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When a Community Disappears: A Survival Lesson from the Virginia Tech Tragedy

The Virginia Tech incident was an enormous shock and overwhelming sadness for people not only in America, but also all over the world. This most fatal school massacre in U.S. history happened at a bucolic university campus in a rolling Blue Ridge mountain area of southwest Virginia. As in previous cases of school massacres, we all grieve over the premature ending of many promising, innocent lives and loved ones: in this case, thirty-two college students and staff members.

Any murder, let alone a massacre, sends a shocking tremor that shakes our civilization to the core. It squarely betrays our foundational moral assumptions and values, because it took place at a school, which is supposed to be a safe place for the moral and intellectual formation of young minds. Such violence is usually committed by a student (or a small group of students) in the school where it happens. The students randomly kills anyone along his or her way; there is no discrimination regarding their victims, who are indifferently classmates, staffs, administrators, and their own teachers. The attack is usually senseless and completely irrational—it is hard to figure out the motives, as in the Virginia Tech case. School massacres loudly tell us that something is profoundly wrong with our society, and in particular with the upbringing of our children. These acts of violence convict us with an utter sense of failure because we find ourselves unable to protect our young people at their supposedly the safest, and practically sacred place: school. In an excruciating way, each tragedy forces us to do a national soul search—what is wrong with our children and our culture? How can we prevent further tragedy?

This recent incident in Virginia was shocking and saddening for me in a particular and very personal way because the killer happened to share my ethnicity: we are both immigrant South Koreans. As the Columbine incident shocked America most especially because it happened at an idyllic school in a peaceful middle class suburban area and was perpetrated by white students, this Virginia Tech incident was another myth breaker for us and many because it reminds us that every ethnic group is vulnerable to the problems of American youths. The myth of Asian Americans as a model minority, with their strong work ethics, zeal for the education of their children, law-abiding mentality, and fast economic achievement, is now shattered; Asian Americans are as fallible as any other group in America, and just as vulnerable to school violence. In fact, the killers in school massacres are as diverse as the racial and ethnic make-up of our society. The victims themselves have also been diverse in terms of gender, races, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. In a global, highly mobile, and interdependent society, no one truly has the luxury of being safe and immune to this kind of danger, and this reality sends cold chills up our backbones.

So far, most of our national soul searching result in ongoing debates on many technical policy issues such as gun control, school security, and emergency locking systems, regulation of violent video games, and parental responsibility. Although these issues are all important and extensive debates are necessary, in my opinion, they fail to force us to thoroughly examine the fundamental source of the problem, which tracks back to our foundational cultural moral assumptions—individualistic anthropology and contractual sociology—that no longer work productively in our multicultural, global society as we expect them to or as they used to be in previous times.

When one examines school massacres in the USA, certain characteristics appear in every case: accessibility to guns, lack of parental supervision, influences of violent videos and music, the experience of being bullied, etc. What is most prominent in every case is that the killers were loners, withdrawn, suffering from excessive feelings of isolation. They were not at all well connected with others; in fact they were often neglected and bullied by others. Cho is no exception. It was stunning to find out that how long and how deeply Cho had been lonely, and how long he had been seething with paranoia and anger.

This incident forces us to rethink our concept about common living and community. French sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his classic book Suicide, contends that seemingly individual pathology such as suicide in fact reflects social ills—anomie and disintegration of a society. If we follow his insight, a series of school massacres indicates a deep moral flaw in our society—the disappearance of community. In particular, in the case of school massacres, we see the breaking down of the community surrounding a predator.

In a highly competitive, achievement-oriented, and fast-moving society such as ours, it is hard to give focused, extensive attention to others, even to our spouses, parents, and children. In addition, our sacrosanct belief in privacy seems to justify our choice to ignore how other human beings around us are doing. Our individualistic sensitivity does not want to meddle with someone else’s privacy. One or two gestures toward a stranger or a quiet person are usually regarded as sufficient in expressing our good intentions. But social violence, and in particular school massacres teach us the high price for the neglect, indifference, and/or insensitivity we pay to others, ourselves as individuals and society as a whole. Cho’s case tells us that we can no longer allow ourselves the conceit of indifference. The mere sharing of a physical space does not gathered people into a community (just think of the feeling of awkwardness we all know very well when we stand in a packed elevator with strangers); only active reaching out, person to person, makes a difference. Why? Globalization and its shrinking and compressing power accelerates and intensifies our interdependence, mutual exposures, and contacts. We are living in a society where a physical gathering among strangers grows yet meaningful solidarity or interaction seldom emerges. That is, we are living in a society where a community disappears despite heightened transactions and exposures among people. When a community disappears, individuals—usually the most vulnerable and fragile members—are susceptible to social ills, such as mental illness, violence, crime, and others. If we apply this insight to the cases of school violence, disturbed children are the most vulnerable ones. In particular, in our social context, the result seems almost inevitable: when the people around disturbed youngsters are all too busy or indifferent to them, and when images of violence and aggression are constantly rolling around in their minds, when the sense of isolation and resentment grows and festers within them, while many guns are easily available around them, the combination of these factors creates a lethal social condition that inexorably yields tragic incidents.

