Sunday, April 22, 2007

Thoughts on the Virginia Tech massacre

We all share in the horror and revulsion over the senseless massacre of 31 teachers and students at Virginia Tech at the hands of Cho Seung-Hui last week. We all mourn for those killed, and grieve with their families and friends. But the massacre also raised issues over which we are sharply divided.

For starters there is the way that we talk about the killer and his victims. Dennis Prager makes this good point about the way the news media talks about the killer:

Let's also drop the nearly universal moral absurdity of counting murderers among the dead. As of this writing, eight hours after the massacre, I see on all the networks "32 dead." It should read "31 murdered." I do not know when exactly this notion of counting murderers along with their victims began, but it is a moral travesty.

No news organization would have imagined giving the number of dead at Pearl Harbor so as to include Japanese pilots shot down. But in our age of moral neutrality, all dead are given equal weight -- the terrorist along with his victims; the shooter along with the students.

Why is the Virginia Tech murderer always referred to as the "gunman" and not the "murderer"? Had he stabbed a dozen students to death, would he be the "knifeman"?


The term gunman draws attention to the fact that he had a gun, not the fact that he murdered 32 people. One can be a gunman without murdering people, and one can murder without a gun. The more accurate term would be murderer. Going strictly by the language used, one would think that the true crime committed here was carrying a gun. Weren't the police officers who responded to the scene also gunmen?

Bryan Appleyard expressed a typically European attitude of abhorrence with guns when he said:

I've always felt queasy in the presence of guns. It's their single-mindedness. Some machines have a consoling superfluity. Cars seem to be more than just machines for rolling down the road; good cameras do more than just take pictures. But, with the exception of the finest English shotguns, guns are just killing machines. I also don't understand going out into the countryside to shoot things. I feel it's a terrible failure of the imagination, like taking a television set on a hike. The wilderness is complete and self-justifying; all we are required to do is look at it. Many Americans value guns in ways that, occasionally, I have begun to understand, but, on the whole, I don't. Last night I saw a man say that, if the students at Virginia Tech had been armed, then the slaughter there would have been avoided. If Hamadryas Baboons had nuclear weapons, said E.O.Wilson, the world would end in a few days. If students, with all their un(in)formed passions, had guns, then every campus would be a slaughterhouse.


Queasiness is allowable, and understandable. But it shouldn't taint one's view of the role that guns play in our society. A perfect world would not need guns, but a perfect world attitude imposed upon an imperfect world makes an imperfect world worse. Human society is only possible through violence. It is all too easy to overlook the fact that society requires order. Order is acheived two ways: through self-governance, voluntary acts of mutual respect of individual rights, or by state governance, acheived through the coercive application of violence. The latter is the default state of all societies larger than an extended family, but the former can be employed within the state to enhance order. Both forms of governance are facilitated by guns.

We all know and agree that state governance requires access to weapons of violence, primarily guns. For that reason alone guns are a useful and indispensable tool for securing the rights of citizens to live in an orderly society. But self-governance is also enhanced by the lawful possesion and use of guns by individual citizens. Acts of self-restraint by would be criminals are reinforced by the knowledge that armed would-be victims do not make worthwhile targets. The ability of citizens to employ armed violence in their own defence is another great boon to the health of society. Unfortunately this is the point that gun control advocates cannot see through the rose colored glasses of their perfect world wishful thinking. Ann Coulter makes an unusually (for her) serious and lucid argument in this regard:

The best we can do is enact policies that will reduce the death toll when these acts of carnage occur, as they will in a free and open society of 300 million people, most of whom have cable TV.

Only one policy has ever been shown to deter mass murder: concealed-carry laws. In a comprehensive study of all public, multiple-shooting incidents in America between 1977 and 1999, the inestimable economists John Lott and Bill Landes found that concealed-carry laws were the only laws that had any beneficial effect.

And the effect was not insignificant. States that allowed citizens to carry concealed handguns reduced multiple-shooting attacks by 60 percent and reduced the death and injury from these attacks by nearly 80 percent.

Apparently, even crazy people prefer targets that can't shoot back. The reason schools are consistently popular targets for mass murderers is precisely because of all the idiotic "Gun-Free School Zone" laws.

From the people who brought you "zero tolerance," I present the Gun-Free Zone! Yippee! Problem solved! Bam! Bam! Everybody down! Hey, how did that deranged loner get a gun into this Gun-Free Zone?

It isn't the angst of adolescence. Plenty of school shootings have been committed by adults with absolutely no reason to be at the school, such as Laurie Dann, who shot up the Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Ill., in 1988; Patrick Purdy, who opened fire on children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., in 1989; and Charles Carl Roberts, who murdered five schoolgirls at an Amish school in Lancaster County, Pa., last year.


