The Virginia Tech massacre—social roots of another American tragedy

By David Walsh

A day after the mass killing at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, along with grief and dismay, some reflections on life in the US are clearly in order. The event was horrifying, but no one who has followed the evolution of American society over the past quarter-century will be entirely shocked. Such psychopathic episodes, including dozens of multiple killings or attempted killings in workplaces and schools, have occurred with disturbing regularity, particularly since the mid-1980s. A timeline assembled by the Associated Press and the School Violence Resource Center lists some 30 school and college shootings alone since 1991.

Official reaction to the Blacksburg deaths, one feels safe in predicting, will be as superficial and irrelevant as it has been in every previous case.

The appearance of George W. Bush at the convocation held on the Virginia Tech campus Tuesday afternoon was especially inappropriate. Here is a man who embodies the worst in America, its wealthy and corrupt ruling elite. As governor of Texas, Bush presided over the executions of 152 human beings; as president, he has the blood of thousands of Americans, tens of thousands of Afghans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands. His administration has made unrelenting violence the foundation of its global policies, justifying assassination, secret imprisonment and torture.

Speaking of the Blacksburg killings, Bush commented: “Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they’re gone—and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.” If he and his cronies were not entirely immune to the consequences of their own policies, it might strike them that they could be speaking about the masses of the dead in Iraq, who have also done “nothing to deserve their fate.”

The president, in his perfunctory remarks, appeared anxious, above all, to put the events behind him. Bush’s comment that “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering” comes as no surprise. He recognizes instinctively, or his speechwriters do, that considering the “violence and suffering” in a serious manner would raise troubling questions, and even more troubling answers. When the president concluded, “And on this terrible day of mourning, it’s hard to imagine that a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal,” he said more than he perhaps wanted to. This is an admission that something has gone terribly wrong at Virginia Tech—and in this regard the university is a microcosm of the larger social reality—and will not easily be put right.

In general, those speaking at the gathering—school officials, politicians and clergy—seemed in haste to get past the event. In some cases, this may stem from a sincere desire to console and to lift the community’s collective spirits. However, a major tragedy, with broad social implications, has taken place and it needs to be considered.

The events at Virginia Tech follow almost eight years to the day the mass killing at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which 15 people died. At the time, the media and politicians performed a ritual breast-beating, with Bill Clinton in the lead. Much was made of the need for new gun controls, increased security in the schools and the need to counsel troubled students. Then, as now, official American public opinion refused to recognize the killings as a social disorder.

What has occurred in the intervening years? Can anyone argue that American society has developed since 1999 in such a manner as to make tragedies similar to Columbine less likely?

Everyday life in America has continued to have a violent, remorseless backdrop. In April 1999 US and NATO forces were launching cruise missile after cruise missile against the former Yugoslavia and inflicting lethal sanctions and periodic bombing raids on Iraq. Somalia and Afghanistan had also already come in for punishment from the Clinton administration.

American militarism, however, has truly flourished in the present decade. The US has been occupying portions of Central Asia or the Middle East for most of the eight years since Columbine. Following a hijacked election and making use of the terrorist attacks on September 11, the Bush-Cheney regime launched a war based on lies. The lesson taught by the ruling elite is clear: in achieving one’s aims, any sort of ruthlessness is legitimate.

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