I began my day on April 16, 2007, in quite the normal fashion. It was a Monday and (as I had no classes until 1 p.m.) I leisurely awoke, performed a few perfunctory tasks around my apartment, showered and, probably sometime after noon, left for school. After my class ended at 2:15, I recall looking at my phone: I had voice mail. Figuring I had most likely received it while underground on the subway, I promptly listened to the message. It was my high school organ teacher; he had called to inquire as to whether I had heard from my mother. He said he hoped she was all right. He mentioned the “mass murder down at Virginia Tech.”
I was born in Christiansburg, Va.—some 10 miles from Blacksburg. For all of my life, my mother has worked at Virginia Tech; in high school I took piano lessons from one of the university’s music professors. A good number of my friends attend the school. Needless to say, I never expected the sunny, charming town of Blacksburg to become the site of the most deadly civilian gunfire incident on a college campus. I remember the slightly eerie feeling as I perused the news for information on the attacks: the buildings in the photos were uncomfortably familiar.
Like countless others across the country, I watched the university’s convocation, the day after the shootings. University students, faculty, and staff, as well as their families and members of the community at large, had packed Cassel Coliseum. Many in attendance were visibly bereft; some appeared engaged in the frustrating search for explanations. It was not until Nikki Giovanni—one of America’s great poets and distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech—ascended the platform and delivered her stirring address that the grim mood began to lift. It was her address that ultimately changed the way I felt about the tragedy. “We do not understand this tragedy,” Giovanni declared. “We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory … No one deserves a tragedy.”
How often in this country do we stop to consider the ubiquity of terrorism today? The media reports outrageous malevolence daily—but unless these acts occur on our doorstep, the nation’s response is seldom more than a collective shrugging of the shoulders. True, the American citizenry has historically harbored isolationist leanings; that said, the current apathy for atrocities committed abroad should challenge the morality of each of us, and should engender real questions as to our inherent responsibility as “leaders of the free world”—if, indeed, we even hold that position.
One byproduct of the mounting pervasiveness of terrorism in modern society has clearly been a growing desensitization to it. Perhaps it has become too easy to ignore the mounting costs of global terror on human life. Could this be why the U.S. has so casually brushed aside the ongoing genocide in Darfur, which has left an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 dead, as little more than a regional disturbance? In Iraq, where sectarian violence seems impervious to all our efforts to contain it, hundreds die in random acts of violence every month; we are indifferent until the body count includes the name of an American.
It is difficult to reconcile the grief and impassioned outcries that marked the Virginia Tech tragedy with the paucity of response to acts of terror abroad. Many Americans seem simply to have stopped caring, no longer willing to invest emotional energy in what is, admittedly, a confounding and extensive problem. But such indifference seems tantamount to the proclamation of our superiority, elevating the worth of American lives above those of other human beings. This month, as we mark the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, I can’t help but feel that this characterization—already prevalent abroad—of America and its citizens as smug superiors is ultimately as damaging to our country as any violent act of terror could be.