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Murder On Campus: A Meditation On Death of the Young | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 19, 2007

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"For between someone who is armed and someone who is unarmed, there is no proportion." -- Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XIV.

"But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: 'Why did this happen to those five?' If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in human life, surely it could be discovered latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident or we live by plan and die by plan." -- Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Re.

"In the aftermath of this senseless tragedy, (may) God our Father console all those who mourn and grant them that spiritual strength, which triumphs over violence by the power of forgiveness, hope, and reconciling love." -- Benedict XVI , On Virginia Tech, April 17, 2007.


Though I did not then know of the fact or of the scope of the Virginia Tech killings, that same morning I was doing a class on the Apology of Socrates. It is there that he lays down the first principles of our civilization, that death is not the worst evil, that given a choice between doing what is wrong and death, we choose death. Philosophy, he tells us, is a preparation for death. It is not something that anyone escapes. It is simply more graphic when it happens to the young.

The morning after this killing, a 29-year-old former basketball player for the University of Maryland dropped dead in his apartment in Annapolis while ironing his shirt. Death happens to the young elsewhere. On any given day, in the United States, some one hundred and ten or so people, on the average, are killed in automobile accidents. We do not lower flags for them. Soldiers are often longer lived than civilians. We can recall the flooding in Thailand and New Orleans and hardly know who or what to blame. All ages were involved. Nature caused it. Is nature evil?

But Socrates, as he said at his trial, was seventy years old. He was in a court of law standing trial for, among other things, supposedly corrupting the youth of the city, the potential philosophers. He corrupted them by teaching them to seek the truth. A month later he would be executed according to the laws of Athens. He chose to obey the law in order to show us what transcends it when it does not itself work to establish justice.

Students need to meditate on death both because it happens, even to some of their cohort, and because it is part of life, part of their life. The campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, as I read in another account, has been in recent years one of the safest and least accident prone places in this country. Most towns of its size, some 25,000, have more serious incidents than have happened there up to now. The average number of deaths at Virginia Tech in the last thirty years is about one a year.

The commentaries and analyses of the Virginia Tech killings have been almost non-stop. We search for "meaning;" we demand it. The death of the young is always poignant, a topic already found in Aristotle. We are told, especially by the Europeans, whose own guns seem less and less to stand for anything, that the killings are due to "gun laws." This is also the "cause" of one of the Virginia senators.

The young Korean student who did the killings obeyed the gun laws, but if he could not have obtained a gun, there were knives, gasoline, or something else. The biggest killings--suicide bombers, 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing--were done with things other than guns. Two mornings after the shootings in Blacksburg, the mayor of Nagasaki in Japan was murdered by a local criminal who was disgruntled over some parking problem with his car.

The Holy Father called these killings "senseless." The President used the evil word -- "evil." Evidently, the young man had some envy motive. I read someplace that many of the mass killers on college campuses, and there have been a number in recent decades, gave as the reason to justify their acts bad grades or failure to be honored or rewarded. Envy is still a reality, under appreciated.

This young man carefully planned what he would do. It was not a spur of the moment thing. Usually, "plotting" increases the responsibility and heinousness of a crime. But this was a 23-year-old, a South Korean in the United States for sixteen years, an English major. Ernest van den Haag someplace has calculated that the great majority of murders in any society are committed by young men between the ages of sixteen and thirty-two. His solution is to put in jail any first offender till his thirty-two. But this young man was a first offender. He was also a "suicide bomber"--or at least a shooter who committed suicide.

In the Phaedo, Socrates tells Evenus to "follow" his example. Evenus wonders if he means that he should commit suicide, as he knows that Socrates is to die. Suicide seems the easiest way to follow him. But Socrates says that we are not masters of our own lives, which are gifts of the gods. He merely meant that we should follow his example in living one's life as a preparation for death. We should be virtuous. Thou shalt not kill.

But it is worth saying a word about "suicide bombers" and this murder and suicide at Virginia Tech. As far as we can tell, the local and world-wide Korean communities were stunned by this act. They took it as a blot on their character, even though they are an exemplary people. To be sorry for a tragedy for which we are not personally responsible for, as Aristotle said, is itself a sign that we do not wish it or approve it. In the case of the too frequently successful "suicide bombers" elsewhere in which similar numbers of people are killed in city streets or buildings, killed equally arbitrarily, we often see cheering and approval by the nationals or religious followers of the bombers. It is not an embarrassment at all to them but another weapon of war. The comparison is instructive. The culture that cheers is radically different from the one that is sorrowful.


