Blacksburg to Kunduz
An American reflection on the Virginia Tech massacre
April 18, 2007
I remember the feeling of the world falling and crashing all around me, like the very bodies of concrete, humans and steel falling from the Towers, as I ran, hysterical, into the principal’s office to call my brother, to know that he was okay. My insides still twist upon themselves when I relive the bona fide terror of hearing that busy signal sounding over and over again, instead of his voice. I returned my parent’s call yesterday, letting them know that my cousin goes to UVA, not Virginia Tech.
It stands at 33 dead, a sunny day on a pretty American campus. That doesn’t sound right. That body count sounds like it came out of an afternoon in Baghdad, or some dusty village in Afghanistan, like yesterday’s 9 dead and 25 wounded in the town of Kunduz, located on the other side of the world. Kunduz is business as usual to us, but Blacksburg: closer to home, personal, real, and, though it should no longer be so, unexpected.
What of this young student, not a year older than I, who shot close to 50 people yesterday without a word? I suspect now that we know his name and where he is from, we feel more comfortable with giving expression to our outrage, and have quickly forgotten about acknowledging our shame.
The headlines have already honed in on the shooter’s South Korean citizenship. Already our news outlets are bringing up the fact that liberal, foreign media and persons send condolences to us, but also criticism for elements of our governance and culture that make such atrocities not just possible, but predictable. How sad that in today’s day and age, the most telling voices of criticism, whether from Colorado or the Corriere della Sera, are so often written off as un-American.
Never mind the fact that Cho Seung-Hui had lived 15 of his 23 years -- the majority of his life and all of his formative adolescence and young adulthood, the ages when people are most likely to go shoot up a school -- in the United States, in Centreville, Virginia, home of the Wildcats. Never mind that these incidents have happened all but annually, in our country, for several years running now, and we have still not learned the lessons we needed to learn after Columbine.
Please, let us not fool ourselves again. If we want answers or can dare even to dream of real solutions, we cannot again take the luxury of forgoing self-reflection and instead place foreign names, faces and faiths into the dossier of our own tragedy, as we have (with plenty of encouragement from our media and a great number of our leaders) grown content with doing in the past few years.
Today and the day after will fail to deliver the quick, matter-of-fact answer that we busy and impassive Americans have come to expect from our media. As school shooting incidents have occurred with increasing regularity (and less coverage) over the past few years, we have, as with other tragedies and setbacks, failed to maintain a national dialogue that seriously attempts to generate reflection and build understanding of this now established, very American phenomenon, which continues to periodically outdo itself both in sheer scale and callousness.
So quick to punish kids rather than reach out to them, so quick to wage new wars abroad than to fight the old battles at home, to protect access to guns rather than keep them out of the hands of our youth, our government, as well as our society, have gone to great lengths to look past the mirror when identifying our perceived problems and priorities. As a nation, we are being encouraged to turn away from the realities glaring right at us, and are fast losing the ability to recognize and address our own contradictions, injustices, and shortcomings. Is it any surprise that we remain complacent in the face of the lies, rhetoric, and hubris of an administration that truly operates as if it is above the law, when doing otherwise would entail us owning up to our own sense of entitlement to lethargy, hypocrisy, and ignorance?
For me, the aftermath of September 11, the continuous, gory inertia of the wars, and the archetype that recurred yesterday, April 16 at VA Tech, do not have stem from the same cause per se. They share the same place, however, in representing the failure of a society -- drowning in anger, fear, and, most ignominiously, unshakeable complacence and apathy -- to seriously self-reflect. These events are among the many symptoms of a society that does not demand accountability from a government more concerned with the profit margins of arms industries than with the safety of its citizens, a government that makes blue and green and yellow alerts but can never seem to make peace or tend to its own citizens in New Orleans, a government which just outside the nation’s capitol allows 18-year-olds to buy handguns without a background check, safety training, or registration with the police, and lets 13-year-olds buy shotguns without parental permission.
Tom Mauser, national gun control advocate and father of slain 15-year-old Daniel Mauser of Columbine High School, said yesterday: “I am not going to just say gun laws are going to take care of this.” I agree; I think that we really need to think about how violence has become the language and mode of operation of America, how we violently confront all problems in our society through wars: wars on drugs, terror, poverty, lack of healthcare, tardiness, carb-heavy sandwiches. We need to think about how easy it is for someone to gather the tools and justification to express himself violently in this country. Our so-called gun control laws, all but meaningless in Virginia and elsewhere, make it easy for a kid to kill. The legislation on Capitol Hill for modifying and liberalizing the rules and obligations of war and organized violence, as well as lessening accountability for such actions, is endless. It is the world that surrounds isolated individuals as much as it is the individuals themselves.
The current political and social language, culture and legal atmosphere of America needs events like this to be meaningful, not the other way around. It identifies with, legitimizes, draws upon, and perpetuates violence in all walks of life. It feeds the current worldview ubiquitous in our media, penal, and foreign policy today and shapes our children accordingly. That’s why people died yesterday. In the wake of the Towers, the soldiers that get shipped back in boxes every month, the untold masses of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbine High School, the inner cities, the suburbs, and everywhere else this culture of bloodshed plays out, we need to see why violence is not the answer but rather the cause of our problems. If we cannot see the connections between these events, then school shootings acts of terrorism are bound to happen again, each incident larger and less shocking than the previous.
For the nearly 50 victims in Virginia; for my brother’s childhood friend, who died in a place where he shouldn’t have been in the first place; for my friend, who is there now for the second time when the first time was not justified; for every American who is dying without reason, or fighting for their lives in places infinitely distant from where the real problem is taking place, we need to stop the manufacture of violence, which we tolerate and consume and are absolutely a part of, that is both physically and spiritually consuming our youth.
There is so much to be done, and so much we can do now. We have to take guns out of the hands of teenagers and even young adults up to a certain age, in such a manner that allows for more effective and age-appropriate interventions. To give someone the legal right to own a weapon that is made for killing other people, before we give them the right to down a beer at a local bar, speaks for itself in terms of its absurdity. We can accomplish this first by electing local, state and national representatives who espouse this agenda, as well as removing the ubiquitous violence from our daily lives by electing people who will get us out of places like Iraq, where we don’t belong, keep us out of places like Iran, and take waging and financing wars and warfare off the national agenda.
This is saying nothing of other issues that also justify such monumental violence, like the raping over of our environment for our economy, the building of more nukes for our security, and institutionalized racism towards Middle Easterners, Muslims, and people who resemble them in one superficial way or another, which we do so that we can avoid blaming ourselves.
Most importantly, what we can do right now is to become sensitized. We should feel ashamed. We should feel disgusted, we should feel responsible for every bullet that flew two days ago in Blacksburg, because we are. And we need to question the very ambient noise that has lulled us into forgetting how pathological the state of our union, and the world it has helped to create, is at this point. Trademarks of the language and philosophy of legitimized violence, such as collateral damage, the price of freedom, sacrifice, preemption, terror, terrorism, terrorist, protect our borders, need to be identified, and the use of such loaded terms must be questioned and scrutinized EVERY time they are spoken to us or written in our local paper. Let us learn the lessons that our nation’s students die trying to teach us every year. These are a few humble ways in which we can truly honor our dead, from Blacksburg to Kunduz. Comment
Maziar Shirazi is a graduate from Rutgers University and holds a B.A. in Spanish. He is currently a medical student at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, New Jersey. Features in iranian.com