Virginia Tech Massacre

How do you grieve over Virginia Tech? It’s impossible to know. I only know about the lead weight that sat on my chest while I watched the confusion of details coming over the air waves last night. Know only the desire to shield those I love from seeing and feeling the same things. I watched for more than an hour. Enough.

vtshooting041707-bFor those of us outside the circle of parents, aunts and uncles, girlfriends and boyfriends, outside the circle of fellow students, outside the Virginia Tech community, it is proper to be struck dumb and to feel profound sadness.

It is also proper to struggle with making sense of the thing–as long as we end up short of doing so. And viewing the act as utterly senseless is a reasonable way of making sense of it. That’s as good as we can do, for now.

As one media personality put it, "There are evil people who do evil things. There’s nothing more to it than that." For now, this may be as good a response as any. Better than–as is already happening–the left blaming it on the National Rifle Association and the gun culture, and the right blaming it on the fostering of a libertine culture.

In time, there will be, must be, time enough to strive to give names to the thing. Because, while it may be true that there are evil people who do evil things, it’s not true there is nothing more to it than that.

But, for now, while we wrestle for reasons, before we offer answers, it is right for us to place our hearts, our prayers, our thoughts, upon the lives lost and upon the lives of their families and friends.

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  1. I think you’re right, there’s no point in starting the blame wars; they aren’t usually productive anyhow. (Though I’d like to see both guns and violent video games disappear from the face of the earth.) But…..I don’t know if I can fully buy the “there are evil people who will do evil things” either, not quite. Because I don’t think we’re as neatly divided as that into good and evil. I think we’re all capable of both, and I want to know what makes some of us more prone to acts as desperate (and evil) as this one (and what makes some of us capable of so much more self-denying good than others).
    …and I wonder if much more than we suspect comes down to the mysteries of our brains rather than the quality of our characters. Because neuroscience is poking holes in the notion of free will—I recently read about a previously normal, good, safe man charged and convicted on child pornography charges who was then discovered to have a brain tumour. The tumour was removed and his paedophilic tendencies disappeared—only to return when the tumour returned…it does make me wonder, and it breaks my heart, because without the justification to hate those who do these things, reality seems even harder to bear, I think…because blame and hate seem less heavy than straight-up horror and sorrow and helplessness.

  2. You’re right Connie…the categorization of evil acts ergo evil people is unsatisfactory. There are evil acts and a person who commits evil, is, evil at the time, but that doesn’t make him/her substantively evil.

    But I don’t know either if it’s a “rather than” kind of thing. I suspect the mysteries of biology are as deep as the mysteries of character and that the interactions between the two is as mysterious. Character, soul, mind, influencing biology as much as the other way around.

  3. Perhaps, S. Thomas….but have we not always attributed horrid inexplicable behaviour to evil (or evil spirits or demons), only to learn later about tormenting mental illness? ….maybe we need new words, maybe evil carries too many connotations of blame and judgment? Maybe it’s enough just to say he was a deeply, deeply disturbed young man, whose actions we can’t possibly understand or explain (not that I can understand or explain many of my own…frightening thought.) Or maybe I’m naive and idealistic? I don’t know…..but I do know that it’s all very sad, and something in me has trouble believing he was in control of his actions, and if we’re not in control, can we call it evil? I’ll have to ask Bishop Spong about it, see what he says on the topic (I heard him speak tonight, and right now I’m thinking he must have something brilliantly intelligent to contribute to the conversation.)

  4. Is it possible to say an act is evil without attributing inherent evil to the actor? I’m not sure why I want to hang on the word. It still seems serviceable. I want to use it in reference to war, to genocide, to racially motivated torture, to the killing of gay people. I can, I think, suspend it in reference to those who carry out evil.

    But your right, if we are not in control, if we are biological automatons (my term) more than free agents, then the word “evil” would be inappropriate. But then so would the term “deeply disturbed,” which is also a judgment that requires a comparative “norm,” requires criteria and objectivity. Things that determinism undermine. (I’m not thinking about the tumor that caused the pedophilia here, I’m thinking about the place where most of us live.)

    The question is how far should we go with determinism? (And with neuroscience, as you say, poking more holes in our freedom, I’m prepared to go farther.) But already I can go some distance. I never chose my parents, my culture, or a whole host of preconceptions I don’t even know I hold, but nevertheless act upon. But, beyond some point, it seems to me, all bets are off. Anything we do, and anything done to us, is, well, not-nameable, not gaugeable and so, finally permissible. Determinism just like radical freedom–in the sense of immunity to any and every obligation–brings an irretrievable relativity.

