The massacre at Virginia Tech University again prompts us to say, "They died for no good reason."
GREAT NECK, N.Y. It has been duly noted that the Virginia Tech murders were a cruel and undeserved blow to America's engineering community. Among the dead were three noted engineering professors and at least eight students majoring in engineering.
But these are not thoughts we dare long entertain, because they lead inevitably into a perilous realm where we calibrate the value of different lives, and how different people measure the value of life.
Rather, more safely, we can consider the meaning of these deaths in particular, and of death in general. But even this is not a consoling exercise.
In the same newspapers where we see tiny, inadequate bios of Virginia Tech victims such as Ryan Clark, 22, and Reema Samaha, 18, there is also a small-type fragment of box-score haiku recording the demise, in Iraq, of U.S. Army Pfc. Steven J. Walberg, 18, of Paradise, Calif. I can't help thinking, "Raised in Paradise, killed in Hell," after which Walberg's life, so cruelly brief, was smothered in grotesque obscurity by the grander inferno of the Blacksburg massacre.
How do we balance deaths such as thesenot just their shared senselessness, but the inequality in media coverage?
Last week, perhaps coincidentally, marked the demise of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who coped with life (and death) by recordingeven celebratingits random absurdity. We know Vonnegut's death was meaningful, for his words and ideas will live beyond him, for generations.
The same can be said, on a smaller scale, for the faculty members killed at Virginia Tech, prominent academics such as Liviu Librescu and G.V. Loganatham, both of whom left a body of work and an intellectual legacy.
But what of Henry Lee, 20, or Emily Hilscher, 19, in Blacksburg, or their killer, Cho Seung-Hui, orfor that matterSteve Walberg, formerly of Paradise? They all died too young. They were all innocent of life, so much so that their deaths overwhelm us with shock and a nameless fury. They died, we say, "for no good reason."
Of course, reasons will be given for these senseless acts, lest we descend into the sort of insanity that killed these innocents, lest we lose ourselves in Vonnegut's otherworld of absurdity.
As we eulogize, we dare not draw too many comparisons, lest we erase the meaning with which we struggle to exalt, or just explain, these deaths.
If we look beyond Blacksburg, we see that, for example, there is "no good reason" for a million poor children to die every year of malaria, not in a world with science and technology capable of eradicating this disease. Is there any meaning in such wasted life and infant death?
Though we tremble to admit it, there is "no good reason" to continue sacrificing thousands of livesyoung, old, Iraqi and Americanin a war that was marketed like a used car dealership and based on false premises. Is there any meaning in a booby-trapped corpse beside the road, or in a G.I.'s coffin spirited home surreptitiously in the middle of the night?
There is "no good reason" to tolerate a libertarian "gun culture" that has now bloodied forever the name of Virginia Technot even to honor the authors of the Second Amendment who could have never envisioned the prospect of student massacres, 15-shot clips and the twisted zealotry of the National Rifle Association.
There is certainly "no good reason" for an engineerLiviu Librescuwho survived Hitler's machinery of murder to die at the hands of a two-gun recluse in woodsy Virginia. Is this tragic, as every responsible eulogist will declare? Or is it just ridiculous, as Vonnegut might whisper?
We dare not admit that any of these innocent, Biercean deaths, and the thousands more that batter our sensibilities every minute of every day, are meaningless. We will derive meaning, even if it is counterfeit, and we will cling to those shreds of significance for as long as it takes to recover from our shock and our shame.
The alternatives are either to despair in solitude, as experienced by Cho Seung-Hui, or to take communal action that might somehow reduce the chances that similar carnages will occur again soon.
Neither alternative is likely.
We are an optimistic nation. So, we will not despair.
And we are a complacent society. So, we will do little or nothing until the terrible day when we awaken to the next slaughter, after which we will gaze sadly at the horrific broadcastlong enough to shake our heads, mourn the dead children and reach for the remote.
David Benjamin is a novelist and journalist, based in New York and Paris. He writes frequently for EE Times.