Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tragedy

Larry Johnson, at TPM Cafe, notes that the death of 32 people at Virginia Tech yesterday is, more or less, equivalent to a normal day in Baghdad. He wonders why Americans are shocked by the former, and not by the latter. Let's face it, the majority of those who favor prompt withdrawl of American troops are thinking primarily of American sons and daughters rather than the children of Iraq.

Let us not, however, minimize one tragedy by comparing it to another. What happened in Viginia Monday morning and early afternoon was tragic. Dateline, on NBC, ran a news special on the event Monday evening. CBS will have a news special on Wednesday evening. I have no doubt that many commentators will perform long-distance psychoanalysis to explain why this person went berserk.

The boys at Columbine were loners. They were abused and ostracized by fellow students. They killed for revenge. I might seek revenge as well, but never to that degree.

University officials are still reluctant, as I write this, to say the same person was responsible for the incident in the morning and the one in the afternoon. The first incident was considered to be a domestic disturbance. According to the New York Times, the man who eventually killed himself, after killing at least 30 others, was Seung-Hui Cho, an Asian student. There are suggestions this man is relatively new to our country.

So, he also may have been an object of verbal and physical abuse. Photographs suggest the campus is primarily Caucasian. It's possible Mr. Cho was an object of ridicule and/or prejudice. Granted, one of the victims was black, but this doesn't negate my hypothesis.

Now, like one of those commentators, I'm trying to explain Mr. Cho's actions. We want to understand. We want to discern a motive. "Bull goose crazy" may be acceptable, but we much prefer explanations we can understand. If we can, order is restored. And, while we may understand the motive, we can reassure ourselves that we would never do something similar.

Someone once said, "Nothing human is foreign to me." What this writer meant, I think, is the full range of human emotions is available to us. As is the full range of human response to those emotions.

Hitler is not an aberration. Timothy McVeigh was a true believer. The boys in Columbine displayed one type of violence, just as the people who teased them displayed another.

The people who rush to help others after a tragedy may be braver than some, but each of us the capacity for that same level of caring and self-sacrifice.

Human beings are neither intrinsically good, nor intrinsically evil. Human beings have the capacity for the full range of that ethical pole. Any one of us are capable of the same sort of extremes I've mentioned.

I could be a Hitler. There are times, in my most egotistical moments, when I want to rule the world. Times when I believe I know the right way to behave and think, and I want to impose it on the rest of the world.

I'm not typically the sort of person who rushes to help in an accident. I reason, given my limited skills, I'm more likely to be a hindrance than a help. I can pray, but first aid is not one of my gifts. But I have reached out to others, and have a patience and thoughtfulness others have admired.

I suspect, if you do an honest self-inventory, you will see you have these same capabilities. Just magnify your best and worst qualities, and you'll recognize you are also capable of being Hitler or Mother Theresa.

A fundamental guideline of human ethics, mirrored in every major world religion, is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It follows that, as I do not want to die or being seriously injured, I will strive to avoid killing or injuring others.

And yet, we constantly find justifications for killing others. Most often, for revenge; or, most recently, as a sort of preemptive revenge.

Seung-Hui Cho, the man who killed so many at Virginia Tech, undoubtedly convinced himself he was justified in killing so many. We may never know why.

President B*sh, who reportedly expressed "shock and sadness" in response to this tragedy, is ultimately responsible for many multiples of 32 human beings in Iraq and Afghanistan. He can be saddened by the first tragedy, and not the second, because he has convinced himself the deaths in those two countries are justified. That, somehow, these deaths will lead to a greater good for America. He may even sincerely believe all these deaths will lead to Western-style democracy in these two countries.

He has convinced himself, in other words, that the ends justify the means. Just as the boys at Columbine did. Just as Tim McVeigh did. Just as, perhaps, Mr. Seung-Hui Cho did.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of course, since you wrote this, we know a great deal more about Cho. The motivation for his rampage is now clear, though not a topic for public discussion. He hated "rich people".

The divide between those with wealth and those with barely enough to get by is now as great as during the "robber baron" era of the last years of the 19th and early 20th century. Stated differently, the disparity in wealth in this country now more resembles that of a third world nation.

But these ugly truths are swept under the rug, masked by largely irrelevant discussions of gun control laws. The economic realities that drove this very trouble young man are swept under the same rug as the effects of gratuitous violence on TV and in the movies. And of course there is absolutely no discussion of the first shooter video games like "Grand Theft Auto" or the even more disturbing "Eternal Forces", the spin-off of the "Left Behind" novels.

The effect of these cultural influences - far different than John Wayne's six gun that never ran out of rounds or Bugs whacking Elmer with an over-sized mallet - has been well documented by David Grossman in his classic research reported in "On Killing".

In some circles, discussion has turned to the events of the mid-60's, Watts, Detroit, Atlanta and elsewhere. Glock's and "Street Sweepers" were unknown then, as were TV series like "24" and the aforementioned videos.

Hatred of poor folks by other poor folks is a flame being fanned by government propaganda and groups like The Minutemen. Those who wield the power that has created this powder keg have thus far prevented the peasants from storming the Bastille and unleashing "the terror" that followed. For now, in a manner so consistent with the history of this country, the powerless are focusing their rage on the powerless.

Except for Cho.