Among the more curious reactions to the Virginia Tech killings that I’ve seen bandied about in various circles is one that goes something like this:
The tremendous outpouring of grief over the death of 33 Virginia Tech students and professors is proof positive that Americans are selfish and egocentric and care more about their own lives than lives lost around the world everyday from other far worse atrocities, civil wars, preventable diseases, etc. Why not more outrage and grief over innocent lives lost in Iraq and Darfur, or the thousands lost to AIDs on the African continent? Stupid, myopic Americans; so much grief over their own kids, so much blindness toward the suffering of others around the world whose lives are just as important.
Or something like that. On the one hand, it’s a fair point; we do tend to react more strongly when something horrible happens in our own backyard as opposed to the other side of the world. And we can all (institutions, countries, churches, individuals) be a bit too parochial at times.
But the irony of pressing that particular point is that the moment one starts to call into question the amount of grief and concern shown toward the innocents at Virginia Tech, one runs the risk of devaluing their lives and the suffering surrounding them in an attempt to increase the value of lives elsewhere. It seems to me that grief is not a zero-sum game. Is it not enough to say that all human life is valuable, and that the death of innocents for any reason anywhere is tragic?
But is it necessary to grieve all death “equally?” Each morning on my drive to work, I listen to NPR and hear about the latest death toll from Iraq. I usually sigh, feeling a small twinge of sadness and a little kick in the gut–and then I drive on. I feel the loss, but being far removed, it doesn’t stop me dead in my tracks the way that the Virginia Tech killing did–for obvious reasons. It seems that all of us are naturally inclined to be affected more by events and tragedies to which we are more personally connected. I’m not sure that’s an indication of American nationalism and self-interest so much as it is simply a fact of human nature.
And there may be a good reason for that. I wonder what it would be like to experience–in full measure–the sadness and horror of every death of every innocent the world over? I would imagine that it would be more than I could take. It’s difficult enough to have to deal periodically with the sadness and death in my own circle, much less that of everyone everywhere all the time.
But to call into the question the proportion of another’s grief seems to me a bit like a sour, off-key note in the middle of a symphony–it stands out like a sore thumb, causing one to cringe. The mourner’s bench is no place for mental masturbation or chatter. There is a time to talk–and there is a time to simply shut up and grieve.