Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tragedy Reveals Insanity

I remember April 20, 1999. I was in eighth grade at the time. Being 420 day, there was mild disorder at my school, students acting out a lot. We had a sub for math class, and we were so mean to her that (I kid you not) the entire class got referred to the office twice. We answered all of the math questions with 420, asked the sub about what she thought of Dawson's Creek (she was an avid fan), and were generally obnoxious. It was good fun, though. That was sixth period. At some point during seventh period, the last for the day, word was drifting through the school about someone getting shot in Colorado. When I got home, I watched the news.

The next day, my school was closed. When we got back, we heard that the killers were goth kids who played Doom and listened to Marilyn Manson. We had school closed another time that year, from a bogus bomb threat. Trenchcoats were banned from the school dress code.

I remember September 11, 2001. I was riding to community college, I think with Matthew. We heard something strange on the radio about the World Trade Center and an airplane. I sat through my 9:35 AM western civ class, and went to physics class after that. Campus closed before lab was supposed to start; everyone went home. I hitched a ride from one of the other math tutors. When I got home, I watched the news.

The next day would have been my first day working at the Army Research Lab, but the military base was closed. We heard it was radical Muslim terrorists. I wondered if it was the end of the world; I'd seen the Left Behind movie and knew that the end of the world had something to do with mayhem in the Middle East. I saw this article on The Onion once, and it reminds me of the mentality we had shortly after 9/11. We baked cakes, had candlelight vigils, memorial services. The Senate sang "God Bless America".

What I find striking about attacks and massacres is that we follow a pattern; each tragedy is basically the same as the one before. The evil event happens, then we close schools or businesses for a day, we mourn the loss with candles and American-flag cakes, and then we have a witch hunt. People who play violent video games or Dungeons and Dragons, watch violent movies, listen to rock or metal, social outcasts, religious radicals, and the neurologically atypical, we now know, are the most likely to go on a killing spree.

The witch hunt is my personal favorite phase of the recovery process, because I find that, with each new killing spree, I fit the profile of a mass murderer more fully, which is funny, because I don't feel like a mass murderer. I flinch when I set mousetraps, afraid I'll get snapped. I just happen to like Dungeons and Dragons, Half-Life 2, Reservoir Dogs, Metallica, and Jesus, and I have ADD and anxiety problems.

I don't understand the American response to tragedy. At least, I hope I don't. I hope my best guess as to why we act the way we do is incorrect.

On September 11, about 3,000 people died. We baked American flag cakes, had candle light vigils, and the Senate sang "God Bless America". Every day, kids die from hunger and preventable disease, ten times as many as died in the attacks on September 11. Why does death get our attention some times, but not others?

Perhaps poverty and starvation, the AIDS epidemic, disease from bad drinking water, and the slave trade don't make good news, because you can't express the evil behind the pain in a sound byte. We remember the image of flames and smoke coming out of the World Trade Center. Starving kids don't make for captivating TV. If that were all there were to the inconsistency of mourning American tragedies while ignoring global atrocities, that would be awful, but, still, understandable.

But, then again, the Indian Ocean Tsunami was newsworthy. There was wreckage and devastation. There were before and after pictures. Before: village. After: debris. And there is no debating the severity of the devastation: 180,00 people died -- sixty times the number that died from the September 11 attacks. The Tsunami made the news, and some people gave to the Red Cross, but where were the candlelight vigils and car ribbons saying "Support Burma"?

Here's my hypothesis, and I hope it's wrong. I think we care most about tragedies when they happen to people like us because our response to tragedy is rooted not in mercy and grief, but in fear; we react the most when we see people die in ways that remind us that we could die tomorrow. I see the starving kids on the commercials on TV, and I feel guilty, perhaps, or pity, but not fear. I see starving kids and think, "They are dying and need help", but, other college kids get shot, and I think, "I could get shot, too." And then Seinfeld comes back on, and Kramer makes a salad in the shower, and I laugh, because, seriously, who makes salad in the shower? That's gross!

Perhaps this explains why we pay attention to mass murders here, while ignoring mass starvation overseas. I can't think of any other reason why we bake cakes and have memorial services and make Facebook groups in memory of the dead, while we generally fail to act to help those who are still living. This inconsistency enrages me; our response to tragedy is not compassion, it is the American folk religion. Not that I am not grieved by the losses at Virginia Tech on Monday, it's just that it makes more sense to me to grieve a thousand times that every day, for the kids who are starving. I just can't mourn enough. I can't start a thousand Facebook groups a day, or have a thousand moments of silence, or a thousand memorial services. If the deaths from 9/11 were worth a cake, I'd need to bake ten cakes a day to keep up with deaths from starvation, as if that would help matters.

I'm frustrated because I don't feel nearly enough empathy for starving kids, AIDS victims, the poor, and slaves, and you can tell I'm not doing enough because I continue buying and consuming and tuning out.

What about the witch hunts? Those get to me.

