My mom called me the other day to ask me if I heard about the Virginia Tech shootings. That particular day I wasn't paying a lick of attention to the news wires that worm their way into my computer and I don't normally watch television news, so it was quite a shocking surprise when I clicked and found that over 30 people had been killed in the worst school massacre ever. Like most parents, her cares and concerns were oriented towards myself and my brother. While I've been out of college for ages now, my brother is still in school, and I often think of going back. "It's so horrible, that could happen anywhere, that could have been you or your brother" she said with a very genuine sounding worry in her voice.
My mom is right, that could be me or my brother. It could be you or your family. It could be your friends, a casual acquaintance, or a co-worker. The same factors exist for soldiers dying in any number of global wars. The same also exist for the gang shootout that happened on my corner just a week ago, which was not reported by any news media. Violence prevails in human culture, and has for centuries. How different is Cho's shooting spree from the Columbine massacre? How different are those tragedies from the Kent State shooting in 1970? How different are those shootings from the My Lai massacre? While specific circumstances may be different, in all instances we can say that we've got angry human beings, warped enough by their experiences, mentally ready to kill for what they believe in.
Words like "tragedy" and "terrible" don't begin to describe what really happened at Virginia Tech. In the same way, words cannot describe what really happened a few years ago on 9/11, or on August 6th and 9th of 1945, when humans, for the first time, extinguished hundreds of thousands of lives in an instant. My mom remembers these events in a different light, in the context of a parent and wife, worried about her husband, children, and family. Horrific events often turn people inward, leaving them to ask "what if that was me?"
The media, politicians, and other talking heads probably look inward as well, but publicly, their job is to look outward. Amidst the students and families mourning, you can hear the usual rhetoric blaring on all directions. Gun enthusiasts quickly respond to gun control advocates, blaming the person, not the weapon. Gun control advocates blame the easy access to weapons in America. Conservatives and religious folk turn towards the decay of morals in society - shouting about violent video games and music. Further to the right, extremists attempt to connect Cho Seung Hui to radical Islam, and blame this tragedy on the U.S.'s immigration policies. The left wants to blame Bush, blame neocon policies, blame lack of proper counseling, blame as many people as everyone else does. University and civic officials spent countless hours answering questions regarding security concerns, and many more discussions, debates, questions, and proposed answers will take place over the coming weeks.
Plenty of the week's earlier commentary centered around MSNBC's decision to run parts of Cho's manifesto, the videos he made, pictures he took, and words he wrote. People responded in droves to speak out about how appalled they were at the airing of such violent and graphic imagery. Did those same people forget about the 24 hour "Shock and Awe"marathon news media aired just a few years ago? Did we forget so soon, the images that came out of Columbine? How about Abu Graib? For that matter, what about the countless film, video, and words collected on any number of horrific events across the globe?
Later that day, I ate lunch with my mom. Her and I talked a bit of the tragedy but spent most of the time talking of normal, day to day events – catching up on the bits and pieces of our lives that we miss. I normally leave out quite a bit on my end, just so that she doesn't have to worry, but that day I spoke at length about a bar brawl I ended up in on St. Patrick's Day. The end result of that brawl was nothing more than a handful of arrests, a broken hand, some cut and bruised faces, and a lot more bruised egos (probably a few inflated ones as well). A few scrapes and scraps pale in comparison to a massacre that killed 33 people and wounded at least 26. Still though, the look in her eyes mirrored the worrisome sound in her voice when she initially called me.
Humans have a much higher tolerance for violence than they let on. We have a much lower tolerance though, when that violence causes us to turn inward and ask that nagging question, "what if...?" Many people can sit through films like Grindhouse and The Matrix with relative ease. The same set of people can probably stomach most of the terrible calamities the nightly news throws us, even if they realize that those events really are happening somewhere. People know the difference between a squib and a real bullet wound. Those same people though, will have a much harder time watching an event or story that they can directly connect to them. That is how empathy works.
The fact that bits and pieces of Cho Seung Hui's manifesto aired on national television shouldn't be questioned. At the end of the day, all people have a choice they can make to decide whether to watch or read something. In fact, Cho's manifesto should get more attention than we're giving it now. Yes, we'd all like to write him off as mentally ill, crazy, an evildoer, a terrorist, whatever. On the grand scheme of human existence, this man's terrible crime pales in comparison to the crimes "civilizations" commit – wars, torture, slavery, genocide. It's no wonder that when a nightmarish scenario comes to life that we want to shut our eyes, find someone to blame, mourn our losses, and move on.
Each time we avert our eyes to such horrific events, every time we choose to not analyze a deplorable act, whenever we find a scapegoat for a catastrophe, we lose the ability to learn from it. When we say of the perpetrators: "no one will know what truly went on in their minds," we tacitly agree that humans commit barbarous atrocities without reason. Does Thomas Hobbes still hold such a tight grip on our outlook on life? Can we continue to look at life as "nasty, brutish, and short," while looking at humankind as a species made up of mostly uncontrollable, self-centered individuals that need to be kept in constant check?
Human nature asks why. Human nature asks what if. People can be violent and despicable. Most of the time, whether we like to admit it or not – they have their own warped sense of reason. The townspeople of Salem, Massachusetts had their reasons to burn women at the stake. The Romans had their reasons to crucify Christ. Colonel Paul Tibbets had his reasons for piloting the Enola Gay. Psychopaths, serial killers, mass murderers all have "reasons" for their actions – however warped and twisted. Humankind, has its justifications for destroying the planet which it lives, slaughtering its brothers and sisters, and occasionally taking a step further towards mass extinction.
The gruesome events at Virginia Tech are part of the human lexicon, the human experience. No matter what anyone involved does, people will not be safe from violence. No amount of cameras, security, censorship, gun control, laws, elections, or social control will change that. We're doomed to repeat history if we do not study it. The first step in changing ourselves, is evolution – a change in our thoughts and our perspectives.
We should let those who suffer mourn their loss without applying our own ideologies and personal goals to their suffering. We should not, shy away from exploring the reason for these events. If that means viewing some unpleasant footage and looking a dead killer in the eyes, so be it. What gives humankind such a penchant for violence? The answer isn't as easy as we wish it would be. A start in the right direction would be asking more than just "what if that was me?".
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