The fragility of human existence


There is a movement among some bloggers to honor those who were killed in the Virginia Tech shootings by holding a day of blog silence on April 30. It is entirely possible that I won't be writing anything on April 30, but if so, it will not be because of a day of silence; it will simply be because I will happen to have nothing to say on that day.

I don't want to sound callous or insensitive. What happened to those victims was terrible, of course; but the fact is that people around the world grieve every day because their loved ones have died in senseless, unnecessary deaths. And yet those other people don't have the privilege of American flags being lowered to half mast, or of high ranking politicians attending their funerals, or of a day of blogger silence carried out in their honor. I think we really have to ask ourselves if we are being fair when we selectively honor one set of victims senseless tragedies while we ignore the far greater number of others who also die senselessly.

Just a little over a week ago, the WHO reported that 400,000 people worldwide under the age of 25 die annually in traffic accidents. That's more than 1000 young people a day. That amounts to, in other words, about 30 Virginia Techs every single day. Here's a question to ponder: does anyone believe that the families of those young people who die in this carnage on the streets grieved one iota less than the families of the victims at Virginia Tech?

Is it wrong to compare deaths from traffic accidents to deaths from shootings? I don't think so. Loved ones grieve just as much when those they love are taken from them suddenly and unexpectedly. But if one insists that the issue here is not just unnecessary death, but also violence, I would say, okay--if you feel I am not making an apples to apples to comparison, then just consider the number of people who are murdered in the United States on any given day. How many of those victims of violence are honored in this way?

Violence is a serious problem in human society, and has been for much of its history--there is no question about it. It is perhaps the most insidious of human evils, serving as it does as a concrete expression of hate, the very opposite of the abstract philosophical and religious idea of love. And mass murder does really jar us because it does call our attention to the problem of violence that plagues the world in smaller degrees all the time. We certainly need to address the problem of violence--violence by individuals, as well as violence by states ( the death penalty, or the war in Iraq, to cite just two examples of the latter).

So, philosophically, I do think that the question of ending violence should be at the forefront of our minds. But, philosophically, I also think that we do have to ask ourselves how it is that humans often live in denial about the fragility of our own existence.

We often seem to suffer under an illusion that we can create, or that there should be, some form of sanctuary from the random darts that life throws us. We think we can somehow build little zones of safety, and if we can somehow exist as much as possible within those zones of safety, all will be okay, and we will then live to ripe old ages, when we will die peacefully of old age, hopefully in our sleep. College campuses,with their frequently laid out idyllic settings, are supposed to be examples of such zones of safety. If someone is shot in a dangerous neighborhood, well, we at some small level may dismiss that as somehow being that person's fault (similar logic is often applied to rape victims who dress "provocatively".) But mass murder on a college campus violates this conception--it shatters the illusion that anyone can ever be truly sheltered from those random darts.

In reality, none of us is every truly safe. Most of us never give the slightest thought to getting into a car--and yet, in fact, people die in traffic accidents every day.

Life is, unfortunately, a crap shoot. We don't want to admit it. We labor under the delusion of certainty and security. Yet some of us die unnecessarily. My mother wasn't a young, fresh college student full of bright prospects for the future when she died several years ago, unnecessarily, in a traffic accident caused by another motorist who was driving way past the speed limit. She was, in fact, an old woman. Nor was David Halberstram, the author who was just killed this past week in a traffic accident, a young man. Yet each of those deaths was both tragic and unnecessary.

All of us, if we live long enough, grieve the death of others we know personally. Some, perhaps many, of the ones we survive will have died sudden, unnecessary, deaths. Those deaths at Virginia Tech remind us of the tragedy of the human condition, of the fragility of our lives, of the randomness that effects us no matter how much we try to micromanage our existence. I think that the best way we can honor those who died in Virginia Tech is to honor all of those who have died tragically and unnecessarily in the world--including those 1000 or so young people who will die today somewhere in the world in a traffic accident.


Greg said...

Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

As one who lives near the Blacksburg area, attends church in Blacksburg, and has a partner who attends Virginia Tech, the tragedy is truly at home for me. And, sure enough, all we who call it home are experiencing our share of grief. Obviously, it is a huge deal to us.

And, as one who is in the midst of the Tech tragedy, I can see your point. I believe Nikki Giovanni said much of the same thing - tactfully - in her address to the Virginia Tech student body and community shortly after the shootings: "We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy."

She really put it in perspective.

Multitudes die unjustly every single day. We seem to think nothing of it when a poor, homeless indivdual is murdered on the cold street. But that individual's life and existence is worth just as much as a young college student who has a perceived potential to society.

Respectfully submitted,