Many of our institutional arrangements, social practices and culture ethos are still operating under the assumption of the Enlightenment’s individualistic philosophy where the individual is the measure of the universe, and reason is the seat of moral and scientific authority. The instrumentalization and commodification of our relationships in a capitalistic society (where one engages with others only when one needs them or they are useful or necessary for one) further alienate others and deplete social capital, thus removing the possibility of genuine relationship. Ours is the society where relationality is secondary or optional. Society is understood as an artificial contract among free individuals. Among all Western countries, culturally ours shows the most extremely individualistic tendency.

This Enlightenment anthropology is now bankrupt, not only philosophically but also socially. Although individuality and freedom are important, and today’s America was made possible by virtue of the positive functions of those values, their excessiveness is certainly counter-productive now. The Virginia Tech incident, together with other school massacres, forces us to see how our old cultural ethos of individualism is no longer functional in a highly interdependent, multicultural, compact society. If we do not reach out to others, someone among that group of “others” (whatever group it may be) might do so in a destructive way. Reaching out in caring (not for self-profit) to others is the only a way to prevent future tragedies; at the least, when we fail to reach out (paying close attention), we fail to identify anyone who may pose dangers to us and others. Individual ethics breaks down here; some form of social caring or attention is indispensable for our safe living. In Cho’s case, there should have been attentive counseling and treatment. And if we could not have treated him, at least we could have protected others from him. Naturally, we know hindsight is 20/20, but we can certainly learn from our mistakes.

From a Christian perspective, hyper-individualism and indifference is unbiblical; we are created as interdependent beings; freedom is not the ultimate goal; it is just a step toward a community. Freedom is fulfilled in love and service to others. Reaching out is at the center of Christian theology. God’s very nature is to reach out in overflowing love (emanation), as his goal in history is a community—the communion between God and humanity in Jesus Christ. Incarnation was God’s reaching out to humanity to build a community. The Pentecost was God’s another reaching out to all humankind through God’s Spirit; it was also God’s commission to Christians to continue to reach out to others. Likewise, the church is the communion of saints—the sacrament of the Trinitarian perichoresis. The Christian church’s ministry of reaching out is the expression of its core of evangelical mission. Evangelism is not just a sharing of church doctrines but rather embodying and reliving God’s reaching out to humanity in Jesus Christ. Reaching out is to cross artificial lines and categories—the lines between God and humanity, between nationalities, between Jews and Gentiles, and between genders, just to mane a few. The catholicity of Christianity and its mission is fulfilled in reaching out. As demonstrated by Jesus’ crucifixion, building a relationship or reaching out to another requires commitment, attention, and even the willingness to allow oneself to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is the price willingly paid for a relationship. The broken body of Christ is the sacrament of our vulnerability.

This incident shows us again that we must relearn how to live together. Further gating or fencing up of our housing complexes, residential segregation, more guns for people, hiding behind technology—these are not viable solutions to social ills. Building a community is the only effective, lasting option, and without reaching out to others, including strangers, a community cannot be built. Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly noted on this point: “Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood. It is urgently true that now we are challenged through our spiritual and moral commitments to make of this world a brotherhood. In a real sense, we must all live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We must see this sense of dependence, this sense of interdependence. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone; we are made to live together.” Although building a community may sound too idealistic, given our cultural ethos and tradition, for Christians it is our call. When a community disappears, someone pays the price, and that someone could be our child, our spouse, and our friend, or ourselves, regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, and class. This is a hard lesson we learn from the Virginia Tech tragedy. If we set out minds and hearts to reaching out, bridging gaps, and embracing the exiled, perhaps we can defuse further such tragedies and reclaim the broken people of our society.

*This essay was published in The Progressive Christian, July/August 2007: 6-9.

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