Sunday, April 22, 2007

Virginia Tech shootings: I think I've now seen it all

This past week's shocking events on the campus of Virginia Tech University have left the nation grasping for answers. "Why?" we ask. An understandable and natural question which has lead to the predictable litany of explanations (availability of guns, dehumanizing technology, video games, violent pop culture) and suppositions emanating from psychologists, politicians, clergy, activists, media and celebrities.

But what happens when we try to rationalize the irrational?

Well, we get this kind of drivel. The most cogent answer to the question of "Why?"--that Seung-Hui Cho was most likely (or even, obviously) emotionally disturbed--is simply not enough for many in our society. Rather, that's too neat and dismissive of an answer. We have to become more sophisticated in our analysis and in doing so, the question morphs into "What drove him to insanity?" This leads to only one natural and obvious outcome: It's our fault.

The parents of these fine children are so devastated, they are residing in a community hospital. They feel deeply pained by their son's circumstance. The mother and father meant no harm; they as all parents hoped to provide the best for their children. They are troubled and think themselves responsible. Perhaps, America has let the Cho family down. They expected so much, all Americans do. However, little is received. The rewards are few. Many in the Korean community think the problem lies in the life of an émigré; however, even native born Americans struggle to make a decent wage or create a comfortable caring environment for their children. Most of us think our lack of personal success is our fault. When our offspring struggle or hurt another, we are pained. A Grandfather feels responsible for his own progeny and the product of their love. As a child Seung-Hui Cho was ridiculed and bullyed. As an adult he hid; he hoped to avoid the taunts and teasing.

According to this article, it would seem as if everyone but the man who pulled the trigger is responsible. But this obtuse line of thinking actually shouldn't surprise us. It parallels the predominant mindset which accompanies much of today's nanny culture. George Bush and the United States were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, not the 19 hijackers that commandeered the jets or a megalomaniacal religious fascist sitting in a cave in Afghanistan. 9/11 was merely the case of Churchillian chickens coming home to roost.

In his seminal book, Terror and Liberalism, author Paul Berman develops the point that when confronted with the irrational, elements within Western liberal democracies have historically resorted to such attempts to rationalize. French Socialists perceived Hitler's rants against the Jews as "excessive" and they grated on the ear, but they were not altogether without merit. Rather than simply dismissing their enemies, the Socialists wanted to understand them. After all, that's what sophisticated, rational people do. Similarly, in the wake of 9/11 many believed that Bin Laden and his thugs, while thoroughly distasteful, were only responding to the actions of the imperialist oil-suckers from the West. Strange for Saudi plutocrats to react in such a way, but so be it. In other words, rational people have a tendency to try to explain the irrational in rational terms. Bin Laden is an awful person, but he must have his reasons.

Which brings us back to Virginia Tech. Yes, Mr. Cho committed a dastardly deed. But to simply chalk it up to the man's insanity is neither rational nor sophisticated. We must analyze more thoroughly in our zeal to consider all of the possibilities. How can one person become so unhappy, angry, isolated and desperate? It defies rationality, so we must broaden our scope. Which seems more likely? That the young man was on a lifelong path to mass destruction fueled by his own inner demons or that factors imposed upon him by his environment created and encouraged those demons? It is incomprehensible that a young man could arrive in such a dark place on his own. How could one even hope to explain that? But if one considers the hardships of emigrating to a new country which provided he and his family with few rewards (like a middle class station, his sister with a Princeton degree and him with a Virginia Tech education), inadequate social services (which allowed him to slip through many a crack) and subjected him to the kind of ridicule and bullying that no other child in the country apparently undergoes, it becomes very clear why this young man snapped. And our hearts should go out to him. We mourn his life and loss. Indeed. And we should do the same when Alec Baldwin's daughter goes on a three state killing spree as well.

Poppycock. It is a fool's errand to try to explain the irrational mind with our inadequate concepts of rationality. Try as we might to understand the inner workings of Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Kaczinsky, we cannot. And efforts to do so only muddy the waters. The rationalists will tell us that there is always a 'why.' I would humbly submit that as unnerving and terrifying as the concept may be, there is not always a 'why.'

2 comments:

komodo_dragon said...

Looking for sense in the senseless is simply an exercise in futility. That, and jumping to conclusions, is apparently the only exercise some people get

Paul said...

You're both very right. That you can let the viciousness be speaks highly for both of you.

Sometimes things happen and with no explanation.

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