Recent weeks have seen an alarming outbreak of gun violence in the United States. The April 3 massacre in Binghamton, New York, was particularly horrifying: Jiverly Wong, a refugee from Vietnam, stormed into an immigrant services center and killed thirteen people before shooting himself. Eleven of the victims were immigrants, representing seven countries. Some had fled violence in their homelands. All were attempting to build new lives as American citizens.

At first, media accounts could only guess at Wong’s motives. Then, a letter from Wong to a local news station made it clear he suffered from elaborate paranoid delusions (he claimed the police frequently broke into his apartment while he slept). Wong’s letter did not, and could not, explain his decision to target fellow immigrants and those who were helping them adjust to life in America.

Wong may have had trouble making sense of his world, but he understood one thing about American culture: violence makes the news. His letter, addressed to the Syracuse-based station News 10 Now, was accompanied by disturbing photos of himself posing with guns. Within a few days of the shooting those images were widely reproduced in the media, and quotes from the letter made chilling headlines (“I am Jiverly Wong shooting the people”).

The pattern was familiar. Wong had undoubtedly seen it play out before. Perhaps he was watching when NBC News released portions of the videotaped “manifesto” they received from Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho in 2007. Cho, for his part, referred to the 1999 Columbine High School shooters as “martyrs.” Wong, Cho, and those who came before them believed their names, faces, and grievances would be broadcast far and wide in the wake of their crimes. And they were right.

After a senseless tragedy, it is natural to want answers: What kind of person could do this? Why? But while the killers’ self-serving explanations feed a news cycle or two, they ultimately satisfy little more than our morbid fascination with evil. Meanwhile, they make an impression, possibly a deadly one, on people like Wong, for whom an infamous death begins to seem an attractive alternative to an isolated life.

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Published in the 2009-04-24 issue: View Contents
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