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Tuesday, April 24, 2007
We Can't Prevent Another Virginia Tech Massacre by Passing a Law

32 dead -- 33, if you count the shooter. 29 wounded. Labels and accusations and proposed legislation are swirling everywhere in response. There is nothing in that maelstrom that will bring back the dead. There is nothing in it that will prevent this from ever happening again, either.

The Carnage

One week ago today, I arrived at my office in American Fork to discover that there had been a break-in the previous evening, and about $2500 worth of computer equipment was missing. I spent part of the day assembling details, such as serial numbers, for the police report. While I was thus occupied with relative trivia, a genuine catastrophe was developing in Blacksburg, Virginia. A gunman, South Korean immigrant Cho Seung Hui, chained some doors shut at Virginia Tech to impede potential victims' escape, then opened fire. He shot 59 people. Thirty of them died. Many were his fellow students. He may also have murdered two others in a dorm room earlier that day. He finally shot himself as the police closed in.

News reports have noted that he appears to have purchased his guns legally, despite the fact that he had once been declared mentally ill. In the past, professors had expressed concern about him and some had tried to help him. Meanwhile, he studied the youthful mass murderers of Columbine. In a recording he mailed to NBC between the dorm killings and the final bout of butchery, he expressed his hatred for the wealthy, compared himself to Jesus Christ, and called the Columbine killers "martyrs."

As tends to happen in battles -- even sudden, unexpected, unevenly matched battles -- some heroes emerged. Several students and faculty, including a Holocaust survivor, were killed or wounded protecting others. An ROTC cadet who tried to tackle the shooter was killed. Unfortunately, there was no armed, off-duty police officer on the scene, as there was at Trolley Square, to occupy the shooter until police arrived and thus minimize the death toll.

It is the worst school campus killing spree in the United States since May 18, 1927. On that day, a school board member angry over property taxes killed his family, set his farm on fire, then set off bombs at a school in Bath, Michigan, killing 45 and injuring 58. (Note: the killer in that case had gun, but only used it to detonate a car bomb.)

The Babble

Analysis from every quarter followed quickly on the heels of police and medical responses -- as if you needed me to tell you that. Predictably, much of the analysis involved a great deal more heat than light.

At times like this, quite understandably, we want an explanation -- a complete, fully satisfactory explanation, but not too complex to explain in a 30-second news report. And we want to blame someone -- preferably someone still living, someone we already dislike. And then we want to keep anything like this from happening again. Ever. Anywhere. Especially at school.

If the facts themselves are incomplete -- and they always are -- we are undaunted. The slightest little detail can provide us with a quick explanation, an easy scapegoat, and a simple preventative.

He was Korean? Ban Koreans. Ban Korea.

He used a gun? Ban guns.

It happened at a university? Ban universities -- or only slightly more reasonably, ban guns on campus.

Guns were already banned on campus? Good. Ban guns on every campus everywhere.

Or require everyone to carry guns, depending on how much you value the Second Amendment.

It happened in the United States? Blame President Bush.

You're a Republican? Blame the Democrats.

He chained the doors shut? Ban chains. Ban doors.

You don't like God? Ban God -- and blame Him/Her/It either for causing this awful thing or for failing to prevent it. And you'd better ban religious people, too, or they'll just sneak God in the back door somehow.

He was an immigrant? Ban immigrants.

He had written unsettling things? Ban writing. Ban reading. Ban unsettling things.

He was a silent sort of fellow? Ban silence -- or at least send it to therapy and keep it under surveillance.

It happened in Virginia? It must be God's punishment for something in Virginia -- for allowing abortion or gay marriage or both, or not, or for having some people in it who support the war in Iraq, or for eating lots of non-free-range chickens, or whatever else offends your moral sensibilities and therefore, presumably, also offends God.

He was angry? Don't we have a drug for that? Make it free. Make it universal. Make it mandatory. In fact, free health care for everyone! And higher taxes for the rich to pay for it!

