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Condolence and Caution - A Secular Response to the Tragedy at Virginia Tech


This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 18 - It's Spring, We Think.

By Amanda K. Metskas

Burruss Hall at VTWe at the Secular Student Alliance are deeply saddened by the events at Virginia Tech on Monday. We received an email asking for a secular perspective on what happened, and given our mission to serve students and student communities, we think it is important to offer our response.

In the face of such senseless and random violence, it is hard to feel anything but shock, pain, and fear. It's hard to have anything to say. For many touched by this crime, the solace they gain in their religious communities provides some measure of comfort in their time of need. For those of us who are secular, we seek solace, comfort, and community from our friends and family. Our thoughts are with those who were affected by these terrible events, and our hearts reach out to them.

As we offer our condolences and compassion, we are also concerned by some of the media coverage this event has generated, and some of the responses it has provoked. Hemant Mehta, the Chair of the Secular Student Alliance's Board of Directors, has pointed out some of the more egregious examples of the "blame game" on his blog.

What concerns us, however, is more than just these shrill voices; it is the wall-to-wall coverage that sensationalizes this tragedy, and in a perverse way seems to glorify the criminal. It is a perfectly natural human reaction to seek explanations for events like this - we want to understand why this happened so that our world makes sense and we can feel safe again. It is this reaction that leads to non-stop updates about the killer, mountains of ad hoc armchair speculation about causes, and extreme claims about policy implications.

It's difficult for us to keep an event like this in perspective. It is so emotionally wrenching that it is easy to overreact. The Virginia Tech killings hit us where it hurts because they are so random, senseless, and unexpected. They shatter our feeling of safety as we go about our lives, because if a college classroom isn't safe, is any place? It's difficult to step back from that feeling and remember that this event is receiving so much attention, and is so scary to us, precisely because it is extremely rare. We don't react in this same way when someone is killed in an automobile accident, because that is so commonplace. It happens everyday. In fact, it happens to an average of 107 people each day in the United States.* We don't react in the same way when we hear about casualties in Iraq either, because it's a war zone. We are used to the idea that people are killed in war, and as terrible as that is, we've come to expect it.

As tough as it may be, we need to resist the temptation to enact knee-jerk policies based on our emotional reaction to this tragedy. We need to be careful not to let media coverage of rare and tragic events like these lead us to be afraid of the wrong things, as Barry Glassner explains in his book Culture of Fear.

None of this is intended to diminish the grief felt by those touched by the tragedy at Virginia Tech, and none of this is intended to diminish the compassion that we feel for them. Sometimes senseless tragedy befalls us, and we don't have a good systematic explanation. Sometimes when this happens the only thing that makes sense to do is console those who suffer, and help the best we can.

*This statistic was generated by dividing the 39,189 motor vehicle accident fatalities reported here for 2005 by 365 days in the year.

Amanda K. Metskas is President of Camp Quest, Inc., a secular summer camp. She is also a member of the Secular Student Alliance, and a past contributor to the eMpirical. She is married to August E. Brunsman IV, the SSA's Executive Director. Their essay about Camp Quest appears in Parenting Beyond Belief, a remarkable new book on secular parenting.

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 18 - It's Spring, We Think.

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