Between Grief and Reason
The Mourning Next Time
By the time all the names will be public the major papers will have run little profiles of the dead of Virginia Tech, the kind of mini-biographies that have become the selective continuo of major, sudden tragedies, convenience and unspoken prejudice permitting: the dead of Katrina never got the kind of “Portraits of Grief” the Times wrote for almost every one of the 9/11 victims. Nor are the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan getting theirs. For those, you have to turn to blogs like Tom Willett’s iraq.pigstye.net, where every death is paired with a profile of the dead soldier culled from his or her hometown paper. SPC Ryan Alan Bishop, 32, of Tyler, for example, who was killed last week by a roadside bomb while patrolling south of the “surge,” “was so inspired by a friend’s service in the military,” his hometown paper in Tyler, Texas, wrote, “he lost weight, got in shape and joined the Army after years of working as a local land surveyor.”
But portraits of the dead of Virginia Tech are beginning to seep out, sometimes literally, like the moving picture of a picture of one of the students killed, a framed portrait of her sitting on the piano of her family home. Or like the stories of Emily Hilscher, “a 19-year-old student from Rappahannock County, and Ryan C. Clark, a senior and resident adviser from Georgia,” reported by the Post. Hilscher “was a freshman who was studying to be a veterinarian and had worked at a local veterinary office during the summer.” No known connection to the gunman. Never a chance to become Charlotte Simmons. The portraits will “humanize” the breadth of the tragedy, as if the inhumanity of the killings isn’t enough to humanize every one of the dead for anyone who knows what it’s like to lose a beloved.
What the portraits will also do is underscore the uniqueness of the killings, of an event that was never supposed to happen, but did, and now must be mourned, condemned and isolated in a never-again category of its own. The portraits are memorials and psychological segregation. The reaction is understandable: We can’t imagine killings of the sort being anything but freak events, mass-scale tragedies that by their rare nature deserve special treatment and memorializing.
To react this way, to think this way, would be understandable in normal times. But these aren’t normal times. The nation is fighting two wars where the dead are piling up daily, in proportions that outbloody the Virginia Tech massacre by many orders of magnitude and by the direct doing of the United States, and of individual Americans. For the nation to mourn the dead of Virginia Tech as intensely as it does—with a president who has never been to a single soldier’s funeral—while never remotely expressing national mourning or indignation for the daily dead of Iraq and Afghanistan except by way of rote Memorial Day celebrations, forces the question: What makes the Virginia Tech massacre worthiest of national grief?
There is the matter of timing and insensitivity. You don’t bring up certain issues at the wrong time, like the Bush spokesman who, within hours of the shootings, was blurting out the president’s defense of gun rights in the same breath as his relayed condolences and regret. That’s not just insensitivity. It’s stupidity, the kind of clueless stupidity that no longer surprises from an administration that’s never known its apples from its oranges. But is it insensitive to make a comparison between the dead of Virginia Tech and the dead of Iraq? On the day of the killings, yes. Beyond that, I don’t see how it would be, unless Americans have become so engrossed in their own fears, their own sense of inviolability, their own indignation at the intrusion of a reality they won’t abide, that bringing up the matter of Iraqi dead, Americans and Iraqis, in the context of the Virginia Tech massacre, would somehow offend as inappropriate.
But it isn’t. To the contrary. This is the time to bring up the dead of Iraq, not just because no one really does anymore (except in those hometown papers, and only when they lose one of their own), not just because the president refuses to acknowledge a single soldier’s family mourning, not just because no one sees a connection between the senselessness of the Virginia Tech massacre and the senselessness of the daily killings in Iraq, not just because few would make a connection between the kind of irrational, inexcusable, pathetic, fanatic rage that led 23-year-old Cho Seung Hui to kill 31 people and himself in Blacksburg Monday morning and the kind of irrational, inexcusable, pathetic fanaticism—American and Iraqi—unleashed on Iraqi civilians every day and night since 2003, but because in the end there is a universal, revolting banality to the killing of innocent people that makes no difference where the killings take place so long as people’s reaction to the killings is equally revolted, equally aggrieved. The problem is that the Virginia Tech massacre is a daily, multiple occurrence in Iraq: When a suicide bomber kills thirty-four or fifty-six people in a market, when trigger-happy American soldiers wipe out entire families in sweeps of htysterical machinegun fire, the human dimensions of the tragedy are not one whit different from when a disturbed college student goes on a rampage on his own quiet morning campus. And the problem is that for all their daily occurrences, the massacres in Iraq elicit none of the grief, none of the revulsion, that freak mass killings in the “homeland” elicit. Human nature? The proximity of dread for one’s own that leads to the palpability of grief? Absolutely. But there’s a convenience to the grief, too, to the charge that it would be “inappropriate” to think beyond the killings here and now. It blunts that necessity to think beyond the immediate. It detracts from the larger tragedies that carry on, not only unhindered but encouraged, paid for, in many circles still applauded.
Nothing more but to grieve for their beloved could be expected of the mourners of Blacksburg who’ve experienced direct losses. Many a parent, a brother, a sister in Iraq, in the United States, anywhere in the world, is unquestionably mourning with them for knowing just what loss on a scale so absurd can mean. But many among them must also be wondering why, for the rest of the nation, the mourning for Blacksburg is so willing and sympathetic, when the mourning for Iraq and Afghanistan has ranged from the stingy to the indifferent, and when the barometer of the absurd in those places continues to be a daily spree of the kind of follies the students of Virginia Tech knew for two hours on Monday morning. If the parallel seems insensitive, it’s also necessary precisely now, when it resonates most, grief for most Americans being such an evanescent luxury before the tyranny of “moving on”—which is to say, resuming the kind of usual business that has us blind to mass killings elsewhere. The universal banality of killing will never be undone. But it can be crippled if the reaction to it is universally revolted and aggrieved no matter where it happens, no matter to whom. Maybe it’s too much to ask of us hopelessly parochial beings. But it’s the least we owe the dead.