The World Is Watching

It takes a global village to cover a massacre.

The British and Polish press put the story on their front pages. The Russian newspaper Izvestiya conducted an Internet poll asking why “mass murders take place in schools and universities in America.” France’s Le Monde and Le Figaro wrote editorials, and the South Korean papers were, and still are, full of the story, too. All in all, the global village reacted with horror, sympathy, and wall-to-wall coverage of the massacre of 32 people in Blacksburg, Va.

This has happened before, of course. Ever since CNN brought the O.J. Simpson trial into Chinese apartments and African villages, America’s domestic dramas have been part of the international conversation. News of a hurricane watch in southern Florida is now broadcast to northern Germany. An American starlet’s mysterious death can make the evening news in India. And American political gossip gets circulated, along with American politics, in all kinds of odd places. A close friend swears he heard Iranian diplomats exchanging off-color Clinton anecdotes back in the days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.   

As one might expect, a certain amount of the coverage also reflects and reinforces predictably local prejudices about America. Of those who responded to that Izvestiya poll, 47 percent concluded that such massacres are explained by “the aggression inherent in the American lifestyle,” while only 22 percent thought it was because “there are crazy people everywhere.” The Le Monde editorial declared that the murder has forced American society to confront, among other things, its “dissolute youth, surrendered to the double tyranny of abundance and competition.” In Germany (where 18 students died in a school shooting in 2002, and six were wounded in another school shooting last year) one TV station featured, by way of explaining the Blacksburg massacre, Charlton Heston firing a rifle at an NRA conference. The newspaper Chosun Ilbo, reflecting Korean national dismay, speculated that the killer’s anger might have been connected to his family’s immigration to America when he was only 8 and the subsequent cultural confusion he experienced.

But this time around, I detect a new element in the coverage as well. Big American stories are always big international stories, but in many places, the Blacksburg massacre was not treated as an international story. Instead, it had the status of local news. Britain’s Guardian, for example, ran a list of the names of the murdered students and teachers on its Web site, just as if it were the Roanoke Times. So did the Polish newspaper Dziennik. British columnists used the story to make arguments about the British mental-health system and British gun laws, just as if the massacre had taken place in Britain.

As the coverage continued, it also turned out that a psychopath shooting randomly on an average university campus had killed students and professors from all over the world. This week Israel is mourning the death of Liviu Librescu, an Israeli engineering professor who threw himself in front of the killer to save his students. The Polish media focused on the death of Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, the French-Canadian married to a Polish professor of horticulture—as did the media in Quebec. Among the 32 people killed were natives of Peru, India, Egypt, Vietnam, and Indonesia. And, of course, the murderer himself was a citizen of South Korea.

The events of Sept. 11 produced a similarly international list of victims, but that was no surprise: One would expect that the World Trade Center, given what it was and where it was, would be full of people from all corners of the globe. One would not expect the same of a random lecture hall in Blacksburg, Va. Yet now it turns out that Blacksburg is not merely a member of some metaphoric “global village” like everywhere else, but that Blacksburg is rather a literal global village, with concrete links of kinship and citizenship all over the world. Whatever American community you touch nowadays, for good or for ill, there are international repercussions.

This new level of internationalism is something to consider in our national debates about immigration, education, or even foreign policy—not as an argument for or against anything, but simply as an existing fact that not all of us have properly internalized. It’s also something to consider when we ponder America’s oddly lopsided relationship with the rest of the world. As you read this article, America’s gun-control laws are being debated around the world, America’s mental-health system is being analyzed in a dozen languages. America’s local news is now the world’s local news. But somehow, I don’t think that our knowledge of the rest of the world is growing at a similarly rapid pace.