When people die senseless deaths, we mourn.
Our lives are precarious, more precarious than we care to think about. We could be minding our business on a peaceful, quiet university campus, and then...
But I ask you: are there any sensible deaths?
Hatred and mass murder transfix us because they shine a light into the dark inner soul of evil, something we rarely encounter in our everyday lives. The people we live with, the people we work with, the people we know--we assume that they will not flip out in hugely violent ways. We build our lives around assumptions of human behavior that lie within certain defined parameters of normality. We ask ourselves what can make someone so filled with hate, so lacking in a conscience? There are many tragedies at Virginia Tech--the tragedies of those lives cut short, but also the tragedy of a twisted human soul. Was there a chemical imbalance in his brain? What made him do what he did? We like to believe in human free will, that people make moral choices, and then we judge them on the basis of those choices. That is why we don't get angry at killer hurricanes while we do get angry at mass murderers. Hurricanes don't make moral choices.
As we mourn those who died, I think of the full breadth of the tragedy of human mortality. When lots of people die in one place and time, we are transfixed. Mass murder and airplane crashes make the headlines--yet, every single day people are murdered in dribs and drabs, and people die in traffic accidents in dribs in drabs. Those dribs and drabs add up to numbers much greater than what transfixes us on the evening news. In 2005, 43,443 died in traffic accidents in the US. Divide that by 365, and you find that gives you nearly 120 people on an average day. 120 senseless deaths. About that many people are murdered in a typical year in Oakland, California. More senseless deaths.
We often live with the illusion of safety. In this era of modern medicine, we expect to live long lives and die a natural death. But the reality is that we can be cut down at any time, unexpectedly. My mother was killed by a speeding motorist in a traffic accident. This was a single tragedy, involving just herself and the other motorist. Two people died in that incident, and it was just an accident, not a conscious decision by one twisted individual to kill another.
We tell ourselves that the Virgina Tech murderer, by this act of violence, intruded on the safe haven of a college campus. But this is an illusion; there are no safe havens. A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote,
It is easier, after all, if our tragedies have a certain logic to them. We all understand that there are crazy, paranoid nuts, and that in this country it is not difficult for them to get hold of guns. If Cho had gone on a killing spree in a drug deal gone sour or in some kind of bizarre terrorist attack, we'd at least have a framework to react."College is supposed to be a sanctuary." But is there really ever a sanctuary from the randomness that effects our lives? Is there any such thing as absolute safety?
But college is supposed to be a sanctuary, the first stop away from home for our children. It is a way station between high school and adulthood.
We live in a crazy world. George Bush delivered his condolences at a memorial service for the victims of the Virginia Tech murders. This is the same man who started an unnecessary war in Iraq that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, and by all rights should be counted as a war criminal. This is the same man who, as Governor of Texas, once signed a death warrant and then mocked the woman who was to be killed. Do we not live in a mad world?
Christians celebrate the life and teachings of a man who was unnecessarily executed, whose life was cut short in his prime. This man, Jesus, promoted a message of healing, love, and forgiveness. To celebrate Jesus is to celebrate the crazy, radical notion that nonviolent love is best even in the face of evil, even if it is defeated in the short term--and to say that his message did not die even if he was executed for what he believed in. To champion Jesus is to champion not the short term, but the long run.
We want easy answers. We want a world where everything is safe and secure, where good will triumph over evil, where death will be vanquished. We want no mass murderers in our world. But the sad truth is that they exist. We are faced with an existential dilemma. We can give up in despair. Or we can surround ourselves in escapist mythology. Or--last, but not least--we can, as Albert Camus urged us to do, keep pushing that stone up the hill like Sisyphus did. I live in the hope that we can build a better world. It is that hope, and the promise that the ideal of universal love can deliver that hope, that keeps me from falling into despair.