The Columbine massacre occurred 8 years ago this week. I was finishing up my senior year of college. I remember being shocked and distressed for months. Last night at dinner, I commented to Honey that Monday, as I read about the Virginia Tech tragedy unfolding, I was relatively unfazed. I lamented it, really. Violence seems to have brushed my skirts enough in the intervening 8 years and seems to be (whether it is not is another story) increasing. September 11 (the obvious), Amadou Diallo, Beltway Sniper, Katrina, the war in Iraq and the daily suicide bombs, nutcases who at least once a year seem to break into Jewish Community Centers and Synagogues and shoot people ... this is just one more.
My initial reaction was one of indifference, followed by thankfulness that it wasn't at VCU where VirginiaGal attends. Then something odd happened: last night as I finished up working on the section of my thesis to send my professor, a dread began creeping over me. Not the usual dread of hoping my work is fair enough when we meet, but a dread of actually going to campus tomorrow night to meet with him. Could I jump from his window if I had to? Would I survive the four story fall? I guess these thoughts shouldn't be surprising for anyone who knows me. I'm the person who has had a home fire emergency plan since I was in 3rd grade. And I'm also the person who, when the worst is realized for someone else, begins to worry that it will happen for me. (I think this is true because it has happened for me once, so it validated pre-existing concerns.) Clearly other campuses are thinking about this and I'm sure other students are thinking about this. So, I'm not alone. But a new fear is beginning to creep over me.
And it seems to me the dread mostly isn't the prospect of death, though that's there, it's the being trapped, being bamboozled. Being taken advantage of where you should be safe, when you're just going about your life. That's what I despised most about September 11. Those poor folks on the planes were just trying to get somewhere. The folks in the buildings were just trying to get work done. The students Monday were just trying to take tests, trying to wake up in class. ... interestingly, though, the prospect of death is more frightful to me these days than when I was in college. The older I get, the more I want to continue enjoying my marriage and have children and enjoy the new changes in my relationships with my family. At 22 or 23, I'd had a good run; I wasn't afraid of death. Now, I know there's more to be had and I want to run the course.
A renewed public conversation - ha! conversation, as if people converse about such things; let me try again ... a renewed public grumble-and-chest pound-fest about gun control is already starting to brew in the wake of this tragedy. Genuine debate about the matter and changes in gun law or gun law enforcement should ensue, but at this point, I really don't care if they do. Until we have a change of heart in this country, outlawing all the guns in the land won't make much of a difference. Sure, there'd be fewer large-scale shootings and less street violence, but the bigger issue I see is that we don't give a shit about each other. This is a land where it's every man for himself. ... and we're proud of that. And I love that this is a country that celebrates the individual, but I wonder at what cost to the community we do this. I believe we've seen the cost for years amongst the poor, but in the last few decades we've begun to see the cost amongst all. There will always be people who slip through the cracks and those people will find ways to inflict harm on large and small scales - guns are outlawed in England, but still a handful of disenfranchised jerks managed to kill 55 people with some backpacks; while I was visiting, an immigrant family lost their son to a brutal knife attack because he was a black boy with a white girl. But we can do a better job of taking care of each other than we do. We need to do a better job of it.
A few months after Columbine, Honey and I were visiting family in Fort Worth. A few days before we got there, a disturbed gunman had broken into a Baptist church during a youth worship service and killed a handful of kids before turning the gun on himself. He had always been an outcast. There was a pall over the city the weekend we were there and it was the main topic of discussion at our family's church that Sunday. We continued talking about it at lunch after church. Uncle J, who is a community children's leader, made a good point. This wasn't a wild hair for the Fort Worth Shooter; he'd been hated for years. He was 50 years of teasing waiting to explode; waiting to take it out on someone until finally he did. Uncle J then reaffirmed with his kids the importance of being kind, even if you don't like someone, because people don't deserve derision, particularly those who are already ostracized. There's no need for it. Then he commissioned them to call him out if they ever see him displaying disdain for someone. I agree with Uncle J.
The VA Tech shooter sounds like such a closed loner there may have been little that could've been done. But if we take better care of each other, maybe we can abate future incidents. Change and strengthen gun laws, yes, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the words of the recently departed Vonnegut: "You've got to be kind to one another, goddamnit!"