The shootings at Virginia Tech inaugurated a new round of debates not only over such obvious issues as campus security and gun control but of the more fundamental questions of who we think we are as American and who we would like to be. The debate, as much as the killings, gives testimony (though not “eloquent testimony”) to our degeneracy. The grandiloquent statements of public officials were particularly disturbing.
The president of the university, fumbling for the right cliché, described this as a tragedy of monumental proportions. These incidents are inevitably called tragedies, but that is precisely what they are not. In a tragedy such as Oedipus or Macbeth, a basically great man, trusting too much in his own abilities, deludes himself into making self-destructive decisions. Flaws in his character lead him first to arrogance, and then down the path of folly and ruin. Tragedies make moral sense of the human world, while these pointless murders seem to reveal a world that makes no sense. In calling them tragedies, we are essentially saying that human existence is pointless.
This is not just a “semantic point.” It is all too true that most Americans, like most people everywhere in all periods of history, speak without thinking. But the proverbs of unreflective peasants are deeply rooted in historical experience. Our clichés and mental tics are more like the propaganda invented by liberals ignorant of human nature and human history. In our mythology, children are smarter than adults, and women are stronger and braver than men. We believe that we really do care about people killing each other in Nigeria, even though we do nothing about the murders taking place on the other side of town, and we insist on calling every pointless misfortune a tragedy. We can only talk this way because we have tossed away our moral compasses.
The President of the United States arrived in Blacksburg with his wife, saying their hearts were “full of sorrow.” We have come to expect this sort of talk from politicians, but it cannot be true. The President knew none of these people and had no particular connection to the university. If he had such sorrow in his heart every time a baby was aborted or a drunk driver wiped out a family, he could not get through the day. If shaking your head and saying Those poor kids! constitutes a heart full of sorrow, then I suppose my heart is just as filled as the President’s, but I have managed to eat a good dinner every day, do my job, joke with friends, and rejoice in the birth of a grandchild. When Simon Cowell rolled his eyes in impatience over an American Idol contestant who tried to manipulate the audience by expressing his heartfelt condolences, he was given the Don Imus treatment. I am not a fan of Mr. Cowell or the music he promotes, but his manifest disgust revealed a residual sense of shame I should have thought he had jettisoned long ago. He made up for his lapse a few weeks later in a maudlin program that raised over $60 million for Africa. If we can judge from past experience, most of the money will be wasted or stolen, and what is actually spent on Africa will do more harm than good.
The more we feign sorrow for strangers, the less capable we are of sorrow and compassion for the people we know and for whom we are responsible. George Bush is responsible for the security and well-being of a country where more than 40 people are murdered on an average day. If the statistics I have seen are accurate, illegal aliens alone account for about a dozen, and they kill a dozen more in drunk-driving accidents. Yet, faced with this problem, all the President can talk about is amnesty and “guest-worker” programs. In Iraq, as a direct result of decisions made by George Bush, many more people are killed every day: They add up to over 3,300 American soldiers and Marines, who knows how many “contractors,” and perhaps as many as 70,000 civilians since we launched our invasion. If the President has a heart, it should be brimful of sorrow for the victims, American and Iraqi, in a war that a rational man must have known he could not win.
Within hours of the shooting, the professional counselors began arriving, as predictably as ambulance-chasing lawyers at an accident scene. As a people, we are grown so dependent on “professionals” that we cannot even mourn the death of a friend without grief counselors or, as I heard on NPR, “grievance counselors.” Man cannot live without the ceremonials of religion, and, since Virginia is still, nominally at least, part of the Christian South, some people turned to their pastors and their churches. More commonly, it seems from the accounts of journalists, VT students and Blacksburg residents showed solidarity by taking part in mass rallies where they wore the school colors, maroon and orange, and chanted the school’s football cheers. At the final memorial they released, first, 32 white balloons and then a barrage of maroon and orange balloons that followed them. The cry went up, “Go, Hokies!”
There may be nothing wrong per se with any of this, but it strikes me as odd to see mass murders commemorated by pep rallies. What a strange people we have become.
Politicians and educators are holding hearings to discuss ways to improve campus safety, and there is a great deal that might be done: Better screening of students, denial of gun ownership to aliens and crazies, replacement of the metrosexual professoriate with men and women. More important than protection from drive-by shootings or classroom killers, however, is protection from the lethal sentimentality that has infected public discourse. Shun the counselors and avoid the neopagan ceremonials that are occasions for wallowing in unhappiness. And, whether you believe or not, seek solace in the Church, which has been treating the effects of sin and misery for 2,000 years.