One other lesson from the shooting and the public reaction was captured, once again, by Dennis Prager:

Within hours of the massacre of more than 30 people at Virginia Tech University, the president of the university issued his first statement on the evil that had just engulfed the college campus and concluded with this:

"We're making plans for a convocation tomorrow at noon in Cassell Coliseum for the university to come together to begin the healing process from this terrible tragedy."

In this photo provided by the Collegiate Times, ambulances wait on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., following multiple shootings, Monday, April 16, 2007. At least 30 people have been reported killed. (AP Photo/Collegiate Times)

Other university officials also spoke about beginning the healing process and about bringing in counselors to help students heal.

I believe that this early healing talk is both foolish and immoral.

It is foolish because one does not speak about healing the same day (or week or perhaps even month) that one is traumatized -- especially by evil. One must be allowed time for anger and grief. To speak of healing and "closure" before one goes through those other emotions is to speak not of healing but of suppression.

Not to allow people time to experience their natural, and noble, instincts to feel rage and grief actually deprives them of the ability to heal in the long run. After all, if there is no rage and grief, what is there to heal from?

The Jewish tradition, still observed even by non-Orthodox Jews, is to sit "shiva" (seven) days and do nothing but mourn and receive visitors after the death of an immediate relative. One does not have to be a religious Jew or even a Jew to appreciate this ancient wisdom.

It is not good for people to feign normalcy immediately after the loss of a loved one. People who have not been allowed, or not allowed themselves, time to grieve suffer later on. Any child who loses a parent and is "protected" from grieving by a well-intentioned parent who tries to act "normal" right after the other parent's death is likely to pay a steep psychological price.

Personally, I don't want to heal now. I want to feel rage at the monster who slaughtered all those young innocent people at Virginia Tech. And I want to grieve over those innocents' deaths.

This whole notion of instant healing (like its twin, instant forgiveness) is also morally wrong.

First, it is narcissistic. It focuses on me and my pain, not on the murderer and the murdered.

Second, it is almost obscene to talk of our healing when the bodies of the murdered are still lying in their blood on the very spot they were slaughtered. Our entire focus of attention must be on them and on the unspeakable suffering of their loved ones, not on the pain of the student body and the Virginia Tech "community."

This notion of instant healing and preoccupation with the feelings of the peripherally involved, as opposed to the feelings of the directly hurt and anger over the evil committed, are functions of the psychotherapeutic culture in which we live.


In line with that thought, I personally think that it is possible to overdo the public recognition of sorrow. It seems that every like tragedy nowadays is an occasion for governors to order flags to be flown at half-staff. This was once only an honor bestowed upon the passing of presidents or extroadinary statesmen. It was a gesture of the state for the top person of the state. Now the state has gotten into the business of memorializing personal, private tragedy. That was once the sole province of families, friends and churches. I don't want the state in the grief memorial business, or the "healing" business. I blame the relentlessly corrupting influence of electoral politics combined with the relentlessly shallowing effect of ratings-driven tragedy coverage for the expectation that the national government as well as every state and local office holder feels obligated to "do something" for every tragedy that gains media attention.

I think a little stoicism is in order. Lets not make the memorialization of victimhood the highest expression of our national character.

3 Comments:

Blogger Mark Frank said...


Only one policy has ever been shown to deter mass murder: concealed-carry laws. In a comprehensive study of all public, multiple-shooting incidents in America between 1977 and 1999, the inestimable economists John Lott and Bill Landes found that concealed-carry laws were the only laws that had any beneficial effect.


I don't have an axe to grind about US gun laws - but I hate to see John Lott given such a write up. I am sure you know that he is a highly controversial figure and his statistical conclusions about guns have been challenged by institutions such as the National Academy of Science. I have not followed this in detail, but I do know he has written stuff bordering on the dishonest (or deranged) about UK crime and guns. To describe him as "inestimable" is laughable.

April 22, 2007 10:24 AM  
Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

Duck, you make a good point about stoicism. A lot of people commenting on these murders would be well served to ask themselves if they would say the same thing at one of the victim's funerals.

As much as that is true for grandstanding to score one cultural point or another, it also goes for overwrought displays of grief by those not directly affected or attached to the murders. At best this is an intrusion on the grief of their friends and family, at worst, well, it's much worse.

April 22, 2007 10:57 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I will defend the policy of flying flags at half-mast when momentous tragedies occur. In fact, I think that's a better use of the half-mast salute than the expected and normal passing of a past political great.

Whether it's a space shuttle that's not coming home, a terrorist attack, or a deranged shooting spree, it's an acknowledgement that the entire community is wounded, that the effects aren't confined to the immediate families and friends of the victims.

If I ever fell into the tragedy-mourner situation, I'd be comforted by the gesture - although not much.

April 22, 2007 12:00 PM  

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