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Virginia Tech through Foreign Eyes

Author: Lionel Beehner
April 20, 2007

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As they say about America’s economy: When the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold. Thanks to the ubiquitous news media, so it goes these days when tragedy strikes inside America. Reactions to the rampage by a gunman (CNN) at Virginia Tech, which left thirty-two dead, were varied across the globe. Some countries, harkening back to Cold War-era portrayals by Soviet-bloc media of America’s high murder rate, seemed to scold the United States for its tolerance of guns and glamorization of violence. Others, citing the gunman’s South Korean origins, alluded to the sometimes difficult position of minority groups in the United States, be they African, Asian, or otherwise. For its part, South Korea worried that the incident might “taint” its reputation (OhmyNews) among Americans, though others saw this as an overreaction. 

Past history appears to matter, too. In countries that have experienced similar school massacres, media have shied away from dumping too much blame on “American society” or its gun laws. After all, notes Der Spiegel, Germany’s strict guns laws did not prevent the 2002 killing of eighteen people at a school in Erfurt. Generally, however, foreign media drew distinctions between isolated incidents like the massacre of sixteen students in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, and the so-called “gun culture” of the United States, which, as the Guardian put it, “seems collectively unwilling and politically incapable (ChiTrib) of doing anything serious to stop such things happening again.”

Less subtle analysis poured forth from the Middle East. Syria’s state-run daily Tishreen says the tragedy raises questions about the power of the pro-gun lobby and also questions the effectiveness of the Department of Homeland Security at monitoring its homegrown criminals (Middle East Times). Qatar’s Al Watan said the “might-makes-right” culture that permeates the United States was to blame for the shootings. The same logic—using force to solve problems—is what drove the United States into Iraq, the paper concludes.

There was a sense of incongruity, too, in the wall-to-wall coverage of “America in Mourning” on the U.S. television networks. As Middle East expert Juan Cole wrote on his blog, “The profound sorrow and alarm produced in the American public by the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech should give us a baseline for what the Iraqis are actually living through. They have two Virginia Tech-style attacks every single day.”

Still, much like the aftermath of 9/11, there was an outpouring of sympathy, at least at the official level. Even Iran sent its condolences. "We haven't seen this kind of sympathy and support since Hurricane Katrina and 9/11," said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman.

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