When I arrived this morning at work, a co-worker whose late night air shifts are clearly taking a toll on his perception of the world, was going on and on about evils of slavery and its indelible mark upon the world we have wrought because of it. While I donâ€™t dispute his view (hell, I share a large part of it), I commented on how if you look at the history of human cultures you will find that we have a seemingly endless capacity for cruelty. He causally acknowledged what I had to say and then launched into a dissertation on how flying saucers avoid asteroids in space because of their anti-gravity technology (I told you the late night shifts were taking a toll on his perception of the world).
I bring this up because of a couple of things. First off, our military adventures abroad have produced acts of cruelty that far exceed what most of us can imagine. Yet, despite the daily news of deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan, the collective outrage is more like a steady simmer in a pressure cooker. The majority of people are sick of war and want it to end, but the Bush administration clings to their Utopian dreams for Iraq and Afghanistan, and can only realize said dream through violent force. Coffins containing dead soldiers come home, disabled vets (both physically and emotionally) try to adjust to the surreality of coming back from hell to the free market heaven of the shopping mall, and every day thereâ€™s news of another act of cruelty in the form of a fire-fight, a roadside bomb, or whatever. Itâ€™s a narrative that is presented day in and day out on the homepages of Yahoo, Comcast, newspapers, TV, and radio, but we seem to be numb to it (out of preserving oneâ€™s sanity, or ignorance).
Then, when the narrative of violence is broken by a variation of its theme (i.e., the shootings in Virginia), the collective hue and cry of â€œWhat is our world coming toâ€ rises up.Â To counter the insanity of the incident, we are shown images of young college kids gathering in prayer circles for comfort and answers.Â However, if you look beyond the images of peace and to the account of the initial student and university reaction to a gunman allegedly killing two people, itâ€™s quite startling:
The university hadâ€¦ sent out a bulletin warning students about an apparent shooter. But few students seemed to have any sense of urgency.
Ms. Bernhards said she walked toward her class, preoccupied with an upcoming exam and listening to music on her iPod.Â On the way, she said, she heard loud cracks, and only later concluded they had been gunshots from the second round of shootings.Â But even at that point, many students were walking around the campus with little sense of alarm.
It was only when Ms. Bernhards got close to Norris Hall, the second of two buildings where the shootings took place, that she realized something had gone wrong.
I wonder if the early reaction to the violence in Virginia (as depicted above) has something to do with a kind of collective numbness we seem to be living in. Violence and cruelty are amazing spectacles; they are events that punctuate the mundane and the ordinary in such a way that their presence signifies extreme acts brought about by desperation or an abuse of power. However, when much of our culture (from â€œliberal Hollywoodâ€ to conservative gun nuts) profit off the violent commodities it sells to a willing public, it is surprising that the number of violent acts in our so-called safe havens arenâ€™t more frequent and more extreme.