Too terrible for words


IN THE BIBLICAL Book of Job, the anguished hero is visited by three friends who attempt to comfort him by drawing airy and sententious lessons from his agonies. Of course, they end up adding to his troubles; Job endures not only the real pains of grief and sickness but the indignity of having his suffering milked for rhetorical effect.

If only it were true that Monday’s mass murder on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University was the kind of tragedy that moves us to quiet reflection. In fact, the shootings that killed more than 30 people and wounded nearly 30 others occasioned a blizzard of hasty conclusions, instant position-taking and the rehashing of old arguments. For the sake of the dead, for the sake of the living, and even for the sake of honoring this grim milestone — the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history — we should remember that there are times when silence is the best response.

Events like these are almost impossible to react to sanely. A group of people you don’t know have been killed in a senseless crime. Too young to have established much of a past, they’ve been robbed of present and future; the weight of the offense, the rotten meaninglessness of it, makes it awkward not to have something to say.

So the ghastly death toll — perhaps inflicted by one man with a pair of semiautomatic handguns — becomes an obvious argument for enhanced gun control. Or, conversely, for the right to bear arms because Virginia Tech is a “gun-free zone,” and the Virginia Legislature last year killed a bill that would have allowed students to carry guns on campus.


For those who support universities’ in loco parentis functions, the school’s apparently unconscionable delay in alerting the student body to the presence of a gunman on campus is at the heart of the tragedy. Then there’s the male-violence angle, supported by a shooter’s apparent rage at an ex-girlfriend. Most pernicious of all, perhaps, is the request to put the matter “into perspective.”

“I have heard many such things,” Job says. “Miserable comforters are ye all.” No newspaper is in a position to criticize anybody for capitalizing on tragedy or taking convenient positions. There will be time for both in the days to come. But now is a time to respect, quietly, the tears and the pain of this terrible event.