Lake of Fire

In the wake of the horror at Virginia Tech, folks around the world, and here at home, are expressing a predictable variety of responses. The Left is calling for stricter gun control, the Right for stricter immigration, the Europeans are criticizing our violent culture, and all sorts of people are focusing on the Asian-ness, or more specifically the Korean-ness, of the shooter. (For the Korean viewpoint, I recommend that readers pay Kevin Kim a visit.) President Bush, with breathtaking clumsiness and insensitivity, prefaced his first remarks to the nation with an oafish assertion about his position on gun ownership. News anchors are cautioning us against racist outbursts; there will undoubtedly be some. (The Wall Street Journal today carried a level-headed editorial that readers may find of interest.)

When this sort of thing happens, the natural reaction here in the U.S., where we are able to live our lives at a level of safety and comfort that is unparalleled in the history of the world, is to ask how we can prevent it from happening again. This isn’t some horrid Third World backwater, after all, where life is cheap; this is America, and if something is broken, we want the government to fix it. But underlying this attitude is the assumption that everything can be fixed; that we have an inalienable right to live tranquil and sheltered lives, and that what we get for living here and not, say, Darfur, or East Timor, or Baghdad, is that our children will be safe. And the amazing fact is that generally, they are.

But we should take a step back from our indignation to realize that we live brief and precarious lives on a tiny speck of dust in a vast and indifferent Cosmos, and that despite our very best efforts the chaos, the blackness, the uncaring and infinite Wild that we so effectively manage to keep just beyond the gates is going to creep in now and then, and pick some of us off. We live in a firelit glade in the forest, and sometimes we forget how recently the ground was cleared, and how small a place we occupy in the wilderness all around us.

The madness that took those infinitely precious young lives was not a localized instance, nor is it “fixable” by legislature. It was an eruption of a molten pool that lies beneath us all, and while our species passes through its awkward and painful adolescence — as the world is compressed ever more tightly, and as more and more of us are brought, willy-nilly, into random and kinetic interaction with one another — that heat and pressure will find its way to the surface again and again, until we transform not our governments, not our laws, but ourselves.

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  1. the one eyed man says

    In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith asks the following questions.

    Let’s suppose that you found out that a million people died this morning in China due to an earthquake (or, to use a more recent example, thousands died from a tsunami). Most people would think about this for a few minutes, reflect on the fickle nature of mortality and human life, and then think about something else a half hour later.

    Now let’s suppose that I were to tell you that tomorrow morning, one of your toes will be cut off. The average person would spend all night awake, worrying intensely about what would happen the next morning. There is nothing you would think about besides losing the toe.

    Smith asks: why the disparity between a million deaths and losing a toe? The answer is obvious: there is an immediacy to losing a toe — and after all, it’s your toe — which will preoccupy the mind much more than a million faceless people in China.

    Then he asks a more interesting question: if you were to ask someone which he would choose — losing a toe or having a million dead people in China — our putative toe-loser would choose to live with nine toes. Why is this? According to Smith, it is the feeling of personal responsibility, which is an innately human characteristic, which prevents people from allowing that level of suffering as a result of their actions.

    How is this relevant to Virginia Tech? I think that most people feel that as a society, there must have been something we could have done to prevent this, and hence in some sense we are culpable for what happens. People feel that if we had gun control, or if we gave handguns out at freshman orientation, or if we just did something, the thirty dead people would be around today. I agree with the Journal to the extent that there probably isn’t anything which could have been done, much as there isn’t much we could have done to prevent Timothy McVeigh from setting off his bombs or to prevent Jeffrey Dahmer from sauteeing his victims. However, to accept this means to accept our powerlessness to control the random acts of crazed individuals — it’s much easier to blame ourselves (or lawmakers, or whatever) than to view life and longevity as random events.

    Posted April 18, 2007 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks Peter, for such a thoughtful comment on what was admittedly a rather bleak post.

    Actually, I’m optimistic about the human race, in the long run. But we are just emerging from our long childhood, and there are tough years ahead. If it turns out anything like my own adolescence, we’re doomed.

    Posted April 18, 2007 at 10:22 pm | Permalink