Perhaps because it happened during the last meeting of my peace-building class I keep analyzing the Virginia Tech shootings in the perspective of that class. Now, peace-building is generally about longterm conflict and how to deal with political conflicts, whether they are ethnically based or ideology based. A seemingly random shooting at a university, even one where a large number of people are injured or killed, does not seem to match this description at the outset. Look closer. This didn't happen in a vacuum. There are a set of political and social issues that need to be addressed, because extremely similar events have occurred before and will again until we, as a people and a society, start doing something real to prevent it.
The first thing is, stop looking to blame someone at the outset. When something like this happens, at that moment the one thing that anyone needs to say is "This is terrible. I'm sorry that this has happened." It is disgraceful that we have to say and hear "This is terrible, it happened because he was depressed and mentally unstable." Obviously he was mentally ill. Anyone who opens fire on a stranger in this manner is mentally ill by contemporary standards. That he was depressed and mentally ill says absolutely nothing about how terrible it is, or why it happened. It is a fact, but not a reason or an explanation. We should not hear "This is terrible, but don't blame our entire ethnic group because he was crazy." It is also a tragedy that such a thing needs to be said. Would anyone say that it is terrible, but please don't hate all white people? No, we would not. And we should absolutely not hear, "This is terrible, but it doesn't mean that we need stricter gun control laws." It absolutely does mean that we need stricter gun control laws, but in the first reaction to this sort of crisis we need to be able to feel it. We need to be able to react to our shock and our sorrow.
After we have had time to react to the shock of the situation, then we need to look at how it happened. Was there ample warning that this would happen? Should the police and school administrators have reacted differently? Certainly, with hindsight we can say that they should have reacted differently, but who would actually say that the administrators deliberately acted negligently? It was a crisis. It was unclear what was going on. Blaming them doesn't do anything to change what happened or to prevent it from happening again. Assigning blame isn't the answer. Identifying weakness in the response is obviously important, but it shouldn't overshadow more important questions that need to be addressed. Primary among them is "What kind of society do we really want to be?"
This is really important. What kind of society do we really want to be? I don't want to be a society where this sort of tragedy is casually accepted. I don't want to say, violence is inevitable. It may be inevitable and we can't prevent every tragedy in the world. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be outraged when it does happen, or that we shouldn't try to prevent all acts of violence. We need to look beyond the immediate tragedy, after we have had a chance to react to the immediacy of the tragedy, and really try to answer this question. What kind of society do we really want to be? We need to develop a collective vision of our ideal society, and then try to figure out how to get to that ideal. It isn't easy. There are many conflicting visions. Even when we can agree on what we want our society to be, we disagree on how to create that society. But how much of our opinions on how to achieve the ideal society are based on simple misinformation? Gun lobbyists have tried to foist the idea that owning personal fire arms makes our society safer, but does it really? How many little old ladies with a pistol actually stop a crime? Have we even looked at the statistics? So we need to know what we want to be, and then we need to educate ourselves on what is really going on in our society right now. We need to really know what is true so that we can narrow the scope of permissible lies.
At the same time, we need to broaden our search for answers. The personal firearm situation in America is ridiculous. Some how, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still think that America is the wild west and vigilante justice is a permissible way to deal with crime. The idea that arming everyone is a possible way to prevent violent crime is worse than a joke. But while the ready availability of small firearms is a contributing factor to the Virginia Tech shootings, there are other ways to kill a large number of people, especially in a university setting where a large number of people need ready access to public and shared facilities. A bomb can be made with sufficient research, access to a Home Depot, and then be smuggled into a building in a rucksack. We need to address the gun control issues, but we also need to examine how we deal with mental illness in our country. This is only the beginning of issues that need to be explored. And having different opinions on what we want our society to be is fine and good. Even with objective research we will still have conflicting ideas about how to create that ideal society, and what works in one location will not necessarily work in another location.
The one thing that we cannot allow, is not to have an opinion.