We’re not all victims

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FIVE DAYS after the Virginia Tech massacre, the friends and families of the victims are grieving -- and despite the relentless glare of the media spotlight, their pain is still private. It belongs to them, not to the rest of us.

But you sure wouldn’t know it from the way we talk about the tragedy.

In modern America, there’s always plenty of trauma to go around. Even if you knew no one involved in the shootings, have never been to Virginia and can’t tell the difference between a Hokie and a Wahoo, there’s no need for you to feel left out.

Did you feel sad when you heard the news? Did you ponder, however fleetingly, the mystery of mortality? If so, don’t just go on with your ordinary life as if nothing has happened to disrupt it (even though nothing has happened to disrupt it). Honor your grief! Attend a candlelight vigil, post a poignant message on one of MySpace’s Virginia Tech memorial pages and please, seek trauma counseling as soon as possible.


Convincing ourselves that we’ve been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime. Thus, the Washington Post this week accompanied online stories about the shooting with a clickable sidebar, “Where to Find Support” -- apparently on the assumption that the mere experience of glancing at articles about the tragedy would be so emotionally devastating that readers would require trained therapists.

At the University of Buffalo, more than 500 miles from Virginia Tech, university counselors announced that they were “reaching out to students feeling affected by ... the tragedy.” In Dallas, area chaplains rushed (uninvited) to Blacksburg, Va., to “be part of the healing process.” In Washington, an ordinarily hard-nosed corporate law firm e-mailed attorneys a list of “resources for coping with traumatic events.”

Count me out. There’s something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized. This trivializes the pain felt by those who have actually lost something and pathologizes normal reactions to tragedy. Empathy is good, but feeling shocked and saddened by the shootings doesn’t make us traumatized or special -- these feelings make us normal.

Our self-indulgent conviction that we have all been traumatized also operates, ironically, to shut down empathy for other, less media-genic victims. On the day of the Virginia Tech shooting, for instance, Army Sgt. Mario K. De Leon of San Francisco (like the Virginia Tech victims) died of “wounds sustained from enemy small-arms fire”). On Wednesday, car bombs killed at least 172 people in Baghdad. But no one has set up a special MySpace page to commemorate those dead.

Our collective insistence that we all share in the Virginia Tech trauma is a form of anti-politics, one that blinds us to the distinctions between different kinds and degrees of suffering.

On Wednesday, USA Today worried about the effects of “the trauma this generation [of young people] has witnessed....The Oklahoma City bombing. Columbine. Sept. 11. The space shuttle disasters. Hurricane Katrina. And now Virginia Tech. Previous generations ... had their allotment of horrors -- two world wars, Vietnam ... but no cohort of American youth has ever endured repeated mass catastrophes in the ... 24/7 media environment.”


Excuse me? More than 400,000 American soldiers died in World War II, and 58,000 died in the Vietnam War, but the Millennial Generation is uniquely traumatized because it has watched sad things on TV?

Lumping together the space shuttle disasters, Columbine and Virginia Tech with terrorism, natural disasters and war dangerously decontextualizes these disparate events.

The Virginia Tech massacre was catastrophic for the victims and their loved ones, but, unlike war, it was not catastrophic for the nation. Yet President Bush -- who refuses to attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq because that might “politicize” the war his administration started -- ordered all federal flags at half-staff and rushed to Blacksburg to bemoan the “day of sadness for the entire nation.” It’s a good strategy. People busy holding candlelight vigils for the deaths in Blacksburg don’t have much time left over to protest the war in Iraq.

The insistence on collective mourning even operates to depoliticize the Virginia Tech tragedy. Those who made the mistake of suggesting that the massacre might lead us to consider tighter gun regulation were quickly told to shut up because this is “a moment for grief,” not politics.

But we live in a political world. Searching for policies that can reduce the violence that plagues our world, at home and abroad, is the best way to honor the dead.

Second best? Let’s at least stop pretending that we’re victims too.