I remember the feeling of the world falling and crashing all around me, like the very bodies of concrete, humans and steel falling from the Towers, as I ran, hysterical, into the principal’s office to call my brother, to know that he was okay. My insides still twist upon themselves when I relive the bona fide terror of hearing that busy signal sounding over and over again, instead of his voice. I returned my parent’s call yesterday, letting them know that my cousin goes to UVA, not Virginia Tech.
It stands at 33 dead, a sunny day on a pretty American campus. That doesn’t sound right. That body count sounds like it came out of an afternoon in Baghdad, or some dusty village in Afghanistan, like yesterday’s 9 dead and 25 wounded in the town of Kunduz, located on the other side of the world. Kunduz is business as usual to us, but Blacksburg: closer to home, personal, real, and, though it should no longer be so, unexpected.
What of this young student, not a year older than I, who shot close to 50 people yesterday without a word? I suspect now that we know his name and where he is from, we feel more comfortable with giving expression to our outrage, and have quickly forgotten about acknowledging our shame.
The headlines have already honed in on the shooter’s South Korean citizenship. Already our news outlets are bringing up the fact that liberal, foreign media and persons send condolences to us, but also criticism for elements of our governance and culture that make such atrocities not just possible, but predictable. How sad that in today’s day and age, the most telling voices of criticism, whether from Colorado or the Corriere della Sera, are so often written off as un-American.
Never mind the fact that Cho Seung-Hui had lived 15 of his 23 years—the majority of his life and all of his formative adolescence and young adulthood, the ages when people are most likely to go shoot up a school—in the United States, in Centreville, Virginia, home of the Wildcats. Never mind that these incidents have happened all but annually, in our country, for several years running now, and we have still not learned the lessons we needed to learn after Columbine.
Please, let us not fool ourselves again. If we want answers or can dare even to dream of real solutions, we cannot again take the luxury of forgoing self-reflection and instead place foreign names, faces and faiths into the dossier of our own tragedy, as we have (with plenty of encouragement from our media and a great number of our leaders) grown content with doing in the past few years.
Today and the day after will fail to deliver the quick, matter-of-fact answer that we busy and impassive Americans have come to expect from our media. As school shooting incidents have occurred with increasing regularity (and less coverage) over the past few years, we have, as with other tragedies and setbacks, failed to maintain a national dialogue that seriously attempts to generate reflection and build understanding of this now established, very American phenomenon, which continues to periodically outdo itself both in sheer scale and callousness.
So quick to punish kids rather than reach out to them, so quick to wage new wars abroad than to fight the old battles at home, to protect access to guns rather than keep them out of the hands of our youth, our government, as well as our society, have gone to great lengths to look past the mirror when identifying our perceived problems and priorities. As a nation, we are being encouraged to turn away from the realities glaring right at us, and are fast losing the ability to recognize and address our own contradictions, injustices, and shortcomings. Is it any surprise that we remain complacent in the face of the lies, rhetoric, and hubris of an administration that truly operates as if it is above the law, when doing otherwise would entail us owning up to our own sense of entitlement to lethargy, hypocrisy, and ignorance?
For me, the aftermath of September 11, the continuous, gory inertia of the wars, and the archetype that recurred yesterday, April 16 at VA Tech, do not have stem from the same cause per se. They share the same place, however, in representing the failure of a society—drowning in anger, fear, and, most ignominiously, unshakeable complacence and apathy—to seriously self-reflect. These events are among the many symptoms of a society that does not demand accountability from a government more concerned with the profit margins of arms industries than with the safety of its citizens, a government that makes blue and green and yellow alerts but can never seem to make peace or tend to its own citizens in New Orleans, a government which just outside the nation’s capitol allows 18-year-olds to buy handguns without a background check, safety training, or registration with the police, and lets 13-year-olds buy shotguns without parental permission.