The lessons of Virginia Tech

By Andrew Mason

I was in 6th grade when the shooting at Columbine High School occurred. I remember my parents being quieter that evening. They gave me the standard heart to heart about how much they loved me and all the while I was trying to brush off their concerns with “Come on, I’ll be fine!” I watched the news all that weekend and saw dozens of adults come on and try to explain why two kids, not really that much older than myself, marched into their high school and cut down 12 other kids who weren’t really that different from them.

They were bullied, the experts said. The media are to blame for this, the experts said. Video games taught them how to do this, the so-called experts said. A million theories have emerged in the eight years since that April afternoon and, not surprisingly, none of them ever made us feel any better.

News reports today carried theories of the gunman being a jilted lover. It remains to be seen exactly why he decided that his life was no longer worth living and that others had to go with him. But in the end, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because all we really want to know is something that can allow us to rationalize what happened and file it away. If no definitive explanation arises, people will fill the void on their own with self assurances that it won’t happen to them. It couldn’t possibly happen to them.

The question we’ve all been afraid to ask out loud for the past day or so is “Can it happen here?”

The answer is yes. Of course it can. Someday it might. And that scares me. It scares everyone.

In the coming weeks, we’ll turn to our leaders who will inevitably say that we just haven’t been doing enough. Enough of what exactly? What can be done to prepare is never truly enough, and that shows in the faces of those who are forced to bear witness every time an event like this occurs.

No matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to prevent these random acts of violence. Most of us will grasp at straws for the next few weeks while we come to the realization that more metal detectors won’t make us feel any safer (not that we have the money to buy them anyway). In our quiet despair, we’ll be distracted by the typically angry gun-control debate and platitudes about how our schools should be the safest and most productive in the world. We will commit to making them such and then have these commitments forgotten with the next news cycle chock full of the latest from a cranky radio host.

I can’t possibly imagine what the dozens of Virginia Tech families must be going through right now. None of us can. That their loved ones were taken from them apparently isn’t enough, now they must be forced to watch their greatest horror replayed on national television for weeks simply to satisfy our society’s obsession with excess.

The rest of us are left to wonder what awaits come the next morning. Most of us will attend class and go about our day. Life for us will be mostly unchanged. Naturally, our administrators will caution us and tell us that we need to remain vigilant in the face of uncertain times. Whatever that means. But how are we supposed to remain vigilant against unpredictable, unexplained, utterly soul destroying violence?

The massacre at Virginia Tech was a wake up call for all of us. Weekend-long drinking marathons and wild spring breaks have fooled us into yet again believing our own youthful delusions of invincibility. It is unnerving that the people who lost their lives were not doing anything remotely reckless, in fact they were doing what they were supposed to be doing (even attending a 9 a.m. class).

The real lessons we can learn from what happened yesterday are hard and fast and chilling to the core. With the threat of terrorism, disease and immeasurable hatred ever present, we are aware, now more than ever before, of our own mortality. However, the fears that have captivated us for so long, and continue to do so, cannot cripple us.

While we cannot live in constant fear, we cannot also live our lives recklessly. The victims at Virginia Tech should be remembered as more than just statistics in a terrible news story. Each of them lived meaningful lives, and were unexpectedly and unjustly struck down.

What happened yesterday was a cruel reminder that life should not be taken for granted, because what happened yesterday reminded us that, in our uncertain world, you just never know. Call your mom. I did.

Click to read about the tragedy that inspired this column.

Click to read about a candlelight vigil at UI to honor those lost at Virginia Tech.