My flight was cancelled coming back from Atlanta because of the weather, so I spent another day with my grandmother. I worked on translation on the kitchen table in the quiet of the old house, the light whipping through the windows while the trees, green with leaves, bent in the wind. My grandmother was on the phone with my aunt when the nextdoor neighbor stopped by for a visit. The nextdoor neighbors have lived beside my grandparents house for over 50 years. About ten years ago, the first wife of the neighbor died of cancer after a long decline. And within a few months he married another woman from his church--initially, they were a giggly old romantic couple, always holding hands--after a year or so, I think he realized what he had done in so rapidly marrying again. His second wife is the most talkative woman I have ever met--she can hold a conversation with herself easily, but she needs an audience, and my dear grandmother bravely puts up with it sometimes several times a day. I have even gone to the extent of dropping to the floor and crawling off into another room when I see her coming down the driveway. But I didn't this time. She told me about the shooting, "at some university but it's not yours," where about 20 people were killed, and I said, "oh, that's sad," distractedly, just wishing that she would go away. What was I thinking?
That night I went to my brother's Atlanta apartment (although he was gone to a film equipment trade show in Vegas) so as to be able to take the MARTA to the airport in the morning, and instead of trying to catch up on missed schoolwork, I lay in bed flipping through the channels. I was disgusted by the way the media salivated over this. On CNN Larry King was asking random Virginia Tech students how they felt, and giving space for Dr. Phil to rant. Fox News, of course, was talking about how the shooter was an "international student"--and with a sinking feeling I think--oh, no, now no one will ever be able to get a visa. Another station had on a debate about whether the university had been "negligent" in not immediately informing the student body about the first murder. I was disgusted by the way the media was pouncing, yet I lay there for three or four hours watching it, the repetive footage, the shrill denunciations and blabber of the commentators. Pooled ignorance, my dad sometimes says of classes that are soley discussion oriented, with no lecture componant. And perhaps that is what the television news is when it relies on talking heads and "experts" to predict what will happen next, to fill up time before all the facts are out: Pooled ignorance.
In the airport the next day, all the passengers sat watching CNN and exchanging angry opinions on how the media seemed to be blaming the university for what happened. How could they possibly have known what would happen? On the plane I wrote on a receipt:
"There's a certain glamour in being associated with a tragedy. Those on TV can barely conceal their nervous fascination with being televised. I know--when I watched the first tower fall from that Brooklyn pier, I was numb--felt I was on a stage on which I must perform my grief. In truth, I felt nothing--nothing at first, except for a kind of awareness of my body--a tingly excitement that could not be immediately understood. I interpreted it as grief, as TRAGEDY--and thus I became an actor in a TRAGEDY. And so we become so fascinated by the representation of tragedy that when we are a part of one, but not directly affected (we don't lose a friend, we don't lose a loved one), we first think of how much it is like a movie, how much it is like a televised tragedy. When I first realized that the first tower had fallen, I was lost in the wonder of how like it was to the Will Smith movie Independence Day. The reality of it didn't sink in for a couple of days, when the tingling excitement transitioned to a craving for communal expressions of grief. I just wanted to be with people."
These were my first impressions of the random students pulled onto camera to talk about how they "feel"--those nervous smiles threatening to break free as they attempt to put on a properly sober face for CNN--the shock still not worn off--the grief not set in yet. As the story has come out and the photos and bios of the victims proliferate on the web, I find myself in tears. I find myself thinking of what I would do if I were in class with my students. Do I know how to lock the doors? Where would we go? To the far side of the classroom near the hall wall where he wouldn't see us, or further back into the classroom where the bullets would have further to go if he shot through the door. Walking to campus I imagine how bullets fly into bodies, the kind of hole it would make, the expressions on faces, the sound it would make. I wonder if I were shot, where it would hit me. What my dying thoughts would be. In my translation class, I find myself writing obituaries in my head for each of us: the brilliant and prolific professor, the promising graduate students. What if someone opened the door and began shooting?
Perhaps everyone associated with universities has been thinking like this lately. It's not that I'm afraid it will happen, so much as I imagine how it would be if it did. I suppose it is a kind of communal trauma, I think, remembering how for months after 9-11, I would have dreams in which I was standing on that pier in Brooklyn watching a missile meander around Manhattan and then head straight for me. It is communal trauma, I think, and then wonder if I am being melodramatic. These are the stories that haunt me: the triple major RA from Georgia who wanted to go on for his PhD in psychology and was killed when he ran out to investigate the gunshots, the German instructor who met his wife while on a Fulbright in Germany, the girl from India doing her masters in architecture as her father had done, the French professor from Montreal who is known by a friend of my professor, the girl who was an actor and a dancer, the exchange student from Peru.
My cousin's name was on the list. I gasped a little before realizing it couldn't possibly be her. She is about the same age, but she does not go to Virginia Tech, and the photo didn't match. In a parallel life, it could have been her. It could have been me. It could have been any of us. And as I think of the gunman, I find it hard to imagine him. If I had lost someone, perhaps I would be angry at him. As it is now, I can't quite grasp it. I feel rather sorry for him. His melodramatic lines performed for the camera. His cartoon poses. If he were my student, I'd feel bad for him---and yet he killed 32 people, with seemingly no mercy, no remorse.
And each time I read another article, I recognize the irony of my compulsive Virginia Tech reading, when 183 people were killed in Iraq yesterday, when 11 more were killed today, when two young unarmed black men were shot by police in Atlanta over the weekend (and recieved nothing but local coverage), and where in Nigeria 25 militants were killed in a shootout at a police station, others have been killed in election violence. So many tragedies in the world. I am saddened by the shooting incident because it is so close to my life here, but compared to what people suffer everyday in Iraq it is almost inconsequential--a symptom of a sick society that is slowly crumbling from within.