In the face of great tragedy, what often distinguishes Americans from other national cultures is our incredible ability to talk about our pain in public as a way of healing.
When horror strikes, we do not buckle over alone and stay silent, but walk into the public square, reach out to one another and chew our way through the pain. It is in these moments that Americans--all too often self-absorbed with the day-to-day of making ends meet--find each other again, share the details of the people we have lost, and remember that we are not alone.
As I watched the public response to the tragic violence in Blacksburg, I was filled with sorrow in the face of all the death, but my sorrow quickly found a place with the outpouring of voices that has risen up in response. Due to the tireless voices, I now know the names and faces of many of the people killed as their stories fan out across the media and take root in our hearts.
But in the midst of all the past 48 hours of talking, crying and slow healing, I have also been left--as have many--with a question almost too painful to ask: Why have we not been able, neither as a as a nation nor as individuals, to talk about the violence and pain suffered by Americans and by Iraqis? Why does the violence in Blacksburg bring out the very best in our American character--our ability to join together and heal--while the recurring violence in Baghdad--experienced by Americans and Iraqis alike--has left us sitting alone?
Talk About Violence
In just 48 hours since the shootings in Blacksburg, we already know the names, faces and stories of many of the victims.
Consider, for example, this heart wrenching story published by a local news agency:
Harris County Remembers Va. Tech Massacre Victim
A Pine Mountain native was one of 32 people killed by a gunman on the campus of Virginia Tech Monday morning.Jamie Bishop was a German language professor. The gunman burst into his classroom in Norris Hall and immediately shot Bishop in the head.
Hundreds gathered at the First United Methodist Church of Pine Mountain Tuesday night, to honor Bishop.
One by one, family and friends made their way into the First United Methodist Church to remember Jamie Bishop for the man, teenager, and child they loved so dearly.
"He was a great student. He read more books, I had to go to the library to get more books for Jamie," said Jo Holladay, Bishop's teacher.
Each person, another story, another memory. Even those who hadn't seen Jamie Bishop in years came to reflect on who he was, and how much he meant to them.
"It seems like we were just sitting in Mrs. Palmer's class, whining about reading Canterbury Tales. We were all just happy and smiling," said former classmate Jennifer Wood.
"He was always a great guy. Last night, I looked at my yearbook, and read what he wrote," said Kelli Wommack, another classmate.
The candlelight service was more than just a vigil for Jamie. It was a reminder that 31 more families are going through the same heartache of losing a loved one.
(full story by Priya Aujla, WTVM)
When we read this story of Jamie Bishop's death, we feel our own hearts break in half. And at the same time, we identify deeply with the outpouring of voices in Pine Mountain. We know that voicing the memory of Jamie Bishop is just one example of a community of Americans coming together to talk, remember and recover.
A story from the Associated Press describes a similar dynamic:
BLACKSBURG, Va. | Austin Cloyd, who attended high school in Illinois, was among 33 people killed at Virginia Tech in the deadliest college shooting in modern U.S. history.
The 18-year-old international studies major dreamed of someday working for the United Nations, her father said.
C. Bryan Cloyd and his wife Renee said they started searching local hospitals Monday when they didn't hear from their daughter.
"Austin was the most wonderful daughter in the world," her father said. "Austin's parents, brother and extended family and friends want everyone to know that the world has lost a very special person."
At least two other students from the Chicago area were affected by the shootings.
Garrett Evans, a Virginia Tech senior who grew up in Chicago, was wounded in the legs. The 30-year-old said he was in a classroom the gunman entered.
"I'm in pain," he said, "but my heart's in way more pain than my legs."
Jeffrey Dawley, of Naperville, Ill., is a senior at Virginia Tech. The 21-year-old said he knew six people who were killed in the massacre.
"It's just a very surreal experience," he said. "...It truly is mind-boggling."
These stories of death and suffering in Virginia are not about the spectacle of violence, but about the American way of responding with our voices.
The response was similar after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the days and months that followed that tragic violence, Americans rallied together and talked about those they had lost, what had happened, and how they should go about healing.
But think of this: when was the last time any of us read a story like this about a tragic death in Iraq--either of an American soldier, a private contractor or an Iraqi?
In the first few years and first few hundred deaths of American soldiers, there were some instances of trying to remember the names and faces of fallen soldiers. Ted Koppel and Jim Lehrer used to read off the names of soldiers killed in Iraq. But beyond the occasional documentary, I cannot recall stories about American soldiers being wounded or about Iraqis killed tragically. Nor can I remember any story beyond the torture at Abu Ghraib that led us all to talk to each other about the violence in Iraq in the way that we have come together to talk about the violence that happened in Virginia.
We just do not do it.
Write About Violence
Obituaries for fallen soldiers are about the only place where this talk occurs, but these stories never seem to reach the level of national conversation.
This obituary, for example, recounts the death of a Colorado native serving in Iraq:
GREELEY, Colo. -- A soldier who was a Colorado native has died from small arms fire in Baghdad.
Military officials said 35-year-old Shane Becker died Tuesday.
Becker is from Alaska, but he was born in Denver and grew up in Greeley, Colo.
Click here to find out more!
Becker is a 1990 graduate of Greeley West High School. He was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based in Fort Richardson, Alaska.
He headed up a six-man sniper team, according to the Army, and was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. Military officials said Becker died during a firefight Tuesday as he and his fellow soldiers looked for enemy mortars.
He had already signed up for a third tour of duty and planned to serve in Afghanistan in 2008.
Becker is survived by his wife, Crystal, and two daughters who live in Anchorage, Alaska. He is the stepson of Greeley firefighter Bob Jorgensen.
"I think what really defines Shane, in one word, is loyalty," Jorgensen said. "First he was an American, second he was a family man and third he was a soldier."
