Facing up to violence in America
In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, America needs a day of mourning and reflection.
New York — "Turn on your TV," a friend instructed via e-mail. "Right now." So I did. And then I saw the murder and mayhem at Virginia Tech, where more than 30 people were gunned down Monday morning. I watched police officers storming buildings, rifles ready. Medics carried away the wounded and the dead. Dazed students embraced each other or looked blankly at the scrum of cameras, wearing empty stares of shock.
But I wasn't shocked. Upset, yes – but not shocked. And that should shock all of us.
We have been here before, of course. The sites of prior school massacres are etched on our minds, a symbolic shorthand for the violence and malevolence that none of us can comprehend. Paducah, Ky. Springfield, Ore. And, most of all, Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
So it's hard to be shocked when you see it all again, unfolding in real time on television and the Internet. And it's hard to avoid the same facile questions – and the same superficial answers – that followed the other tragedies.
Whenever something like this happens, of course, everyone wants to know why. So they seize upon the particulars of the case, probing the killers' backgrounds and psyches: this one was bullied, that one used drugs, and so on. Or they make enormous generalizations about American culture, to suggest that we're all going to hell in a handbasket.
In the wake of Columbine, for example, prominent conservative Tom DeLay linked youth violence with the teaching of evolution in schools and "working mothers who take birth control pills." No less absurdly, some commentators tried to make violent video games the culprit, as if playing a few rounds of Grand Theft Auto makes you shoot up a school.
It's hard to know why a specific killer acted in the way he did. Rather than focusing narrowly upon this awful event, then, we should declare a National Day of Mourning and Reflection on Violence in America. Besides memorializing the dead, at Virginia Tech and elsewhere, this annual federal holiday would also seek to spark a national conversation about Americans as a people: who we are, and who we would like to become.
Why, we should ask, are the gunmen in school massacres almost always male? What does that tell us about the ways we socialize boys in America? About relations between the sexes? About the relationship between violence and manhood?
Second, why are most of these gunmen also white? (Yes, reports indicate the Virginia Tech gunman was Asian; but almost every other mass shooter has been white.) Black and Latino boys commit plenty of violence in school, of course, but they're more likely to assault an individual whom they know. White shooters more often kill en masse and randomly: They're aiming for high body counts, not for a particular target. Why?
Third, why do so many American men – and, increasingly, many American women – own guns? Between 40 percent and 50 percent of American households own a gun, one of the highest percentages in the Western world. We can and should debate the best ways to regulate guns, but we simply cannot deny their prevalence in our society. And even though Virginia Tech was nominally a "gun-free zone," the shooter had no trouble bringing weapons there. Why do so many Americans own guns? Which Americans choose to purchase them? And how do guns influence the nature of violence in America?
Fourth, what messages do our various mass media transmit about men, women, and violence? In the recent imbroglio over racist comments by Don Imus, many commentators observed – correctly – that similarly bigoted language suffuses America's mainstream media. But US airwaves are saturated with violence, too, ranging from shoot'em-up movies to rape and torture. And most of this on-screen violence is committed by men, as well. I'm not saying that the mass media cause violent behavior, because we can't be sure of that. But these images do make violence more "normal" and acceptable in US society. And that can't be a good thing.
Last, and most important, what can we do to change? How, as a nation, can we become less violent? Is it even possible?
I'd like to say it is, because I believe deeply in our nation's potential for renewal and transformation. But in darker moments, I'm not so sure.
And, surely, the Virginia Tech massacre is one of the darkest moments of all. That's precisely why we need to shed light, right now, upon the larger patterns of violence that surround us. We must transcend the particulars of this awful event so that we can see it in its wider national context. And we must not look away.
So I propose this Thursday, April 19, as National Day of Mourning and Reflection on Violence in America. That day marks the 12th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, where 168 innocents lost their lives to a homegrown American fanatic. As I said, we've been here before. And none of us should rest until we're all shocked by it.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."