Death, American style

Shoot to kill: So this is it. The punishment is beginning. So says Raskolnikov shortly after killing Lizavetta in Crime and Punishment, and Bites can’t help feeling affinity for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic anti-hero as media reaction to the Virginia Tech University massacre rolls in as inevitably as the morning commute.

This space would never presume to link meaning to the actions of Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old South Korean student who shot to death 32 of his classmates before killing himself on the morning of April 16. However, the manner in which such events play out in the national discourse demands comment, though it says more about us than we probably care to know.

The most disturbing (and therefore the most interesting) reaction to the carnage was also the first: In almost all the initial reports, when the body count was still stuck at 21, great care was taken to point out that the bloodbath was a record-setter in the realm of school shootings, the dozen killed at Columbine as well as Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman’s record of 16 students, set in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin.

Who among us can deny the twinge of excitement felt as the death toll eclipsed the all-time record for mass shootings in general, 23, set by George Hennard, who shot up a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, back in 1991? Not Bites. Meet Cho Seung-Hui, the Barry Bonds of spree killing.

And they’re off: With the record clearly established, politicians and pundits quickly moved in to seize possession of that ultimate utility, the public’s fear. The Bush administration, as well as Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, immediately insisted, in near identical statements, that the people have a right to bare arms. Certainly, if the students at gun-free Virginia Tech had all been packing, Whitman’s record, as well as the university’s collective GPA (good grades come easier at gunpoint), would be safe.

The ever-cautious top Democratic presidential contenders expressed condolences and remained mum on the subject of gun control, cowering before the NRA in much the same way that they shake before AIPAC. But the progressive pundits over at the Huffington Post were quick to move in, prescribing all manner of remedies, most of which involved evisceration of various constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Even normally levelheaded lefty talk-show host Stephanie Miller lost it on the morning after the catastrophe, chastising the swiftness of Bush’s pro-Second Amendment response and then, in the same breath, bemoaning the lack of both effective gun control and anger-management programs for our men-folk.

It all makes Bites long for that golden era when our nation’s chief concern was Don Imus’ potty mouth, just, what, one short week ago?

Terminator IV: No doubt by the time you read this the conversation will have turned to punishment, a subject California is no stranger to, given the state’s chronically overcrowded prisons. Last week it was learned that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken a pivotal first step in reducing the prison population—at least the 648 prisoners awaiting execution on San Quentin’s Death Row.

Recall that U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled that California’s current method of execution, lethal injection, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in part because of cramped conditions and poor lighting in what formerly served as a gas chamber. A ruling on the matter is scheduled May 15, and, in his zeal to live up to his filmic alter-ego’s homicidal reputation, Schwarzenkiller expedited a $399,999 remodeling of the space, a price just under the limit requiring notification of the Legislature.

Legislative members were understandably upset, not because of their objection to capital punishment, but because they had hoped to help select the new décor. Bites hastens to assure them that they’ve missed out on nothing. As they say in Texas—Bush’s home state and current record holder for state-sanctioned premeditated murder, with 357 executions—you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.