Monday, April 16, 2007

Violent ignorance

Brother bought a gun from a friend when he was young. I was still in high school, he in junior high, Mom in furious horror. I went with her to return the weapon to the Brother’s friend with stern warnings that guns were not allowed in our house. She handed it to me as I sat in the passenger seat and I shied away. We were almost to our destination when I picked it up.

“It’s heavy.” I said, surprised.

Mom looked at me, exasperated over my ignorance. But I was surprised – the roughness of the handle, the heft of the instrument, the power contained within. I don’t like guns, though that’s been my only experience with one. We don’t hunt, though I guess Dad does have a rifle somewhere in the house. I haven’t ever touched it either.

Likewise, I have no experience with losing someone to violence. Accidents, health problems, yes. Those are awful events and I can offer my deepest sympathies to others with some understanding of the depth of pain and loss that accompanies such a situation. But with violent acts, I find I’m a bit confused. It does not make sense to me that such a thing could happen. And so while I’m profoundly sorry for those who suffered losses at Virginia Tech today, and my thoughts and prayers are certainly with them, I don’t think I fully comprehend the horror of the day.

On September 11, I felt sad and horrified, yet safe. I was nestled in a large campus in the upper Midwest, and had no worry that we would be attacked. Likewise, upon hearing the news this morning – which at first seemed to have a lesser scope – I didn’t spare a moment’s worry for my personal safety. Though I work at a rather elite university, I’m on the medical campus and rarely take the path that leads away from the tall structures with lots of windows into the more elegant brick buildings that surround graceful quads.

When I do venture into the section of campus that contains the largest of the student populations, I smile at them. From my own college experience I recall being told – at the very beginning – that we were in a protected bubble. If we broke a law, campus police would handle us differently than the city variety. If we had emotional problems, there was an office in the namesake hall that offered counselors. I went to the career center on multiple occasions to fill out internship paperwork. Professors worked homework problems with me. I was nurtured and grew easily in such a sheltered environment. My problems were minor, but I was allowed to devote all my resources to solving them. I giggled with friends and fell in love for the first time and started to define my future. It was a wonderful time – I often talk with Elle and Rachel about how we miss it. I feel a twinge of envy when I wander through the younger students, but it also makes me happy that they can be silly, then serious. Read poetry with such depth of concentration and idealism that life can be that exquisite. Work homework problems for hours while guzzling coffee or beer.

What breaks my heart are these students I see on television. They no longer share my blissful ignorance. My easy belief that I am safe is becoming more unique. For that – for the knowledge that the world can be senselessly violent and overwhelmingly wrong – I feel a sharp and enduring sense of regret. As universities implement new warning systems and emergency policies, as families start what seems to me an impossible process of grieving and healing, as students might start to half-listen for gunshots so they can hide under desks or jump out windows, I feel tremendous sorrow.

I can’t claim to fully understand it. But I am very, very sorry.

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