen. For you to essentially place responsibility at the feet of the victims is mind-boggling.

    As someone who lives in Virginia,I support these kids 100%.  I’m not interested in speculation or how people should grieve or how the media puts names to it. What matters is the human beings in all of this.

  • Pazdziernik,

    Both JC and I mentioned abortion. You might’ve missed the references.


    Speaking of missed refereces, I missed KaleJ’s suggestion and am equally appalled. I don’t live in Virginia but find the implication that the students and/or professors were somehow derelict by not “taking him down” utterly horrifying. When I think of, for example, Professor Librescu’s attempts to save his students lives—and forfeiting his own to do so—I find it even more so.

  • Kelly and Mary-Kathryn: This may be one of those man/woman things, but I have to confess that I’m wondering too. If the guy has to reload then there’s a time when he’s not able to shoot. Surely there were dozens of young able-bodied men who could have overpowered him.

    I don’t necessarily blame them, but I wonder at a society where the 76-year-old Romanian Holocaust survivor is the one who gives his life to save others. What are we teaching young men today?