Youthful optimism will triumph

Today's Observer leader says it all - Julia Pryde is not a household name. She was a 23-year-old graduate biology student who wanted to encourage recycling at the cafeteria at Virginia Tech University. Her face is not as universally known as that of Cho Seung-hui, the man who shot her and 31 others on campus last week. Cho secured his status as an icon of infamy by taking time, amid the massacre, to send a video manifesto to a TV network. Cho wanted not only to terrorise his fellow students, but to stare the world in the face, or rather, to force the world to look him in the eye.

NBC has been criticised for showing the footage. Although there was a legitimate public interest in airing the material - it helped explain the dark motivation of the killer - the decision to run it on a constant loop within hours of the killings was clearly not taken with any consideration of sensitivity to survivors or victims' relatives. NBC apologised and toned down their coverage. But in the modern media age, Cho's broadcast would always have found a worldwide audience. He would still, one way or another, have forced everyone to hear his awful message: it is you who are responsible for this, not me.

That is not true, of course. Cho was a psychopath, determined to kill. It may be the case that his determination was expedited by easy access to guns. But that is a feature of American society and American politics with its own strange logic, immune to comment by outsiders.

The image of Cho striking murderous poses crosses all cultures. It is the face of modern, media-literate terror. That is not a fair emblem of modern American society. A truer symbol is found in the packed classrooms and lecture theatres of Virginia Tech, filled, just days after the massacre, with students who were determined to get on with their education - a triumph of youthful optimism over deadly nihilism.

Our thoughts have been with America this week. Last night we were at a performance in Norwich Cathedral of that life-affirming work, Haydn's Creation. And now playing, on a wonderful spring morning that the victims in Virginia will never see, is a hymn to the triumph of youthful optimism over nihilism. Bernstein's 1956 comic operetta Candide sums up the strange logic of American society and politics with its influences ranging from Offenbach to Gershwin, and use of Voltaire to denounce McCarthyism. The finale "Make our garden grow" also say it all.

* London is to get a new production of Candide. I just hope the music survives the staging. My header photo is of Bernstein's pupil Marin Alsop conducting the New York Philharmonic's semi-staged production - watch a video excerpt here.

Now read more on that strange logic here.
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