Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beyond the Brotherhood of Mourning

In his latest blog post for The Nation, Tom Engelhardt has tried to put the mass killings at Virginia Tech in the perspective of two attacks of Mustansiriya University in Baghdad that took place this past January and February. Here is the way he summarizes his comparison:

In terms of body count, those two mass slaughters added up to more than three Virginia Techs; and, on each of those days, countless other Iraqis died including, on the January date, at least thirteen in a blast involving a motorcycle-bomb and then a suicide car-bomber at a used motorcycle market in the Iraqi capital. Needless to say, these stories passed in a flash on our TV news and, in our newspapers, were generally simply incorporated into run-of-bad-news-and-destruction summary pieces from Iraq the following day. No rites, no ceremonies, no special presidential statements, no Mustansiriya T-shirts. No attempt to psychoanalyze the probably young Sunni jihadis who carried out these mad acts, mainly against young Shiite students. No healing ceremonies, no offers to fly in psychological counselors for the traumatized students of Mustansiriya University or the daily traumatized inhabitants of Baghdad -- those who haven't died or fled.

He then proceeded to an analysis of the hypothesis that, rather than cultivating a "brotherhood of mourning" (one of the themes I explored), Virginia Tech had been turned into a distraction from what has been going on in Iraq (without trying to play any sort of numbers game as to which was worse). While he made some good points and cited some good sources, I have two alternative reactions.

One I have already explored. It is that, while Engelhardt may be correct, his vision is too narrow. The Bush administration is concerned not only with Iraq but with that broader vision of foreign policy that got us into Iraq in the first place. This was most blatant in Bush's speech during his visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he tried to turn the memory of the Holocaust into an opportunity to float his vision for dealing with Sudan. The underlying narrative is a familiar one: A major crisis shakes up the general public at an intensely visceral level. The general reaction is that something needs to be done, without necessarily reflecting on the question, "Done about what?" This reaction reveals a public at its most vulnerable; and vulnerability means receptivity to new ideas, whether or not those ideas really pertain to the crisis at hand. When you think about it, it was really quite a cunning plan (more cunning than anything Baldrick ever devised)! It was a useful reminder that, while the Democrats landed some good punches in the last election, the neoconservatives still have a lot of fight left in them.

My other reaction is more sensitive. If Giuliani decided to advance his own political purposes by trying to compare Blacksburg to both Oklahoma City and 9/11, I have to reflect back on Columbine, not so much on the mass killings themselves but on the immediate public reaction. The footage of the Columbine adults shot soon after the shootings there is now a distant memory, but I shall never forget how much of what I heard had to do with turning the incident into an injunction to return to those Christian values that were supposedly the heart of the community there. Reflecting on that language, I realized that those "Christian values" may have been a factor in the alienation of the two shooters aggravated to a point where their reaction was as extreme as it was. Community, after all, is the expression of "self" across a group; and you cannot have "self" without "other." If you choose to identify "self" by demonizing "other," then you should not be surprised when "other" resorts to demonic actions. I think there is a lot to be said for the hypothesis that Cho Seung-Hui had the making of such an "other" demonized by some combination of inability and refusal to identify with the "self" of the community around him. On the basis of the communications he left, I am not sure that Cho's alienation was over "Christian values;" but, even if the values were not anchored on a particular approach to faith, I wonder how similar they were to the values of the adult population of Columbine. In this respect Engelhardt is right in arguing against Blacksburg as a distraction from Iraq, but he missed out on a deeper message. The real danger is the way in which we are using foreign policy as a distraction from domestic social conditions that are seriously pathological (which is why I invoked the term "identity pathology" in my own writing about Cho); and the more our administration tries to use foreign policy to distract from domestic negligence, the worse that pathology is likely to get.

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