Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Death Threats

When news of the Virginia Tech shootings trickled into my house, my wife said, "You should probably read up on that, the students might want to talk about it tonight." And I replied, "What's to be said? I just watched five students on CNN say exactly what everyone always says: I'm shocked, I'm stunned, this is terrible."

The UNC students, too, had kind of the same reaction. They didn't want the tragedy to go unnoted, but they were smart enough to know that these things defy explanation. One said, "I don't want to know why these things happen. I only marvel at the fact that they don't happen more often."

I've thought the same thing. Haven't you ever been driving down a two-lane road, and had the thought pop into your head: "I could just give this wheel a little jerk to the left, right now, and it would be all over." The mind amuses itself with these morbid imaginings, and yet, day after day, time after time, I don't come anywhere near the thought of actually doing it. And as much murderous rage as we might feel from time to time, we still manage to avoid acting on it a remarkably high percentage of the time. Whatever it is that keeps us from killing each other, it must be mighty powerful, that only the most deeply disturbed break its bonds.

The equally ludicrous question arises: "How can we keep our campuses safe?" As if lone gunmen were the leading cause of death for college students. Accidents, especially auto accidents, cause more deaths of college students than shooters, by three or four orders of magnitude. And yet everyone still climbs into their cars most every day. Clearly the problem is not the actual threat of violence, but the perception of threat: "Our students don't feel safe anymore."

That, too, has been a remarkable luxury for us. Many people are threatened by gunfire every day; they just happen to live in all the places the college students and their families don't. The wake-up call is not: "Oh my God, a new menace is on the loose." It's the realization that death can find you anywhere, any time, which has always been true for all people. Perhaps, instead of convulsing into fits of paranoia, we should seize the opportunity to relate more deeply to all those people, both here and abroad, who face the threat of death daily. Only the recognition of our own fragility, and our shared mortality, can inspire the kind of compassion that might prevent more violence in the future. Early warning systems and more campus police might help, but force and threat and lock and key have never been what ultimately protected us from violent death at each others' hands. The answer is inside of us. Let's look there.



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