I’m about to write what will probably be a wildly unpopular blog post. It’s been brewing and stewing for a few days now, taking shape in the shower and on walks. I’m reminded of it when I’m nursing my tiny son, wishing sometimes I could put him back in the womb to keep him safe.
A lot of things have been bothering me about the V. Tech massacre: the students and teachers killed, the loss of a that sense of security and comfort you get in college when you live and work in the same place and brush your teeth with former strangers who have become like family, the notion that journalists shouldn’t have released very newsworthy and informative footage (that’s another post…).
What bothers me most, though, is the language that has been used to describe a very sick, very disturbed, very hurt young man. Let me state for the record: I do not believe in monsters. I believe in mental illness. I believe that some people allow evil to enter their lives, to give in to impulses that will hurt others. I believe that cultures co-create people along with genetics, upbringing, and individual encounters. I believe in the complex interplay of all of the aspects of a person’s life to bring about that person’s behavior at a given moment. I believe, with Hannah Arendt, that Hitler was more the inevitable expression of the progression of prevailing strains of Western thought (that are still with us, alas) than an isolated madman.
Madmen are easy to hate, easy to villify, easy to cast into our social hell because if they are madmen it means the rest of us are off the hook. If we were able to admit that we live, on a daily basis, in our everyday interactions, according to an inherently violent, misogynistic code, one that pits us constantly against one another; if we were to acknowledge that we have allowed children to be abused in every unimaginably horrible way, and certainly also adults as torture victims at our collectively national hand; if we were to recall how all of us at some point have been bullies as often or more than we have been victims of bullying; or that we have stood by as someone else has been bullied, than we would have to accept complicity in what happened at V. Tech. And that, my friends, is extraordinarily, incredibly painful.
So instead we create a monster, Cho, who was crazy and evil and bad. It helps us to see that he was emotionless, mean, sexist, weird, violent. It’s a relief to us that he appears so out of touch with the rest of the world. It eases our minds to see that he is not, was not like us.
But the truth is that everything that Cho was is us, and we are everything that Cho was. This is why I am a pacifist; I see that violence is the gift that keeps on taking and taking and taking. Allow yourself to lose your temper or give into a violent temptation and very likely you will create dozens, hundreds, thousands even of violent others, who create more…and generations of these strange sorts of children emerge. And before you know it it’s far beyond what anyone can control. Admitting that Cho, though certainly already predisposed to such behavior by what I perceive to be an inborn mental illness, is in many ways us, means that we have to take collective responsibility for what happened. We have to say, “my God, we’ve killed these children, these kids who were babies not so long ago.” We have to remember that Cho was a baby once, and see him as one of the victims in this tragedy. And that is hard.
Of course we are also the V. Tech students and teachers, the ones who barricaded the doors to save their friends, the ones who attempted to befriend a weird, silent kid, the ones who stood arm and arm at the memorial service chanting their school’s fight song. That is us, too, the best in us: the capacity for heroicism, for selflessness. Thank God we have this, too, alongside what is so dark in us.
But it is us, all of us. And we have to be brave enough to face it.