Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Murder in Virginia

On most days I watch the ongoing carnage in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and wonder to myself, what are these morons thinking? And then I look at the news from here in America and wonder to myself, what are we thinking, and what must the rest of the world think of us?

Yesterday, what appears at the moment to have been a lone killer methodically murdered more than 30 people at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, a few hours drive from here. The details are still fuzzy, but the initial reports indicate that a man armed with at least two handguns and a vest full of ammunition killed two people in a dormitory and then, several hours later, chained the doors of an academic building shut and murdered more than 30 more before killing himself. At least a dozen persons are in hospitals, some of whom may yet die.

When the shock wears off, the finger-pointing will begin and the lawyers will circle like clouds of vultures around the tasty carrion of lucrative litigation. Why did no one see this coming? Why was the campus not locked down after the first shootings, several hours before the major part of the massacre? Why did the police not respond more quickly and effectively? Who was the killer and why did he do what he did?

There are several obvious contributing factors to the tragedy. One is obvious, and yet considered off the table for rational discussion in America - the easy availability of powerful firearms. Another is, perhaps, not so obvious.

Back in the mid-70's, a New York fireman named Dennis Smith wrote an entertaining, gritty, tragic, at times funny book about his experiences called "Report from Engine Company 82" (still available from Amazon.com). At one point in the book, Smith describes being pelted with rocks by angry bystanders as his crew tried to fight a fire. He described the crazy scene of trying to save lives and property while being attacked, and wrote: "I used to believe that people who threw rocks at firemen were motivated by conditions - the lower depths of American society. I used to believe that the fundamental problems were housing and education ... but I don't believe that anymore. ... The disease is more seriously latent, more pernicious than uncaring landlords or bureaucratic, apathetic school officials. The malignancy lies in the guts of humankind at all levels. We have unlearned the value of a human life."

We have unlearned the value of a human life.

I think these nine words sum up much of the reason that we have insane levels of violence in the Middle East and school shootings in America. In the Middle East, stupid clerics more interested in land, perceived grievance, and the literal interpretation of religious texts encourage the murder not only of Jews and Christians, but even of other sects of their own religion. In the United States, television cop shows and action movies celebrate graphic violence. A study done in 1999 for the Senate Judiciary Committee estimated that the average child in the United States will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on television by the time he or she reaches age 18 (http://judiciary.senate.gov/oldsite/mediavio.htm), and that most of these violent acts go unpunished, and are often accompanied by humor. The consequences of human suffering and loss are rarely depicted.

We have unlearned the value of a human life.

I have three wonderful grandchildren, with a fourth on the way. They will grow up in a world in which life is cheap and violent images abound. Watching the Roadrunner drop an anvil on Wile E. Coyote's head in the cartoons, or blow him up with his Acme Time Bomb, may be fun, but I have to believe it has contributed as much to the desensitization of our children to death and injury as the over-the-top violence of action films.

When I was in grade school in the late 50's and early 60's, we had 'duck and cover' exercises for the nuclear war our parents believed was likely. Today, schools have lockdown exercises to prepare for random violence born here at home.

The NRA is doubtless already mobilizing to make sure people know that firearms are utterly blameless in the shooting deaths of more than 30 people. Lawyers and psychologists will clash in court. The President and other national leaders will pontificate. Congressional hearings will be scheduled. But the real problem will remain unmentioned.

We have unlearned the value of a human life.

Have a good day. Pray, in whatever fashion you choose, for the innocent victims at Blacksburg and around the world, and be thankful if you were not touched by the violence.

More thoughts tomorrow.


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