Revolution #86, April 29, 2007


Reflections on the VA Tech Massacre

We received this correspondence from a Va Tech graduate. It is the text of a presentation given at a vigil a few days after the massacre.

It was quite a while ago when I graduated from Va Tech, but on the day of the massacre I found I could remember so much about it, and so clearly. My girlfriend lived in West AJ, and I took engineering classes at Norris Hall. As the details started coming out, I found myself picturing the scene, imagining which paths the shooter might have taken, which hallways and stairwells he walked down. I wondered how he was able to get all the way across campus. I wondered if any of my former professors were killed. I wondered how former classmates were dealing with it all.

I'd like to mention some of my memories from Va Tech: Going to the Ton 80 Club to drink and throw darts (not necessarily a good combination). Seeing bands like Birdsongs of the Mesozoic perform at Daddy's Money, or Hüsker Dü at the Student Union ballroom. Rushing to Mish Mish to buy supplies then "pulling an all-nighter" with friends in Cowgill Hall to complete an architecture assignment. Resisting the strong pull to once again ditch my 8 a.m. calculus class when it was 20 degrees and snowing, one of those times when it would snow all day but there would be no accumulation because the wind was so strong. Having innumerable discussions with classmates and friends, in class and out, about literature, music, and philosophy, in which we tested the limits of our knowledge and understanding. And there were a lot of ridiculous things, like gathering in the dorm common room to watch Love Boat, cajoling a film buff friend into seeing a bad movie like American Gigolo, and making stupid jokes – one of my engineering professors was called Dr. Pap, so at exam time we would joke about having to take a "Pap Smear."

I mention them because these are the kinds of memories one should have about college. It's heart-rending to think that for so many students, their college memories will forever be centered around something horrible. Their memories of Norris Hall should be about things like "Pap smears." They should not be about dead classmates.

Anyone who has paid attention in the last few days has seen many instances of people attempting to deal with the massacre from a lofty perspective, in ways which are moving, inspiring, and dignified. At the same time, there have also been moves to use it for narrow political goals. Bigots have argued for blocking all arrivals of new immigrants. Others have spoken of the need for more police, more surveillance, more intrusion--with some talking as if the "solution" is to turn campuses into armed camps.  Many have used it to further erase the separation between church and state. Liberals were quick in calling for more restrictive gun laws, while others were just as quick to oppose such moves.

I find all of it unseemly (and some of it disgusting). It strikes me as a kind of instrumentalism, an approach in which truth is tortured or invented, and treated as merely a tool to achieve a goal. How much more instrumentalist can you get, than to quickly leap over the central truth of the massacre, that of deep, and for some, inconsolable grief--that on Monday morning tens of thousands of people had their hearts implode when they first heard the news, and who then waited in horror for news about their children, their sisters, their boyfriends, their classmates, their parents? To treat massacred students as simply a means to make some argument (even if it's an argument with which I personally would agree), seems to me wrong and disrespectful.

I think there's a connection between this and Cho's actions (and perhaps whatever made him so alienated and hateful). To be clear, I'm not suggesting they are in any way morally equivalent. But both involve reducing people to abstractions, emptying them of humanity and making them ciphers to be filled with whatever immediate interests seem to require. Though one is a reflection of political opportunism and the other is horrific hatred, the former is as widespread and commonplace as the latter is isolated and extreme. I suggest that there is something to reflect on here--after all, Cho didn't come from Mars. He came from the same place we do.

There is an aspect of this, too, in some of the quick attempts to "explain" the massacre. Grappling with the massacre in an all-round way in order to achieve some kind of understanding is important, even imperative--and we should definitely reject the fundamentally reactionary idea that it is beyond understanding or attributable to some abstract evil. And certainly, everyone should contribute to an overall understanding and share what they understand from their perspective. It would only compound the tragedy if whatever important lessons which are available are not learned. But any understanding can not be separated from, and in fact, must be centered upon and flow from, the profound human truths of the massacre, and in no way (even unintentionally) restrict the space for grieving, or treat tremendous human pain as incidental.

With that in mind, I'd like to make the following comments. Since the massacre at VA Tech, more than 200 people have been killed in Iraq. As an internationalist and someone who rejects chauvinism of any kind, I grieve as much for their deaths as I do for those killed at my undergraduate college, even though I have never walked on the ground they have, never sat in their classrooms, never shopped in their markets, never watched a concert or a bad movie with them. They, too, were people who loved and were loved. And their deaths, too, will exist as an emanation of pain for far too many, and for far too long. I mention this not to diminish the significance of what happened at VA Tech but in fact to increase it, to highlight it and what it could mean.

In the last few days, many people have said words to the effect that our response to this massacre should be to expand, and not restrict, our humanity and our compassion. Though perhaps expressed in different terms and from a different perspective than my own, I am in deep unity with such a sentiment. I would add two things. First, if we are to accept this, why not accept it fully? Why not take this as an opportunity to recognize and reject all the forms of chauvinism which construct some as more human than others and which ultimately help create oppression, domination, and, yes, horrors? If we are to take from Monday's events the recognition of the need to create a better society, why not recognize, and take seriously, really seriously, the need to create a better world and to understand our role in it?

Second, the history since 9/11 shows that there are those who will do the exact opposite. In that case, some callously used that tragedy to push forward programs which are in opposition to the interests of the vast majority of people, here and around the world. If we are to accept that our response to this massacre should be to expand our humanity and our compassion, we should be aware of, and accept the responsibility to resist, any moves to do the opposite, especially those which would only create more pain, more sorrow, more personal black holes which only serve to suck up that which makes any of us human.

Some years ago, there was an horrific massacre of many hundreds of people in East Timor, a country with which I have a deep emotional connection. It took place over many days and was televised around the world. The experience was for me overwhelming, devastating. A part of me did not want to live in a world in which such things could happen. I do not claim to have learned anything profound from that experience. But I did learn this: we can find everything we need to deal with even the most overwhelming tragedy in each other. And in doing so, we just might find the means by which we can raise our sights, lift ourselves above petty, narrow, or selfish interests, and transform ourselves into the means through which a different world is created, one in which such horrors as the massacre at VA Tech, and the ongoing atrocities in Iraq, are genuinely, and finally, unthinkable.

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