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Will the virginia tech tragedy change us?
by Johann Christoph Arnold
april 19, 2007

This article was sent to me with the request that I publish it. I agreed with the proviso that I would accompany it with a counterpoint essay. My essay follows the one by Johann Christoph Arnold.

In the aftermath of Monday’s shootings at Virginia Tech, the news media are doing an excellent job. Newspapers are printing lengthy stories on the lives of the dead and their beloved families. NBC has immortalized the shooter by airing his own video clips, photographs, and statements. Eyewitness accounts are being pieced together to tell us, minute-by-minute, how, when, and where each victim was gunned down. While some of this information may be useful, it mostly serves to sensationalize violence.

At Virginia Tech itself, thousands of students have been knocked to their knees. They are weeping, lighting candles, holding vigils, and praying. And on countless other campuses, students are anxiously asking whether such a horror could ever unfold at their school.

But what about the rest of us? Are we going to join these students in our grief? Are we going to let our hearts be moved, and turn to God as we mourn? Or are we just going to sit, numbly glued to the TV, and watch as the story is played and replayed?

The silence of politicians (including those gearing up for presidential campaigns) is deafening. Most church leaders, too, are remaining safely silent. They seem unwilling to point the nation to what is right and wrong. And of those who are speaking out, few are pointing to prayer, or to God, but are focusing on how we should make campuses safer–more like airports, with metal detectors and armed police.

One NRA member in Virginia is even proposing that college students be allowed to carry firearms for self-defense. Meanwhile, others are recommending the increased use of distance (online) learning, so that students at large universities can choose to study more safely. This last suggestion is especially troubling, as it will only make more students more isolated. After all, it was the gunman’s extreme alienation from everyone–his parents, peers, professors, and even roommates–that seems to have driven him over the edge.

When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, there are never simple answers. But that’s precisely why we need to talk to one another. Everyone is scared. Only through sharing and listening can we overcome fear. Through it we will discover that we are all the same.

My heart goes out to every family who lost a loved one. I know there must be intense soul-searching going on in every case. “Where was God in all this?” “Why did he allow such beautiful lives to be cut short?” “Why did so many students in their prime have to sacrifice their futures to someone they didn’t even know?”

We may have trouble believing it, but God was there when the killer stalked the campus. He was there as each life was snuffed out, and he received each one of them. We will never understand why he did not intervene and put a stop to it. But we can be sure that he has the matter in his hands, and that he can use even this tragedy for the salvation of the living and of the dead.

Out of love and reverence for the victims and their families, let us turn off our TVs, and turn to God. Let us become inwardly silent, and pray that the massacre leads us to a sense of nationwide community. If that happens, then these lives were not lost in vain. God sees everything and has a purpose and a plan for everything. He sees the suffering of each soul: the broken, the weak, the humble, the pure in heart, the merciful, and those who are sick and long for God. He sees and accepts us, every one.

Let us also not forget the powerful lesson the Pennsylvania Amish taught us, when five of their children were gunned down last fall. They chose not to defend themselves, but to whole-heartedly forgive. As we contemplate the shooter, let us love and forgive. The cycle of senseless violence and death can be overcome only by good. The power of love alone robs every violent deed of its power.

Even when it goes against our own feelings or when, as in this tragedy, we see the worst of human nature, let us never seek revenge. Every time we do, we become as evil as the aggressor himself. Instead, let us pray for the daring to reach out to one another not less, but more; let us join hands and look up to God. Even when faced with incomprehensible evil, he is the only answer.

Point Counterpoint
Richard Harter
May 1, 2007

To be sure, the Virginia Tech massacre was a tragedy, but was it a great tragedy? No, it was not. Katrina and its aftermath was a great tragedy. The Sumatran tsunami of 2006 was a great tragedy. 9/11 was a great tragedy. The ongoing genocide in Darfur is a great tragedy. The genocide in Rwanda was a great tragedy. The ongoing decades of death in the middle east is a great tragedy. There are many great tragedies. The twentieth century was a century of great tragedies; the twenty first promises to be the same.

Above all it is a human tragedy on a human scale. We are not able to deal with tragedy on too great a scale – a million deaths are only statistics; thirty deaths are a tragedy. And they must be the right sort of deaths and it must be the right sort of tragedy, one that plays well on television, one that is fodder for the talking heads, one that makes for good television drama.

As much as anything, that is what this is about. There are people who really knew Cho. There are people who really know the various people he wounded and killed. For all of them and for all of the people whose personal lives were touched it was a real tragedy.

For most of the rest of us though, for those of us “numbly glued to the TV” it is not real – it’s just TV news designed to stir transient emotions. Flick, flick, and we get footage of some atrocity somewhere else. Flick, flick, and we get a little heart warming story. Flick, flick, and we get the latest results in the great national lottery, aka the stock market. Flick, flick, and we learn whether our team won or lost. In the course of a half hour news program we cycle through horror, sentiment, greed and adrenaline, each emotion rippling across our consciousness in its appointed time slot and being replaced in turn by the next.

The quick answer to Arnold’s question is that nothing of significance will change because the media event is manufactured. The news media will push the story until they sense that the public is tiring of it, or until another story displaces it. The pundits will write their little essays; the talking heads will babble. The lobbyists and cause advocates will explain how all would have been better if their nostrums had only been followed. There will be some response closer to the scene. People will grieve; various (probably meaningless) security arrangements will be made, and various gestures will be made. Will these responses do any good? Yes, they will assuage people’s need to feel that they have done something.

Cho was a monster. Can we do anything significant about the presence of monsters in our midst? Probably not. From time to time monsters happen. Do we know why some young person grows up to become a monster? Not really. Can we tell if they are going to become a monster? Not with any reliability. Can we prevent the occurrence of monsters? Almost certainly no; we aren’t that wise, or that powerful.

Perhaps the saddest thing in Arnold’s essay is his need to believe in a good God, an all powerful God, a God that cares. He wrote:

God was there when the killer stalked the campus. He was there as each life was snuffed out, and he received each one of them. We will never understand why he did not intervene and put a stop to it.
For the non-believer this is not a problem; there being no such thing as “God” there is no difficulty in understanding His actions. For the believer it is an unresolvable mystery – why didn’t God do something. The theologians have various answers and explanations. In the end they do not satisfy and believers are left with simple faith; despite all of the evidence to the contrary God is good and God cares about us.

There is a more chilling and more plausible alternative, one that fits the evidence all too well. God was there alright. What was God doing? God helped load the magazines. God helped pull the trigger.
God does not love us.
God does not care.

No one believes that, of course. Better to be an atheist than believe in that sort of God.

This page was last updated May 1, 2006.
Copyright © 2007 by Johann Christoph Arnold
Counterpoint copyright © 2007 by Richard Harter

Richard Harter’s World
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May 2007
Hyde County, South Dakota is the Pin Tail Duck Capital of the world. Visit scenic Highmore, SD in 2006!