Requiem for a generation: On Virginia Tech

by Beacon Staff • April 25, 2007

It is not an aberration. It is not even a surprise. Blood no different from that shed in Virginia has fallen in corridors and in classrooms throughout this country.,The tragedy at Virginia Tech is difficult to understand and painful to accept, yet more challenging and repulsive still is the fact it is not an isolated phenomenon.

It is not an aberration. It is not even a surprise. Blood no different from that shed in Virginia has fallen in corridors and in classrooms throughout this country.

Take a map of the United States, place a finger down at random and watch it land in the vicinity a massacre.

Iowa City, Great Barrington, Mass., Pearl, Miss., Springfield, Ore.

The list goes on: Littleton, Colo., Cold Spring, Minn., Blacksburg, Va.

Discover children bringing one another to slaughter. Discover youths eviscerating one another over a mean word or a cold shoulder-or over nothing at all.

Is this our great story? Is this the face of our generation: callous, hateful, empty? We have no exclusive claim to violence, for it has always corroded man's fundamental goodness, yet it is revealing just how our darker impulses now manifest themselves.

Ours is a new sort of violence, both abject and disaffected, and it evokes a drama of sorrow that is at once feigned and genuine. These video game killings seem absurd, but we know that they are organic, and they fit easily into a familiar cultural pattern. The murders come into our homes and into ourselves, and they stay. Columbine came in, and Cold Spring, and now comes Virginia Tech.

The invasion goes unnoticed: our generation lives in the ever-presence of strange faces and forces brought to us by 24/7 media inundation. Real wars and petty friendships start and end in our television boxes. People's lives appear in naked detail across computer networks, examined by strangers. Families transplant thousands of miles in the span of an afternoon.

Our generation knows the far only as less near and the strange only as less familiar. So Virginia Tech is an extension of ourselves, a place not near to our hearts, but soon and easily dear to it.

At the gross television deviancy of Cho Seung-Hui, we are shocked and stricken. Raised in a society of spectacle, we are compelled to move in a sensational way, fatalistic and excessive. Thus our reactions are themselves theatrical. In ancient Israel, shrieking choirs of women would tear their hair and beat themselves at the funerals of their loved ones. We have quieted such practices and we are enraptured less by love and loss and more by learned empathy.

Our sorrowful feelings come easily, flowing onto Facebook and MySpace. So long and fully have we felt emotional proximity with the human flickers on TV that those 32 murdered students and teachers may well have been our own. The reality of their suffering is palpable as we are accosted by its sights and sounds.

In that sense, we have all lost good brothers and good sisters, and they will be sorely missed.

And while these social realities explain the psychic impact of the massacre on both the individual and the national consciousness, they also suggest why it occurred in the first place.

As we stagger into the 21st century, we are more than ever neighbors, united by penetrating cultural familiarity. But our vast community network grows unstable as its constituent parts become less secure. As we absorb one another, we sacrifice our integrity as sovereign persons, becoming volatile and schizophrenic.

Consider that animals used to be publicly burned to the applause of onlookers, many of whom were of the educated and refined upper class.

Humanity largely, though stubbornly, outgrew such sick fascinations, and modernity produced in many lands a moratorium on random and senseless social violence.

Humanity's ethical language during the last few centuries reflects a measurable move from conceiving of men as meat to viewing them as privileged entities dignified by inalienable rights. Exceptions occur, mostly at the hands of depraved individuals-by serial killers who conduct deliberate and ecstatic violence in seclusion. But that is dirty ritual rather than proud performance, and monsters of that nature are gripped by a lingering and disguised compulsion to kill that is not found in the likes of Dylan Klebold or Cho Seung-Hui.

Ours is the most self-aware, self-destructive and self-loathing generation. Shunning civic duty and neglecting civil society, we instead languish on various enjoyable poisons. We are sedated and otherwise medicated by a sanctioned cocktail of a billion pills. Food itself has become a drug of real consequence, with some starving themselves toward beauty and others binging to achieve peace of mind.

Consider retail therapy, consider the wretched, self-imposed anonymity of online relationships.

We gladly anaesthetize ourselves and withdraw from real contact however possible: with headphones which are rarely removed, with computers which are permanently attached to laps, with two-line e-mails and jilted texts which turn genuine conversation into rote information exchange.

Youthful pasttimes include virtual homicide and daily voyeurism via cable and blog. Our idols are transient talking heads draped in jewelry.

Up until the last 15 years, school killings perpetrated by students against their own peers were almost unknown. Since 1991, however, hardly a year has gone by without at least one incident, and many additional plots have been uncovered and foiled.

There is no doubt that Cho Seung-Hui and his ilk are deranged in a very particular way, but it is the nihilistic posturing of our generation which suggests acting out in such means.

This is a time to mourn the fallen, but it is also an opportunity to consider our wayward generation. In the coming weeks and months, many issues will be debated, but the general decline of the youth will be largely passed over.

This medicated generation of homicidal tantrums and pervasive alienation grows in the absence of responsibility and consequence.

We must give the victims of Virginia Tech our sorrow and pity, but we must also give them something more: a promise to honor their memory by working toward bettering ourselves here and now.

Our generation is disillusioned but not destroyed, and our weaknesses can be eliminated. All we need is to name and acknowledge the problems, and strive to be more genuine, more positive, more inclusive and more deeply real.

If we fail to do these simple things, if we cannot turn tears to action, if we can not recognize a small part of ourselves in Cho Seung-Hui, then we are all supremely guilty. And there will be one, two, many Virginia Techs to come, each throwing more blood upon our useless, self-bound hands.