This Defies Simple Categories

If you're not satisfied with any of these childish, knee-jerk responses, good for you. That makes two of us.

It's very convenient to blame whomever or whatever we usually blame for things, but it's really only convincing to those who are already convinced. It's tempting to blame someone or something we already dislike or fear, and then to make a law against that person or thing. But if laws were enough to restrain the lawless, wouldn't our laws against murder, of all things, have been enough to prevent what happened at Virginia Tech?

One very angry person out of millions did this thing. None of the rest of them did, so anger isn't enough of an explanation.

One Korean immigrant out of millions did this thing. The rest of them didn't, so immigration isn't enough of an explanation, and neither is being Korean.

One quiet fellow out of many did this thing. So quietude seems useless as an explanation, too.

Only one gun owner did this thing. None of the rest did, so it's hard to blame gun owners -- or for that matter, the guns or bullets. Likewise the chains and the doors.

In fact, I'll bet there are a lot of Korean immigrants still among us who are angry about something, are quiet, and own guns, bullets, and a good chain -- and none of them did this, either.

Sorry, folks. The labels are tempting, but they don't work here.

Blame God?

As for God causing it . . . Any god who would cause or even sanction such an atrocity isn't fit to worship. I would actually want to oppose such a god, if there were one.

But the idea of a more decent, believable God allowing such things to happen is an entirely different matter. I don't know how to create a law that allows people to choose good freely, but removes the possibility of them choosing evil. Apparently, God doesn't either. That's because it's a logical impossibility. It can't be done. The freedom to choose good includes the freedom to choose evil as standard equipment, not as an optional accessory. Moreover, that freedom is severely diminished if the consequences of evil choices are always miraculously averted.

I suppose we could try to blame Satan, but doesn't everyone who believes Satan exists also believe that he tempts everyone, or nearly everyone? So what about all the people he tempts, but who don't do such awful things?

Blame Freedom?

Compelling arguments have been made over the millennia that freedom is actually the problem, and that -- bloody twentieth-century experiments notwithstanding -- humanity would be much better off without freedom. It's a very seductive argument, especially when free people do horrific things. There's only one problem: without freedom, humans are . . . not fully human.

I'm a political scientist by training, and I've studied the great philosophers, but I don't know how fashion a system of human government or a human society where humans can be human -- with all the grandeur and the horror that portends -- without those humans also being basically free. Remove freedom from humanity, and the precise results may vary -- but they will all be less than human.

So maybe it's humans who should be banned. Some radical environmentalists actually believe this, and I suspect cats of believing it, also. (Okay, I'm kidding about the cats. Somewhat.)

This is not a theological blog, so all I will say further on the subject is, God must have something pretty glorious in mind if it's worth humanity's abuses of freedom.

Meanwhile, we won't prevent another Virginia Tech, or another Trolley Square for that matter, by making a new, tougher law or even fifty laws -- at least no system of laws that leaves us free.

Therefore, What?

So we mourn and bury our dead. We treat the wounded. We comfort the living as best we can. We honor the heroes, and we try to remember than being a victim is not in itself heroism, lest we dishonor the real heroes.

We hope that a little more vigilance and a little more humanity -- not less -- on our individual parts will make conditions among us a little less likely to send the next unstable would-be mass murderer 'round this particular bend.

We don't surrender our freedom to the first politician who promises us safety in return -- or to the 535th such charlatan, for that matter, even if we elected him or her.

We try to remember that freedom to be and to do good is worth the price, worth even the virtual certainty that some will choose evil instead. (What, you don't believe in evil? Maybe it's time you tried.)

Freedom is worth the price. We sense that philosophically, even if it is hard to feel that way when free people have just done terrible things. Alas, the agony at Blacksburg is only the tiniest fraction of freedom's price. I don't know how to quantify human suffering, especially on a universal, historical scale, but if I did, I think I would find that the price of freedom is . . . most of that suffering.

That's a grim thought with which to close. But it's a grim time.

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