Here's my hypothesis on the witch hunts, and, again, I hope I'm wrong. I think the witch hunts come about because, at the back of our minds, we're not only asking "What if I get shot, too?" but "What if I go on a killing spree, too?" We listen carefully, trying to find some way to prove that we are categorically different from the killers, so we don't have to worry that we'll become them. Victims enter the heaven of being remembered as martyrs, murderers are sent to the hell of being remembered as villains. The murderers get remembered longer than the victims, most of the time. Can you name one person killed by Jack the Ripper? Lizzie Borden we might remember as having killed her father and stepmother with an axe, but we don't remember either of the victims' names.

So we blame Dungeons and Dragons, violent video games, extremist religion, atypical neurology, so that we know for sure that we are, in fact, good people, incapable of causing such an atrocity. We can continue to feel good about ourselves by refusing to empathize with killers.

The way that I find myself responding to Columbine, to 9/11, and now, to the Virginia Tech shootings, is identification with the killers, because I can't help but relate. Like Dylan and Eric, I like violent video games. Like the September 11 killers, I am deeply religious, and concerned with some of the same global issues that they were. Like Cho Seung-Hui, I am a loner who listens to alt rock. I don't see what's so very different about us. I suppose I was a bit dismissive earlier about how I'll obviously never become a mass murderer. I am capable of the same evils that these killers are; my evils just don't make the news.

For people like me, we have an alternative way of coping with the idea that we could be evil, we victimize the killers, and shift the blame elsewhere; this happened after Columbine. It's been explained to me that Eric and Dylan were excluded, and if someone had just reached out to them, the Columbine massacre could have been prevented; the real fault lies on the football players and cheerleaders who overturned some outcast's lunch tray. Then, we outcasts cope by blaming and hating the popular kids.

I can fool myself into thinking that nerds and losers like me aren't evil, just misunderstood; when we do wrong, it's the fault of the society around us placing on us undue pressure. But I know what I'm doing. I take pride in being a hipster, but I know that in shifting the blame, I affirming that I'm a mainstream American, the only difference is I'm wearing Groucho glasses.

The only authentic way for me to rebel against this culture is to say that I am capable of great evil, I do great evil. It's not the D&D, or the video games, the music, the religion, or the ADD and anxiety. It's not the American society around me. I am evil; I could attribute it to negative external influences, but don't really need the help in being evil. I'm worse than the mass murderers; at least, they're being consistent within their world views of despair and martyrdom. I am a hypocrite. I don't do that much more for social justice than the average American, I just talk about it more. I'm lazy and afraid and judgmental.

To stay there, to revel in the despair of my evil, is nihilism. It would work, but it's too easy of a way out. I think that I'm too good and important and unique to do that. I could try to change, to become better than I am, but I have tried to change, and it's gotten me right where I am. I try to find Life by changing myself. I can't stand Madonna, and she's doing the exact same thing that I am, shaping her image to become the woman she wants people to see, and she's been doing it longer than I have, and she's better at it than I ever will be.

"Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"


  1. Peter G was saying something similar (though in a more Calvinist way of course) and I was having a hard time not saying "Well it's partly caused by society!" and "Well it's partly caused by mental instability", and your post did a pretty good job of reminding me that "everyone is crooked deep down" (to quote everyone's favorite young, bald, currently-living, presbyterian song writer) and that the potential for clearly evil, intentional actions is present in all. I still haven't worked out why then all don't perform clearly evil, intentional actions. Maybe everyone does? I doubt that...

    And the quote you end with is perfect. Except that you left out the important next line.

  2. You're correct, I did leave off the important next line.

  3. Wow, thanks for posting this. I've been having discussions related to the various points you bring up for the past few days...

    My answer to why we react more strongly to the VA Tech tragedy than we do to tragedy abroad is simply that it's natural to relate to people who are closer to you or more like you. I don't think there's anything wrong with, say, feeling more sadness over the VA Tech victims than the victims of world hunger. We can't help what we feel. I DO think that it's wrong to treat the former as more important than the latter, b/c we CAN help what we THINK and what we do about what we think.

    I also found your words about "American folk religion" striking, b/c really, what do candlelight vigils DO about anything? It's really making me think.

    I totally related to Eric and Dylan when the Columbine shooting happened. I actually get upset when people say that there were 13 victims at Columbine, because there were 15, and everyone just wants to write them off as villians who are somehow not worth as much as the martyrs they killed. And now people are referring to Cho as a "nut" and a "wack job" who just "snapped," and I have to say to them - no, this guy was one of us, he IS us, and we need to figure out what went wrong before we get worse.

    Would you mind if I posted a link to this somewhere more public? Or copy/pasted some of it? Let me know... I think there are others who might want/need to chew on the thoughts you wrote about.

  4. For anything I blog, you can post any excerpts you want, as long as you also provide a link to the blog.

    Thanks for the thoughts, Karissa!

  5. howdy friend of matthew,
    since you gave permission to that one little lady, i take it for granted that i have permission to link to this post as well?

    Excellent insights.

  6. Yes, to clarify, my linking policy is as follows:

    For anything I blog, you can post any excerpts you want, as long as you also provide a link to the blog.