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April 19, 2007
Fear and Narcissism in Virginia
"Because I said so." Are there any words more infuriating to a ten-year-old with anti-authoritarian streak? Hardly. But as an adult I've come to realize the words were not frustrating just because of their prohibitive implications but also because they implied there isn't an answer to some questions, at least not one available to me.
Reasons allow us to make sense out of our world. Understanding is the human species' mode of adaptation, allowing us to escape entrapment in the face changing facts and circumstances.
So it should come as no surprise that only hours after the Virginia Tech shooting, we as a society started looking for reasons. We crave some explanation that will allow us to change our lives so as to avoid such tragic events in the future.
For many, the answer lies in the lack sufficient regulations on gun ownership. For others it's precisely the existence of such laws that left those poor innocent students and teachers defenseless against a malicious predator.
Others think more abstractly. It was a desperate response to the systemic alienation of modern capitalistic society. It was a horribly misguided act of religious piety alerting civilization to its decadent decline. It was teenage angst taken to the 'nth degree.
But, as is always the case with culturally traumatic events, the shooting is being evaluated through the lens of preconceived notions. Those blaming the gun lobby already "knew" guns were bad; this just confirmed it. Those blaming capitalism already "knew" it caused societal alienation; this was proof.
The danger here is that by reading into cultural trauma only what we want to see, we don't actually learn anything. Of course we feel like we have. But in almost every case, those who claim to know what such an event "means" will not espouse anything they didn't already know.
How can we "learn" something we already think? And if we already knew the lessons we claim to be learning aren't we in fact shamelessly exploiting tragedy for the sake of vanity?
Indeed, to really learn from the Virginia Tech massacre, we must accept the possibility that there's nothing to learn, that senseless tragedies are just that ... senseless.
Unfortunately our cultural arrogance has lead us to believe everything that happens in society has a societal cause. When an individual believes everything that happens around him is a result of his own actions (however indirect) we call it narcissism or neurosis. When a whole society thinks that way we call it "social consciousness."
The reality we can't handle is that the only lesson to learn from Virginia Tech may be that our obsession with societal explanation of aberrant and tragic events has been taken to the point of full-blown cultural narcissism. We can pass laws, hold our committee meetings, attend our town hall forums, and write wonky op-eds. We can spare no expense. But at the end of the day we'll still have to deal with our own vulnerability.
This is not to say we shouldn't shut off all attempts to analyze what happened in Virginia on Monday. We should investigate and analyze and study. But we have to be ready to deal with the natural and understandable frustration that results from there not being any discernible reasons for what happened.
It might be that God, Fate, the Tao, or whatever supreme order we happen to subscribe to is answering us "because I said so." It may be that answer is the hardest of all for us to learn to accept.
Michael Van Winkle is a Chicago-based writer and political analyst. Comments may be posted at his website.