The Virginia Tech Massacre and the American Attention Span:
The Rude Pundit was at a rest stop off the New Jersey Turnpike yesterday, joining the rest of the travelers munching on chicken and Whoppers and pizza, when he saw the news of the massacre at Virginia Tech on one of the twenty or so flat screen TVs mounted to the walls of the dining area. All of them were tuned to CNN. The volume was off.

The place was packed, filled with truckers and high school kids headed from Boston to DC and a family or two. The Rude Pundit wasn't going to stay - he had intended to just grab some burnt coffee, a prepackaged sandwich, maybe a cupcake, if the mood was right, and then head on back on the road. But he is drawn to cable news like a mosquito to the comfortingly warm violet light of the bug zapper. So he looked. At that point it was 22 dead, a horrible enough number, to be sure, but fifty percent short of the final death toll.

As he stared, trying to get details, he noticed something. Nobody else there was watching. To be sure, people would glance, maybe react with a head shake, maybe tell someone else about it, but then each person would turn back to their french fries, to their Spongebob toys. The Rude Pundit turned to a man at the table next to his and said, uninsightfully, "Twenty-two people were killed." The man nodded, pointed it out to his dining partner, and then their attention was caught by the chemically-induced mouth-watering scent of their burgers. The teenagers off the bus to DC were loud.

The Rude Pundit remembered another time he was in a public place when something horrible happened, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing six astronauts and a schoolteacher. Then, everyone stopped, everyone, except those with the most pressing business, gathered around the screens to watch, to learn, to join in the mourning.

And then he remembered something from a long time ago, something that he had forgotten until this moment. Not a repressed memory, no, but just an incident that mattered at the time, but was faded in the mishmash of personal and public history that encompass our memories.

The Rude Pundit was a freshman at college, and he was walking across campus on a warm autumn day, leaving his dorm to go to class, tired, not noticing anything other than how humid the air was, when he was grabbed by a campus security officer and pulled behind a car. The officer's gun was drawn, and then the Rude Pundit saw that other campus cops were around and other students were crouched down, some cowering, some glancing to see what was going on. And then came the pop-pop of gun fire and the yells from officers of "Get down" and then, for just a moment, the gunman running, firing behind him. After he was out of sight, he carjacked a passing driver and escaped. He had robbed the bursar's office, getting away with thousands of dollars.

The campus police chief told the Rude Pundit in an interview for the college paper that the city cops claimed they would have "taken him out." But, the sad-eyed, thin old man said, "Our people didn't want the students caught in the cross-fire of a shoot-out."

No, this was not really anything like the nightmare at Virginia Tech yesterday, with its calculated moves and chained doors so there would be a high casualty count. But for a moment the Rude Pundit knows that gut-wrenching fear of being in an ostensibly safe place, not a war zone, and having it turned into something else.

But that's not why the Rude Pundit paid attention at the rest stop. It was because, to him, it mattered. We're so filled with stories, local crimes and small incidents, celebrity lives and deaths, animal attacks and house fires, that it's hard to discern anymore when something really matters. For everyone that the Rude Pundit saw in that fast food dining area, it was more of the noise of information. They had places to be. They had cell phones and Blackberries and GPS systems, and all of that technology told them that their lives were more important, always more important, than the lives of others.

Surely, when they arrive at their homes or hotels, they will be told to feel sorrow by the news networks. And maybe they will allow for something like sympathy, an approximation of emotion, the simulacrum of grief, to creep into their hearts and minds. After all, we will be told, we are a nation in mourning.

But mostly we are a dead-souled country, so inured to horror that even when something of incredible violence occurs on our soil, well, heck, we've been reminded of 9/11 so often that anything lesser hardly seems worthy of time in our Palm Pilots. For to pay attention means that we must feel compelled to act, and, as we've been taught by our government, our media, our culture, what good comes of acting?

What action? Well, for starters, doing something about the madness of the gun laws in the United States. No, guns didn't make this student wreak violence on Virginia Tech any more than a microphone makes Rush Limbaugh a blowhard. But guns sure made it easier for the violence to occur on such a large scale. As the Rude Pundit's said before, no one ever heard of a drive-by stabbing.

But to act is anathemic to our war and terrorist-influenced American mindset. God, if we were told to just go about our business after 9/11 and that they only thing we can sacrifice for the war is our peace of mind when we happen to tune to the wrong channels on our digital cable systems, why in the world would we want to do anything for this?

Oh, yeah, there is something we'll be asked to do. Pray. To whomever. And then continue to eat your fried chicken strips and drink your Diet Cokes. After a while, not feeling in the mood for that cupcake, the Rude Pundit hit the road, too.