Monday, April 23, 2007

The grace of God

I haven't posted on the Virginia Tech shootings; not only have I been busy with more personal matters, but I've been sorting out my feelings about the terrible crime and tragedy of that day a week ago. Here's what I've concluded.

My son has a little (all right, not so little) problem with negativity. I keep hoping it's just a phase - but he may in fact be one of those poor souls who goes through life under a cloud, all my husband's and my best efforts to change this pattern notwithstanding. When he starts in with the "I can't do it," "It's too hard," "I'll never be able to's," what do we tell him most often? We tell him that thoughts like these, negative thoughts, are first of all not the only way to look at whatever situation he's in, and second not helpful in changing the situation he's in. Try this, we say. Instead of saying, "I'll never be a good pitcher! I've been practicing all afternoon and I still throw more balls than strikes," try saying, instead, "Wow, this pitching thing is a real challenge. I've been spending a lot of time practicing, and look how much I've improved since I started!"

Sappy, right? But positive self-talk is a way to shape your attitude, to predispose you to positive outcomes.

I'm a sometime Weight Watchers member (the only program I've ever found that, if you choose to learn it this way, teaches you how to eat normal foods wisely). One of their tools is positive self-talk. Like this: "I can't believe I ate all those chips. What was I thinking? I have no willpower. I might as well give up now." Versus, "Those chips were really good; I really enjoyed them. I'll just make some really good choices at the next meal and be right back on track to meet my goal this week." Acknowledge your action, put it in the most positive light you can, and get back on the horse: it's the next thing you do that counts.

Columbine. Not the first school shooting, but the most notorious. A terrible waste that day was that police policy was to secure the perimeter but not to engage while shooting was going on. And after Columbine, police policy changed, and lives have been saved elsewhere on that account.

I remember after 9/11, I used to think a lot about Flight 93. My dad and I talked about it on one occasion I remember well. I told him, "I just hope that if I were ever in a situation like that (God forbid), I could be brave enough to try something. But I don't know... after all, my kids would probably be with me..."

He glanced up at me from whatever computer he was tinkering with. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I think when something like that happens, people just... do what they have to do."

That's a fairly unambitious and undemanding statement. But consider the source: while sitting on a flak jacket, he flew helicopters into combat zones in Vietnam, as a newly married 23-year-old with a pregnant wife. Perhaps because he found himself in terrifying straits so soon after both intensive training and (let's face it) the onset of adulthood, my father's own personal pattern was set: "what he had to do" would forever include the possibility of barricading a door with his body while his charges escaped, as Prof. Librescu did last week (I find myself wondering whether one reason God brought this man through the Holocaust was to save the lives he saved last Monday, may he live forever in the loving presence of his Creator). It would include facing a crazy man with a shotgun in a playground, as my mother had to do one afternoon at the Catholic school in East St. Louis where she taught when I was fourteen. It would include - it did include - dropping into a clearing in a jungle where the gunfire could come from any direction. I feel sure that it would have included rushing the cockpit with a drinks tray.

And after that conversation with my dad, I started scoping out airplane cabins. I'd been counting seat backs between my seat and the exit for quite a while; I'd been mentally lining up the friendly-looking people between my row and the exit row to whom I'd physically pass my kids if the need should arise. But now I started also assessing what I had that could either distract or disable, and how I'd go about using it if I had to. A positive response, an internal dry run to help shape my reaction if the real world ever presented a scenario where such planning was necessary.

I'm just now getting to this point about the VA Tech shootings. I don't know what the classrooms looked like (I've avoided all television coverage, and apparently I should be very happy that I have), so I don't know, for instance, whether the desks were fixed to the floor. But I'm thinking about books, laptops, calculators - what could be thrown? If the desks were free-standing, wow, what a great tool they could be for someone in the front row. Could I have been the one - even if from under my desk - to chuck something from my purse at the door and try to get the shooter to turn? Would that have been enough to get someone on his blind side moving, to clock him with a textbook? Enough to start a rush for his knees?

My first reaction to these thoughts is guilt: I feel as if I'm judging the students facing a stone killer in a Keanu-Reeves stance with two very scary guns and obviously no compunctions about using them. Shouldn't I be saying to myself, "I don't know what I would have done. I can't possibly tell what I would have done"?

Just now, after a week, I'm giving myself permission to have these thoughts - because, after all, if I don't "know" what I would have done (and indeed, how could I know?), why must I assume that I would have done nothing? Why not let those thirty-two deaths teach me something, as the deaths of those on Flight 93 taught me something? Just as we all realized that 9/11 was separated from 9/10 by a chasm of unbelievable proportions, just as we all realized sometime in the latter half of September 2001 that we were living in a post-9/11 world, we now live in a post-VA-Tech-shooting world: it's a world where no one, armed with gun, bomb, gas can, or anything else will ever again be so damnably successful in his designs on the lives of other students. I hope we can generalize still further and no one will ever again be so damnably successful in holding anyone in any public space hostage.

But, you see, it's the attitude, not the weaponry, that makes the difference: while I wish we could turn back the clock and arm an ROTC student in one of those classrooms, I wonder whether a conventionally unarmed but determined few students could have turned the tide against that poor, deranged, and now dead man.

I'm utterly ignorant of any personal stories from the scene; there may have been an attempt, or more than one, to stop him. I'm not actually second-guessing what any person did on that day; I'm only preparing myself for an exigency I hope will never arise. The only reason I'm blogging on the subject at all is because the "vibe" I'm getting from listening to the radio and reading some other blogs is that we have no right to consider alternative responses - to judge, in a sense. There but for the grace of God sat I. I'm blogging to say that it's not only my right to consider alternatives, but my duty and a smart course of action, and indeed an homage to those who died - that their cruelly curtailed lives can make a difference even now.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Dream... or epitaph?