In the beginning, I cited Machiavelli's famous quip that there is no "proportion" between an armed and an unarmed man. The problem at Virginia Tech that morning was that only one man with arms was about in the classroom until the police with arms arrived, too late. No one apparently made a move to attack him or throw something at him. The armed local police were not there in time. The disarmed society can be unusually defenseless. The young man had to know this. He shot himself when police with guns arrived. In the meantime, he killed, execution-style in his gory work.

The quarterback of the football team was just outside the hall when the shooting began. He said, in an article in the Post, that he "moved on." The hero was the elderly Romanian Jewish science professor who held the door for students to exit till he too was shot. Harvey Mansfield's discussion of the virtue and need of courage in our society seems pertinent. We think of the plane that crashed in the countryside in Pennsylvania on 9/11. What do we expect of human nature in extreme situations?

In my fancy, I like to think of the following scenario. Even though guns are illegal on the Virginia Tech campus, suppose, in that classroom--or better, at the dorm where the first shooting occurred--there was a young redneck (they are supposed to live in Virginia) who had a pistol. He had talked to this young Korean. He was suspicious of what he was about. Let us suppose he happened to be in the first dorm. He saw him take out his gun. Reacting quickly, the redneck student pulled out his gun and shot him. Hence, no deaths at Virginia Tech that morning would have happened. And no one could imagine that they could.

What would have happened to the young man? He would, most likely, have been immediately arrested, put in jail, and charged with second-degree murder and possession of a gun at Virginia Tech. There would be no real way for him to prove that the Korean youth would intend to kill anyone. Yet, no one would have been killed, so we would not have been able to imagine that it was even possible. We would laugh at it. We have lost our capacity to understand that someone could do these things or that someone could prevent them. We imagine neither violence nor the need to prevent violence in practice. We do not know about the Fall.

But the killing of over thirty students and teachers did take place. It was not prevented either by a brave counter-attack on the killer or by the armed police. The man who owned the store at which the guns were purchased was shocked that the guns were used for this purpose. One might suppose that the young Korean, determined in his lethal mission, had he been denied a purchase, would have found other ways to carry out his plan. For the basic problem is not the gun but the reason that a man uses it.

Much is made of the papers and essays this young man wrote. They were sufficiently disturbing to warrant attention, which some professors tried to effectuate. Counseling was recommended. It is difficult to conclude whether this was a problem. The prevention of this "crime" was thus not just a matter of guns, but of reading character and intention in assigned papers. Students recall talking to him, reading his papers. He was a "loner" and sort of odd. It is difficult to know if he is dangerous. He just wrote odd things. He's probably harmless.

One wonders what would have happened if the young man had somehow been subdued before he shot himself. Say they shot tear gas in or someone hit him in the head with a lectern. When the young man several years ago in the D.C. area went on his rampage and killed numerous people from the back of his car, he was tried in Virginia as the most likely place where he would receive capital punishment. Is killing thirty people enough to warrant this punishment?

During and after the trial, in this supposed case, we would surely be inundated with pleas for clemency or anti-death penalty cries. He would be examined by top psychologists. Chances are he would never be said to be sane. Thus, he was not really "guilty." It was not a question of "morals," but of a kind of natural disaster.

Like the young man himself, some would want to blame society, the "rich kids," or "American society," anything but facing up to the question of personal responsibility. We are not comfortable with this notion that real people do evil things. But the suicide prevented this scenario from playing itself out. The students and teachers were killed. We do not any longer have to "imagine" it. It happened. Actually, it is much easier to explain by acknowledging personal responsibility than any other way.


Much of the focus of the days following the killings has been on the grief and sorrow, the shock of the event, especially for those in Blacksburg and the relatives of the people killed. It could not be otherwise. Yet, I wonder if there is any sense in thinking about the dead themselves? This wonderment is why I cited the passage from the Bridge of San Luis Re. Here was the story of the collapse of a rope bridge in the early days of Peru. Five people, who just happened to be on the bridge when it broke, plunged to their death. I suppose someone tried to blame the rope maker or the bridge attendant who was supposed to look after this. The police might have inquired if anyone cut the ropes to get rid of someone. It could have been prevented if...