    Of course were not entertaining a new argument. It is as old as humanity and that fact alone, the fact that it has for us, the appearance of a question, gives some ontological credence to our freedom. The fact that we can take into account a history, a medical condition, is a sign that we are at least as free as we are determined. The venerable Luther of “Bondage of the Will,” the hyper-Calvinists, never needed neurobiology to conclude determinism. Of course I’m not sure this made them more compassionate.

    Speaking of which, pluming the other side for kicks…actions of love, compassion, and mercy…are they our own? Or are they the result of benevolent brain chemistry, or is any goodness we do solely attributable to God, (for some, in spite of God)…or our mothers?

    I guess I continue to hold on to the mystery of the whole.

  5. … them’s a lot of big-sounding words (almost lost me). I think I get what you’re saying though…and certainly “evil” is not too strong a word when the focus is on the victims only. But I know if I was the mother of the gunman, I might have a small chance of recovering if I was being told and were able to believe my son was seriously disturbed, mentally unbalanced and out of control—and zero chance if I believed he’d chosen, by his own free will to do this horrible thing….something about the choosing that makes it seem the perpetrator is in fact evil, not only the act….and I don’t know I could bear that as a mother. But that’s just my mysterious little brain, feeling sorrow for all those who lost someone in this, but double sorrow for the mother of the violently angry and unhappy young man responsible for it all.

  6. (A slight departure from the previous thread, I submit the following)

    The sequence of events in America following an ‘action’ such as the VTM is quite predictable:

    · Publish evidence (footage, eyewitness accounts, etc) of the action as raw and graphic as permissible
    While doing this de-personalize the perpetrator using third person references coupled with presumptive adjectives
    · Highlight the grief being experienced by those geographically or relationally involved with the victims.
    While doing this, personalize the victims using names, life roles, faces, and hypothetical transpositions of our loved ones with the victims
    · Refer with shock to the senselessness of the action
    · Bring in experts to analyze the action and how it must have unfolded
    · Extrapolate this information and predict how more laws, better metal detectors and less personal freedom will prevent this from re-occurring.

    Understand that I fully realize the tremendous emotional impact this has on those close to the victims, and that I sympathize with them. At this point in life’s journey, however, my thoughts soon gravitate toward the peculiarity of this sequenced response. It seems like underlying it is a need to establish difference between ourselves and the perpetrator. A tragedy experienced, a poor decision, negative influence from a person, or more likely, a group of the previous facts are assembled and tagged to the perpetrator. The sufficient difference between that list and our life’s path, I believe, comforts us into concluding that it certainly would never be one of ‘us’ who would cause that much suffering and grief. Perhaps this is a valid coping mechanism , similar to the brain of an abuse victim which over time may block certain painful memories.

    Still, it seems that identifying with the perpetrator rather than the victim may be more effective in moving towards the goal of preventing the recurrence of such a tragedy. As with politics and icebergs, incrementalism is an essential factor in moving to an extreme point of existence. Small, sometimes undetectable, changes aggregate over time to cause changes that would be unthinkable in a single leap.

    With that rationale I find myself not that different from the perpetrator. The real horror to me is the ‘civilized’ society in which we live that makes such an isolated existence possible in the midst of so many people. “Love your neighbor”, I’m sure, involves sharing in what they’re experiencing.

    I guess its time for me to take a walk and ring some doorbells.

  7. Fred makes excellent points, I think, points that are not at all a departure from the previous thread but rather the very heart of it. I think his discussion of identifying with the perpetrator rather than the victim is in fact the only productive approach if we truly want to move towards the reducing the recurrence of such tragedies. And I think it is what is at the heart of my resistance to the word evil. Cho Seung-Hui is—but for the grace of God sparing you and I his history, his genes, his brain chemistry, his desperation—all of us. “Love your neighbor”, as Fred says, must involve trying to share in their experience.
    And of course, being a mother, as much as I want to weep for the bright young lives snuffed out, I also grieve for the pain and rage that characterized Cho’s life, and, maybe most of all, for his mother. The others will grieve publicly, and ride a large wave of support and empathy, but she will grieve alone, protected by police, and wonder forever how it came she gave birth to such a desperate human being.
    And didn’t Jesus himself say “forgive them, they know not what they do?” He knew that violence is born out of desperation.

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