What do you suppose the most compassionate person in Iraq thought when the killings at Virginia Tech made headlines last week? Here’s how I imagine it: “What a terrible thing! May their souls rest in peace. Forgive me for saying so, but perhaps the Americans will now begin to understand how we feel when our children are murdered.”
My friend (and colleague—I serve on the Board of his Shalom Center) Rabbi Arthur Waskow has a huge heart and—more than anyone else I know—a passion to act in the face of injustice. For Arthur, from what I have seen, tears are fuel for outrage, which fuels action.
This cycle embodies an underlying truth concerning our emotions. When tears gather and pool, we sink into them, sometimes all the way to despair, the most immobilizing of human feelings. Despair is a room without exits. People who have the misfortune to live there lead frozen lives, where the reality of pain blocks all other possibility.
It is only when we are able to rise above despair into anger that possibility first emerges. Anger has an object (whomever or whatever is causing our pain) and a purpose (to remove that cause). But anger is all about outlets, more a cage than a room. People who have the misfortune to live in that cage, to make it their permanent home, lead lonely lives, because nothing healing can get past their defensive lashings, nothing can penetrate to their hearts.
For the sane, the step beyond anger is agency. The black of despair and red of anger dissipate, and a multicolored world comes into view, one in which emotions and thoughts are in balance. We find it possible to form realistic assessments of our own options, to make useful choices between them, to take healing action.
But for those who have slipped off the edge of normal reality into their own personal horror stories of betrayal and vengeance, into a perpetual nightmare of enemies, there is nothing but anger inflated, multiplied and projected into a message to the world written in the blood of faceless others.
After the killings at Virginia Tech, Arthur wrote this to a progressive Jewish elist we both belong to:
All America is in shock and tears—and should be—over the murder of 33 students at Virginia Tech.
So the President said: “How horrifying! These people did nothing at all to deserve dying. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Right. So were between 200,000 and 500,000 Iraqis whom the President’s war sent to their deaths. And more than 3200 Americans. Is there NO self-awareness left in this empty shell of a human being?
How much of America is in shock and tears at the report from Afghanistan that American marines used “excessive force” last month, in a machine-gun rampage that covered 10 miles of highway and left 12 civilians dead, including an infant and three elderly men? One 16-year-old newly married girl was cut down while she was carrying a bundle of grass to her family’s farmhouse. A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son did not recognize the body when he came to the scene.
This was not just “excessive force.” In international and US domestic law, it was murder, as were the killings in Virginia.
(Note that a study by Iraqi physicians reported half a year ago that “excess deaths”—meaning those that would not have occurred without the war—then totaled 655,000.)
After Arthur posted these words, several members of the elist replied with deeply felt, sometimes censorious messages of their own, taking him to task for “politicizing” the Virginia Tech deaths, for “hating” and “finger-pointing.” Some even cited sacred texts against anger so as to enlist the Divine on their side of the argument. (As with all citing of scripture, of course, an equal number of citations is possible in defense of righteous anger: how many times does the bible exhort us to wipe out our enemies?)
The underlying feeling of these critiques is that respect for our nation’s dead entails a close focus on precisely that pain, a temporary disregard of the pain of others. This line of thinking says it is disrespectful to bring the dead in Iraq into the national mourning for the dead in Virginia.
Two things about this critique make me uncomfortable. One is how people who characterize themselves as deeply immersed in sympathy for the dead have so much time and inclination to express it by scolding others for their own way of mourning. Aren’t they doing what they condemn, using the occasion to denounce others? If they believe there is something wrong with that, why repeat it?
The other is that, so far as I can recall, Arthur is the only person amidst the many posters to this list who regularly takes care to number the Iraqi dead, let alone to do so with tears, moving to anger, moving to action.
On the human scale of a single family, it is unseemly to use one death to evoke another. One doesn’t go into a house of mourning and say, “This reminds me of another loss.” But as everyone who has lived in such a house knows, while we are inside focused on the small, dense world of our own grief, life rushes along outside. People work, play, talk about politics, do their email… The rules of conduct inside the house can’t apply to the world beyond.
Just so, whenever something extraordinary and painful happens, commentators far beyond the scene of the injury rush to make sense of it. (Sometimes I’m one of them; sometimes Arthur is.) The tragedy at hand is our personal loss only in the most general sense; there is no equivalence of feeling or experience between ourselves and the individuals directly affected by the death of a child, a friend, a spouse. The Virginia Tech story has already offered ample opportunity to analyze and embellish: the role of commercial culture in glorifying violence, gun laws, the pain of cultural dislocation, our responsibility and even our ability to call attention to our neighbor’s pain and the danger it might present to others.
There is also the truth that the need to find meaning is one of the things we human share, even when there’s not much objective basis for it. In the forty years since the University of Texas massacre (in which Charles Whitman killed 15 and wounded 31), two other school shootings of magnitude have taken place, the 1999 Columbine killings (Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold killed 15, including themselves and injured 24), and last week’s Virginia Tech massacre (in which Seung-hui Cho killed 33, including himself, and wounded 29). The biggest U.S. school massacre in history (45 deaths) was accomplished by bombing in 1927, perpetrated by a disgruntled school board member in Bath Township, Michigan.
Whatever ensnared these assassins in their demented dramas of anger was ultimately unique to their own wounding, their own stories. If this were not true, if they had merely succumbed to a contagion at loose in the national culture, a nation of 300 million would erupt in a hometown massacre every week.
Arthur can convey his own pain, anger and agency far better than I; I have no idea if he would share this analysis. But here’s what his words on Virginia Tech made me think: as a people, we have exported our pain and anger to Iraq, and if we don’t mourn those deaths, will we stop? Surely, in some part, the feeling that the tragedy in Blacksburg is cheapened by evoking Iraq is grounded in the terrible reality of wars of conquest, that when we kill people who are so far away, numerous and different from most of those authorizing the killing, we are insulated from experiencing the loss of their lives as we would lives closer to home.
The entire population of Blacksburg, Virginia amounts to 40,000, equaling 6 percent of the 655,000 “excess deaths” in Iraq (not to mention the 2 million refugees the UN estimates have left the country since 2003 or the 3500 US and Coalition forces killed in the same period). The faces and descriptions of the dead in Blacksburg took up less than a page in the New York Times. Each dead Iraqi also had a face and a story. How many whole issues of the Times would it require to acknowledge them in the same way?
There is no equivalency in suffering. Each parent in the U.S. or Iraq who has lost a child to violence has lost a world, lost a heart. I am desperately sad about the murders in Virginia and touched by the outpouring of compassion and grief. I have scanned the faces and read the descriptions of the dead, scanned the life of the assassin for clues, scanned my own heart for signs of hope. And now I ask this: where is our national day of mourning for the lives we have destroyed in Iraq?