But Wilder was concerned rather with those who died. How had they lived? I wonder about this also. A number of years ago, I had a very lovely young woman in class. That summer she was working for some youth camp in Colorado, I believe. In the course of an outing or a lesson in mountain climbing, she fell off a ledge or slipped and plunged to her death. That was the fact of what happened; it was an accident. Her death asks the same question as the death of those in Blacksburg. Why now? Why her?

As far as the thirty students at Virginia Tech who were killed, I wonder if we can ask the same questions. We believe that each of us is created by God. The Lord gives and the Lord taketh away. We have to say that each of these persons was called by God. They knew not the day or the hour. How had they been living? None had time to prepare for what was to happen to them. So, no doubt, they died as they lived. Yet, the Wilder novel asks, why were these and not some thirty others chosen by the killer? We believe that we die when God calls us. We also believe that we are called when we are probably most ready. These students were not to live to old age.

The April 16th article that I wrote for Ignatius Insight ("On 'Losing' One's Faith At University") had to do with losing the faith in college. It was aware that how we live in college is popularly described in books and novels. We suspect that college life is often not an easy place in which to save one's soul. Today at funerals, we will hear nothing but light, no "Remember man that thou are dust and to dust thou shalt return." No, ye know not the day or the hour. The Church has traditionally reminded us that the death of others is also a lesson for the living. We cannot rule out the notion that the killings at Virginia Tech had a salutary, sober purpose. How do we live at college or wherever we are?

We focus on the killer. We know that he has violated the commandment egregiously. We hope, in one way, that he was not responsible, yet it is simpler if he were. If he was not responsible, then the killings are more similar to being struck by lightning than murder. The Supreme Court decision on partial abortion seems like a beginning hint that deliberately taking innocent human life is always wrong. There seems to be no relation between the grudge that the Korean student had and those he killed. It is doubtful, as far as I know, if he even knew any, or very many, of those he killed. It would be easier to explain if he did know them and had some hatred for them. He is closer to the "suicide bomber" who kills just anybody.

Yet, we speculate about these things. In the transcendent order, punishment and reward are not in our hands. The very fact that we seek a "meaning" for these deaths implies that we cannot be content with something merely irrational. We think or want to think that those who were killed were also called. They had done what God had asked of them. People are murdered every day. The mystery of sin and innocence is pervasive. When the Holy Father called this killing "senseless," he did not mean that nothing transcendent was going on. It is given unto every man once to die, thence the judgment. We are rightly horrified at the taking of thirty lives in cold blood. It is evil.

This particular evil had a human cause and human victims. We do not think deeply enough about this crime if we only think of how it could have been prevented, if it could have been. Both Aristotle and Machiavelli state that if a man who does not care for his own life chooses to kill us, there is often very little we can do to stop him. We live in a time when the "suicide bombers" remind us that not a few would choose to kill us. We can avoid thinking of this unpleasant topic if we wish. But it is right to think of how to disarm and eliminate potential suicide bombers, even as we fail to stop some of them.

Can we make sense out of what is "senseless" or "meaningless?" The killings at Blacksburg are not, now that they have happened, about how to prevent killings ever again. Others will happen, though we can try to prevent them. Indeed, many crimes are prevented every day. We are a finite race, given four score and ten, but only if we are strong. When the young die, they meet the same Maker that they would confront were they to die at the age of Socrates when he was executed. We die as we live, even in college. We are to learn from the examples of others. Ye know not the day or the hour.

The day and the hour came to some thirty students and professors at Virginia Tech. At least at some moment in our reflections on this tragic scene, we should remind ourselves that we are called, each of us, when God chooses. Those killed at Blacksburg have indeed provided us all with a meditation on death. This reflection is what, after all, Socrates said that philosophy should be about. And the universal reaction of the vast Korean community is "we do not do these things," even when they are done by one who lived among us. This is the natural law. As Plato said, all disorders in the polity begin as disorders in the soul of the citizen. Blacksburg seems no exception to this principle. In the end, "either we live by accident and die by accident or we live by plan and die by plan."

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Why Do We Exist? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Martyrs and Suicide Bombers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The One War, The Real War | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Wars Without Violence? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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