"I know there is a wall in the east with 58,000 names on it as a memorial," Jorgensen said. "But he said, 'What we want for a memorial is a stable government in the Middle East so we have security for our families."
According to the Greeley Tribune, on the night before he was killed, Becker talked online with his wife and daughters on a webcam the family had set up.
"Then he said goodnight to his family and went on duty," Jorgensen said. "The next morning he was dead."
"He had a daughter who only got to know him for 10 days," he added.
Becker's family will hold two memorials, one in Alaska and one in Greeley.
Becker was the second Greeley West grad to die in Iraq. On Nov. 2, 2005, Pfc. Tyler MacKenzie, 20, was killed in a roadside bomb explosion.
(full story from TheDenverChannel.com)
Shane Becker's death was a tragic loss for his family and for this nation. And yet, the language of the obituary is not the same as the stories recounting the deaths in Virginia. In those stories, the violence of the death and the real personal involvement of the mourners find a connection, but without sensationalism. In the soldier's obituary, there is almost a shutting down of the American voice, a distancing and marginalization of the suffering of the family, and an absorption of the individual into the statistics of war. "Becker was the second Greeley West grad to die in Iraq." The obituary is a report, not a description of pain and healing.
Of course, obituaries are important and they are valuable, but the contrast between the Virginia Tech stories and the obituaries for our soldiers in Iraq is striking.
We do not, as a whole, discuss the obituaries around the water cooler at work or on the ride home or at the dinner table. The obituaries do not trigger that all important American drive to talk about our collective pain in public. They do not lead to any collective involvement in the healing. The obituaries are more like a receipt for services rendered. It is as if they are saying, "A soldier died. He served his country. Please make a note of it."
One of the lessons I have learned from the VA Tech tragedy, in other words, is how little we are affected collectively by the deaths of our soldiers. Even less so by the horrific wounds they suffer on an hourly basis from exploding improvised devices that send molten metal shooting through their bodies.
These acts of violence against our soldiers, whether they result in injuries or deaths, simply do not lead us as a nation to cry, to find each other, to talk through the pain.
Silence About Soldiers and Iraqis
While we do not talk about the suffering and deaths of our soldiers, the obituaries at least show that we are not completely silent about them. Despite the restrictions placed on information, we can find the writing about our soldiers if we choose to look for it--even if that writing is stripped of most references to the actual violence our soldiers experienced.
But the same cannot be said for the pain and suffering experienced by Iraqis. Even if we want to find places where that pain and suffering is discussed, we come up short.
Writing on his personal blog Informed Comment, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole writes that there is the equivalent of "two Virginia techs" everyday in Iraq and then recalls one instance from February 26, 2007 where he tried to relay some information about a single violent tragedy in Iraq:
A suicide bomber with a bomb belt
got into the lobby of the School of Administration and Economy of
Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and managed to set it off despite
being spotted at the last minute by university security guards. The
blast killed 41 and wounded a similar number according to late reports,
with body parts everywhere and big pools of blood in the foyer as
students were shredded by the high explosives.
(from Juan Cole)
Indeed, the descriptions of the blood and the blast are resonant and important to the debate about whether or not the situation is getting better in Iraq or not (it's not). And even while I commend Prof. Cole for his work at bringing these details to light, I cannot help noticing--as a result of having been watching the reactions to the VA Tech shootings--that even his descriptions are more like obituaries than the kind of reporting we have had about the Blacksburg victims.
As a nation, collectively, we simply do not know the stories of how Iraqis have suffered in the war that involves us so deeply. We know the facts of our soldiers having been killed, but even those facts are largely missing when it comes to Iraqis.
We do not know their names or their faces or how they died or what their families said in response to learning that they died.
We do not know how the members of their communities remembered them or where they held the ceremonies.
We have not heard any of this. And as a result, none of the experience of suffering violence and loss by Iraqis has entered into our experience as Americans. This world to which we are so connected on so many levels has had no impact on us.
Pain and Violence, Pain and Silence
For their part, it is difficult without having lived in Iraq to know how Iraqis deal with their own experiences of violence and suffering. Do they come together and talk? Do they separate off into families? Do they have a chance to come together and start the healing process in the same way that the people of Blacksburg have had?
I hope so. The people of Blacksburg--and all those who have stepped up to be there for them--are a wonderful example of an aspect of American culture that can help Iraqi families deal with the violence and pain they have suffered. The people of Blacksburg will stand as an example both to our soldiers and to the people whose lives that have become so intertwined with our soldiers overseas.
Many will say at this point that the simple solution to this problem is just to get our soldiers out of Iraq--to bring them home. But that is only part of the solution. The other part is coming to terms with the great silence that has fallen over America about the violence in Iraq--silence about the suffering of our soldiers and Iraqis, and silence about how our soldiers and how Iraqis are dealing with their pain.
This means that those in the media not only have a responsibility to cover the war, but have an obligation to the American people to fill the void in the coverage of Iraq.
As a nation we not only deserve to read stories about how American soldiers and Iraqis have suffered and coped with the violence, but we want to read those stories. Without those stories an important part of our national character remains dormant in the face of the war.
And once those stories enter the press, we as citizens have an obligation to take them into our lives--to talk about the pain of our soldiers and of Iraqis with the same passion and empathy as when we talked about the fallen students and professors in Blacksburg.
Ending the silence on the violence in Iraq is an obligation that we must all fulfill.
As horrible as it was, the Virginia Tech tragedy teaches all of us that violence met with silence will only lead to more tragedy, more pain, more suffering.
If that lesson can be applied to America's conversation about Iraq, then perhaps in some small way, the victims in Blacksburg will not have died completely in vain.
(cross posted from Frameshop)
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