Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tragedy, Responsibility, Hypocrisy

The tragic shootings at Virginia Tech have inspired posturing all over the physical and electronic marketplace of ideas. Gary Lavergne, director of admissions research at the University of Texas at Austin and author of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he makes a provocative, sentimentally appealing, but ultimately problematic declaration about Cho Seung-hui:
In 'Sniper in the Tower' I concluded...that "[Whitman's] actions speak for themselves"....Charles Whitman was a murderer; he killed innocent people. We should not forget that. In Virginia we appear to have a Whitman-like character. It is vitally important for all to remember that there is only one person responsible for what happened in Blacksburg, and that is the man who pulled the trigger....Before we identify and learn the lessons of Blacksburg, we must begin with the obvious: More than four dozen innocent people were gunned down by a murderer who is completely responsible for what happened. No one died for lack of text messages or an alarm system. They died of gunshot wounds. While we painfully learn our lessons, we must not treat each other as if we are responsible for the deaths that occurred. We must come together and be respectful and kind. This is not a time for us to torture ourselves or to seek comfort by finding someone to blame. Maybe as a result of the tragedy we will figure out how to more effectively use e-mail and text messages as emergency tools for warning large populations. We may come up with a plan that successfully clears a large area, with a population density of a midsize city, in less than two hours. Maybe universities will find a way to install surveillance cameras and convince students and faculty members that they are being monitored for their own safety and not for gathering domestic intelligence. All of those steps might be helpful in avoiding and reducing the carnage of any future incidents. But as long as we value living in a free society, we will be vulnerable to those who do harm -- because they want to and know how to do it.

While there is a certain emotional appeal to the idea that we should isolate the blame, and not "blame each other" (not the same, he ignores, as identifying institutional faults that exacerbated the tragedy), his argument simply isn't true. There is not, there is never, only "one person responsible." There may be one person responsible if we file down and systemically demarcate and limit the meaning of responsibility, but such a finding only occurs after we do the philosophical work (consciously or unconsciously) to so limit. The problem is not merely that more systemic and "radical" interpretations of responsibility exist (although I find those explanations much more compelling than a lot of other people do because they help me understand and forgive individual transgressions). The problem is also that even within the very same code-system of bourgeois legalism and individualism this author assumes, we routinely make judgments opposed to the "one person responsible" thesis. We do so every time the state brings charges against a tavern for a drunk driving death, charges against a doctor or hospital for misdiagnosing a patient who then goes on to kill others, charges against a Nazi hate group for a series of racist murders committed by someone who read the group's literature. We routinely hold that there are several, often complex, varying levels and degrees of responsibility. And that's a good thing. This author has no moral or legal basis to declare the shooter to be the ONLY one responsible for what happened. And for him to go further and declare that it is "vitally important" for us to remember this...well, that seems to betray an agenda that makes his argument fair game.

Meanwhile, President Bush did his presidential duty and spoke at the memorial service for those killed at Virginia Tech. Best summary of the implications of that visit comes from David Walsh's article yesterday:
As governor of Texas, Bush presided over the executions of 152 human beings; as president, he has the blood of thousands of Americans, tens of thousands of Afghans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands. His administration has made unrelenting violence the foundation of its global policies, justifying assassination, secret imprisonment and torture. Speaking of the Blacksburg killings, Bush commented: “Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they’re gone—and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.” If he and his cronies were not entirely immune to the consequences of their own policies, it might strike them that they could be speaking about the masses of the dead in Iraq, who have also done “nothing to deserve their fate.” The president, in his perfunctory remarks, appeared anxious, above all, to put the events behind him. Bush’s comment that “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering” comes as no surprise. He recognizes instinctively, or his speechwriters do, that considering the “violence and suffering” in a serious manner would raise troubling questions, and even more troubling answers.

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