GO FIGURE: The only reassuring news to come out of the Virginia Tech slaughter is that we need not fear suicide bombers as long as we remain on American soil. Given our propensity for other forms of murder, suicide, and mayhem, most suicide bombers will seem beside the point here. A whisper lost in a whirlwind. In other countries, suicide bombers at least pretend to stand for something. In increasing numbers, seemingly sane and loving Iraqi men and women are donning deadly vests to have the last word in an age-old argument about religious differences. In their case, it’s about the line of succession of the prophet Mohammed. Given that Mohammed died nearly 1,500 years ago, you’d think they could have worked this out by now, but nothing clinches an argument like scorched and bloody body parts baking under the hot Iraqi sun. In America, to our credit, we’ve left such religious superstitions behind. Here, we kill for absolutely no discernible reason at all, except because we can; because someone looked at us the wrong way. Or-as in the case of Santa Barbara’s most recent homicide-because the 15-year-old victim came from the wrong side of State Street. Makes sense to me.
Maybe the 23-year-old shooter from Virginia Tech-a lost soul named Cho Seung-Hui-flipped his wig when writer Kurt Vonnegut died last week. After all, the shooter was an English major. Vonnegut’s singular talent was making despair funny. Maybe Cho forgot how to laugh. That he turned out to be from South Korea was a great relief to all us white people in the country. Given the indiscriminate and petulant nature of the killing spree, it had White Guy written all over it. And as usual, in other people’s blood. But then again, the killer had lived in the United States since he was eight years old. Maybe he had assimilated too well. Some of the instant experts crowding the airwaves have noted how the killer-like so many mass murderers-has blamed everyone else for his deadly actions. You made me do this, Cho wrote in his final rant, you and all your debauched charlatans and rich kids. Had he been raised Catholic, the shooter might have felt differently. He would have known that whatever happened, whatever went wrong, it was all his fault. I used to think this Catholic self-blaming was so unfair, but it sure has its uses. Had Cho found fault with himself instead of everyone else, he might merely have committed suicide and 32 people would still be alive.
In the weeks to come, no stone will be left unturned trying to unravel the mystery of Cho and his final flame-out. But even when all the facts are in, we will understand little. After all, that is the nature of mystery. One friend in the newsroom suggested this is a very dangerous and scary stretch of the calendar. Throughout the ages, lots of bad things have happened during this particular week. It’s a weird theory with a few notable facts to contradict it: Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues this week 60 years ago, for example, and Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But there’s more than enough in recent history to give pause: This is the week of the Columbine High School shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 138 and left 500 wounded. It’s when the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, went out in a blaze of glory in a shoot-out with the FBI. It’s when a suicide bomber killed 63 marines in Beruit in 1983, and when Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down in what remains the world’s most toxic nuclear catastrophe. Going back just a little further, it is the week the Titanic sank and San Francisco shook, rattled, and rolled in its worst earthquake yet. In other words, this is the week people are most inclined to sip from the Kool-Aid pitcher. But not before smashing it over someone else’s head. No doubt those who dabble in astrology have a word for this. I don’t know what it is.
Some naive souls are suggesting it might not be a good idea to allow crazy people such easy access to such lethal weapons. Those even more foolhardy have already argued the Virginia Tech massacre demonstrates that stiffer forms of gun control might be needed. But this is America, where we’d rather punish a problem than prevent it. We’d rather find someone to blame-like the college president or the campus police chief-than do something that might make the next Cho incident just a little harder to happen. Or when it does-as it inevitably will-limit the damage it can inflict. In recent years, politicians have painfully learned not to mess with the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby, who hold sacred our inalienable right to kill one another. I might be more sympathetic to this argument if our ability to shoot at whim had prevented the totalitarians from taking over. Habeas corpus? Illegal search and seizure? Out the window. If the NRA objected when all this went down, I somehow missed it. Wisely, the gun lobby is saying very little. They know we have short attention spans. A new disaster will emerge, and the uncomfortable chatter about gun control will evaporate until the next nut breaks Cho’s victim record.
In the meantime, I’m re-reading my old Vonnegut books and keeping my head down. Like I say, the good news is, I don’t waste time worrying about suicide bombers.