"Slain students deserve respect and justice

In a decade filled with bad news and sad weeks, last week was one of the saddest and most disheartening.

Starting with the death of Kurt Vonnegut, one of the greatest writers in American history, continuing with the needless slaughter of 33 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, the deaths of hundreds in Iraq and finishing with the crash of a Blue Angels jet, it was a very bad week to be following the news.

There’s something about mid-April that brings out the worst aspects of humanity. In 1993, the tragedy at Waco claimed hundreds of lives. The Oklahoma City bombing occurred in that week in 1995. The Columbine massacre also happened in mid-April.

Of all the sadness of the past week, the Virginia Tech incident was the most depressing and senseless of all. Students and teachers whose only crime was to pursue knowledge were gunned down execution-style in their classrooms. As horrible as the attacks of Sept. 11 were, they at least were terrorist acts with a political purpose.

This attack had no purpose whatsoever, which makes it all the more hard to digest. The gunman was a depressed and psychotic individual who should have been locked up and treated but, through a tragedy of errors, was not.

We want there to be a logical explanation for a tragic event. It defies our sense of propriety that a nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald, lacking a coherent motive, could murder a giant like John F. Kennedy, so we’ve constructed elaborate conspiracy theories where more worthy villains were behind the deed.

And it doesn’t make sense that a quiet, nondescript student could cause so much pain and grief for so many people. But it happened.

For someone like me, who’d rather be writing silly columns about peanut-butter sandwiches and such, it was a difficult week in which to find any humor. No, there weren’t any jokes to be told last week, just despair and sadness all around. There’s no silver lining in any of this.

Of course, life will go on, and we will laugh again. As time passes and the pain fades, life will return to normal. It always does, no matter how difficult or lengthy the healing process, but it will.

But, if anything, the impact of the tragedy seemed to deepen as the week went on. Hearing the news of the massacre as it was broadcast on Monday was hard enough, but the days following were even tougher, as we got to know the men and women who died so senselessly. They were our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters and all of them led exceptional lives.

And even the life story of the gunman, as despicable as his act was, was not without its sadness. There are millions of troubled people out there and his story of alienation and social awkwardness is not an unfamiliar or uncommon one.

The events of Sept. 11 happened because of a breakdown in our intelligence and law enforcement communities. The tragedy of Virginia Tech happened because of a breakdown in our mental health system, too-lenient gun laws and an unstable person who snapped suddenly.

If the gunman could have received better medical attention, or if a weapons background check had uncovered his instability, last week’s massacre might have been averted. But they didn’t, and the rest of us are left to ponder how it could have been stopped.

But, unfortunately, whatever lessons there are to be learned from this will go ignored. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have any desire to re-examine gun control. Mental health programs will continue to be under-funded, existing facilities will continue to be inadequate and too many sick people will go untreated.

That’s the reality of life. We tend to ignore problems once the initial shock wears away. A posthumous memoir by former President Gerald Ford, published last week, re-examines Ford’s work investigating the JFK assassination as a member of the Warren Commission.

In despair, he wrote, “Difficulties with FBI-CIA interagency communications were among our key findings [in the JFK case]. Why were those communications still so inadequate in September of 2001?”

Ford knew the answer. Problems are difficult to solve and it’s easier to ignore them.

But, in the murders of last week, we must look harder for solutions to the catalysts that spurred them.

The victims deserve our respect and our admiration. They also deserve to rest in peace. But even more than that, they deserve answers and solutions so that something like this will never happen again. 


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