Atrocity, tragedy, spectacle

Posted: Apr 22, 2007 12:00 AM
Atrocity, tragedy, spectacle

Here in Virginia it's a bright, sunny, spring Sunday — for most of us. But for those with loved ones killed or wounded at Virginia Tech, today is just one more day in a long, hard "aftermath."

Life certainly isn't fair. On most matters, this is a fact for which most of us should be thankful.

This tragedy touches us all. We can all imagine the pain of rearing a child to the point of adulthood and struggling so hard to place that child in a rewarding and very safe environment. And then for that child to be gunned down, murdered in cold blood . . .

But we're merely imagining. Most of us have no frame of reference to truly appreciate the unfathomable but very real and crushing loss faced by 32 — no, 33 — sets of parents, spouses, siblings. And close friends.

Death often sneaks up on us. As did this explosion of terror. I got the smallest taste of this when I mentioned to my wife that it sure is a good thing our oldest daughter's boyfriend had recently left Virginia Tech, having graduated. She told me his younger brother was still a student there. And there was that moment, before she said his brother was okay.

In fact, on that fateful morning the brother had still been asleep in his dormitory — where and when the first shooting took place.

That little detail reminded me how quickly life can change. In the bat of an eye we can go from lucky, if that's what you want to call it, to unlucky. Or vice versa.

It also reminded me of my own college days. I slept through a lot of things, too. Like the first semester of my freshman year. Unfortunately, the incredible sadness in Virginia this week turns my usual jesting into a feeble attempt at humor.

So what do we do — we, the bystanders?

Maybe it's what we don't do. The media was quick to jump on the response to the shooting by the university's administration and police. As if college officials are supposed to be clairvoyant.

In the first hours and day after the atrocity, Virginia Tech students spoke about healing, and they expressed again and again what a welcoming campus environment they had at Tech, but the media (with all the subtlety of a trained seal working a jackhammer) again and again solicited any possible anger the students might express toward the university for failing to maintain some kind of perfect security utopia. Mere hours after these university officials witnessed first-hand the human carnage, with many bodies still yet to be identified, was not the proper time to begin their trial by mass media.

This is not to say that the university response or that of the police shouldn't be reviewed. But any critique should be conducted calmly after they and the victims have had some time to absorb the horror inflicted upon them.

Sure, I know journalists want to pursue the next story. That's only natural. And the media will dither on about competitive pressures brought about by today's 24/7 news-cycle. But it really is possible for people in the media to exercise self-control, to have standards, make sound judgments and show respect in their coverage.

The folks dealing with this horrific event deserve no less.

Of course, while journalists do indeed have a moral and social (though not legal) responsibility to put the right stuff up on our television screens, there is a dual responsibility on our part — to turn the channel when they don't.

For instance, should the killer's video production have been splashed across the nation's television screens? It is news, but it can serve to perversely glorify the killer. It's a tough call for the networks; an easy one for anyone whose TV remote has an on/off button.

Others will rush to debate gun control. But guns were already prohibited on campus. Seems Cho Seung-Hui broke that rule, too.

Others will look for changes in policies regarding mental illness. But not every one suffering from mental illness shoots up a college campus. Neither do most people who write creepy stories and essays about bloodbaths. Our policies shouldn't assume they will.

Stephen Chapman said it best on "[T]he first error is taking a freakishly horrible event as a basis for anything except mourning."

The students and faculty that comprise the Hokie Nation, and their loved ones, will take time to heal. They will hug each other and talk. And they'll suffer and grieve and go on as best they can. That's the bittersweet reality of this world.

This healing has already begun. On the Virginia Tech campus, a memorial has popped up with 32 large rocks to symbolize the 32 victims. The rocks have been decorated with notes and flowers and personal memorabilia. One of the most moving acts of this past week was the fact that students added and decorated a 33rd stone. For Cho, the killer.

What a beautiful sign of the strength of love, goodness and humanity that is possible in our world. At week's end, I am greatly more impressed with Virginia Tech as an institution than I ever was before.

And as for the rest of us, we will hold our own kids a little tighter.