Victor David Hanson dreamt about the West:

I recently had a dream that British marines fought back, like their forefathers of old, against criminals and pirates. When taken captive, they proved defiant in their silence. When released, they talked to the tabloids with restraint and dignity, and accepted no recompense.

What a poignant beginning. My Anglophiliac soul weeps. I remember a scene from Louisa May Alcott's Jo's Boys, in which she's advising her nephew Emil about how to behave as an officer at sea. She tells him that every bit of rope used by the British Navy contains, at its core, a single red thread - that anywhere in the world, anyone can tell that that piece of rope is British because it contains that strand of red. She urges him to take that rope as his model: to let his character be known to and seen by all, no matter the circumstances, no matter his companions. He's later shipwrecked, and when he's rescued, he recounts that in some of his darkest moments on the lifeboat, he remembered the story and her admonition - and that it was out of fear that his loved ones would have to discover that he had behaved dishonorably that he did his best to behave honorably.

Somehow I doubt that a red thread is at the core of British rope today. Moving on...

Fellow Democrats like John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, and Harry Reid would add [to Pelosi's stern opposition to the actions of leaders of Syria and Iran] that, as defenders of the liberal tradition of the West, they were not about to call a retreat before extremist killers who behead and kidnap, who blow up children and threaten female reformers and religious minorities, and who have begun using poison gas, all in an effort to annihilate voices of tolerance in Iraq.

These Democrats would reiterate that they had not authorized a war to remove the psychopathic Saddam Hussein only to allow the hopeful country to be hijacked by equally vicious killers. And they would warn the world that their differences with the Bush administration, whatever they might be, pale in comparison to the shared American opposition to the efforts of al Qaeda, the Taliban, Syria, and Iran to kill any who would advocate freedom of the individual.

Et cetera, et cetera. In brief, his dream is that the West has definable character, a recognition of its roots, its fundamental aims, and the price paid over hundreds of years to achieve a good measure of those aims. What do we have instead? An essentially two-party system in the United States such that the undisputed enemies of this country actively root for just one of those two parties to take power. What message should the Democrats be getting, loud and clear, from that fact? And why aren't they? Or, if they are, why don't they care?

He ends this way:

And then I woke up, remembering that the West of old lives only in dreams. Yes, the new religion of the post-Westerner is neither the Enlightenment nor Christianity, but the gospel of the Path of Least Resistance — one that must lead inevitably to gratification rather than sacrifice.

Once one understands this new creed, then all the surreal present at last makes sense: life in the contemporary West is so good, so free, so undemanding, that we will pay, say, and suffer almost anything to enjoy its uninterrupted continuance — and accordingly avoid almost any principled act that might endanger it.

I heard a tarot reader on the radio this morning. She did a passable cold reading for a caller; if you were inclined to believe she had "powers," she didn't shake your belief. (If you were disinclined to believe in those "powers," well, her probing questions were kinda obvious.) She told this woman that the hardships in her life were just "tests," that there's no negative outcome in life - just exercises from God to help her move to the "next level." The funny thing is, I tend to see my faith in this light: the stumbles I've had, the obstacles in my way, have each contained some lesson or some hidden good that was eventually revealed, so I've had a pretty easy time believing that God sends these trials at the same time that God sends the means to cope with them, with a purpose known only to God.

But what about the family whose child is abducted and killed? Where's the "hidden good" in that for them? There may indeed be a hidden good for someone there; John Walsh's personal tragedy has brought about good for others, but I doubt that he misses his murdered son any less as a result. God's plan may not include my happiness, is what I'm saying. The thought that they might move to the "next level," for victims of Nazi inhumanity during WWII, would probably have been small recompense for the horrors they endured and from which so many millions escaped only through death. (I could have circumvented Godwin's Law there, but with a Holocaust denier at the top of the list of enemies of the United States, I felt the need to underscore the reality of the Holocaust.) How many enslaved people died as chattel, in the US and elsewhere, so that their disregarded remains could scream out the injustice of considering a human life "ownable" by anyone but its holder?

There is, like it or not, evil that can't be overcome by good thoughts. Likewise, there are threats to our most passionately held and vitally important societal beliefs that fail to respond to linking arms and singing about buying the world a Coke. That project to get as many people to have (shall we say) very, very happy thoughts simultaneously, and thereby bring about an end to the war in Iraq? Somehow I doubt that my refusal to participate was the deal-breaker there.

We went to Williamsburg for spring break this year. We didn't spend enough time in colonial Williamsburg - much more at Busch Gardens, to be honest - but while we were among the colonials we did at least have a chance to hear the Declaration of Independence declaimed. I hope, oh, I hope that kids are still stirred by these words as much as I am now and was as an idealistic teen:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

I hope that there are as many Americans (and others! This document should be known to everyone who values freedom) today as ever who realize that those words were not empty. Those men, and the women in their lives who supported their dangerous act, undoubtedly knew that they faced hanging and permanent familial disgrace if they failed - and that some of them might (probably would) die in the attempt even if they succeeded. Their lives. Their fortunes. Their sacred Honor. That's the price they were willing to pay for the inalienable rights in which they believed. Hanson believes that the West is no longer willing to pay that price for those goods - that the highest price we are now willing to pay, we pay for craven comfort instead.

What do I believe? I believe, or perhaps I only hope, that he's wrong.