A few notes before we get started. First, if you haven’t already, please read the preface post before reading this post. It’ll make more sense. You can click the link or scroll down, the preface is the post immediately following this one. Second, these posts were not easy to write. They’ve been swirling around in our gray matter for several weeks and one version sat in drafts for weeks as well. It is not our intention to minimalize the pain, grief and suffering of those directly affected by this tragedy. These feelings expressed here are our own, these thoughts are confusing and hard to adequately explain. And in the end, there remain more questions than answers. Third, the comments on the previous post were turned off simply so that any conversation about this subject would occur here, on this post, instead of trying to keep up with conversations on two separate posts. Please feel free to express opinions, comments, questions, etc., from the previous post here.
There are three issues that I see that are a problem when it comes to memorializing violence like Virginia Tech is doing: 1) heinous acts and those that perpetrate them are given a permanent voice and are remembered, 2) there is a sense of glorifying vicitimization in the memorials, and 3) a permanent, altered perception of Virginia Tech accompanies any memorial.
Firstly, one of my biggest concerns with the way we as a society reacted and continue to react to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 is that we gave the perpetrators of the acts what they wanted: an audience for their cause and a reaction in our changed behavior. It is my contention that the best reaction to barbarism (once the event is over) is to have no reaction, a collective shrug and yawn, clean up as necessary, and move on. Someone who murdered 32 people should not be given honor or remembrance. However, instead of outrage at how someone could do something like “that dude” did on April 16, 2007, a stone was set up to remember him as well as those murdered in some misguided, dare I say politically correct, attempt to treat the loss by suicide of a murderer as if he were a victim of this crime who was worth remembering. If that is not enough, I point you to the tapes that dude sent to NBC in an attempt to brand himself as some sort of action hero. The producers at news outlets went along for a time. Thankfully, someone with common sense spoke up and said that showing the tapes immortalized such behavior, but I am afraid removing the images from public view was too late, the images are already out for any nutcase to take as inspiration.
Secondly, while grieving and remembering those that have passed on is appropriate, there are better ways to remember the lives of those murdered that day than prominently placed memorials. For example, a new jewish student center to be opened in Blacksburg will be named for Dr. Liviu Librescu, a holocaust survivor, professor of Engineering Science and Mathematics at Virginia Tech, and pioneer in the field of aerospace engineering who was murdered that day at Virginia Tech. Rabbi Elazar Bloom, who will lead the center, stated that the naming of the center was to “carry on Professor Librescu’s message of life and goodness over darkness”. He is not looked at as a victim, but as a champion for the good of humanity in his mentoring of students to his groundbreaking research in aerospace materials. His life was one well spent and one worth remembering, and I will certainly do just that.
On the other hand, there is a sense that the memorial at Virginia Tech will try to encapsulate the feelings of grief and pain associated with the impromptu memorial set up in the days following the incident, reducing and binding the memories of those murdered with the event rather than the accomplishments of lifetimes well spent or cut short at the crux of their potential. In addition, Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, during the dedication of this “intermediate” memorial, stated that this memorial was for the wounded as well. Why do the wounded need a memorial, they are still around? This, above all things tells me that the memorial is more about remembering the incident than it is about those murdered (or wounded).
Thirdly, as an alumnus of Virginia Tech, I am concerned that, rather than being held in high esteem as an excellent academic and research institution, Virginia Tech will be thought of as “that place where those 32 people were murdered” and the university is perpetuating that idea through its prominent and permanent memorials to the random violence that occurred that day. Monuments are meant for things we want to remember, things we hold in high regard or want to honor. I find no honor in the murder of 32 people by a psychopathic killer and it is certainly something that does not bear remembering. Remember and honor those that were murdered, but let’s not remember and honor the incident.
Malia reacts to DB:
It was not my perception that the 33rd stone placed in the initial, makeshift memorial was put there out of any political correctness or misguided behavior. Instead, I perceived it as coming from those who wanted to show compassion for the person who was so troubled, so misunderstood and so lonely that he felt his only way to make a voice for himself was through evil and violence. The thirty-third stone was not about immortalizing, it was about forgiveness.
I have to wonder what your views on war memorials/monuments are as well. For example, does the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial honor the dead sufficiently or does it only serve as a reminder of the highly controversial war that saw the deaths of so many innocent people?
Back in June as we made our way north for our week at camp, we ended the first leg of our trip in Christiansburg, VA. We had plans to stay overnight and to visit with family members who live there. I wanted to go into Blacksburg to have dinner and to visit the campus of Virginia Tech. I needed, personally, to see the campus again. I wanted to view its Hokie-stone buildings, drive on its familiar roads, and walk the grounds I knew as a student. I wanted to see, with my own eyes, the outpourings of sympathy and love that came from all over the world. The temporary memorial in front of Burruss Hall of thirty-two Hokie stones which was set up by a student group. Posters, books, letters, pictures, stuffed animals, personal artifacts, etc., that were being temporarily housed in one of the dining halls. And community remembrances like the 32 flags representing the countries of the victims in front of a church on Main Street.
For me it was part of a healing process. I’ll never forget April 16, 2007. I’ll remember it much like I remember September 11, 2001. But grief and healing are personal matters and what helps one person can be offensive to another. And as much I want there to be something that remembers the thirty-two who were taken from us that day, I also don’t want Virginia Tech to be solely remembered for that tragedy. I don’t want what that young man did to be somehow immortalized. Because in remembering the thirty-two and how they died, his final act of selfishness and cowardice is forever ingrained in Virginia Tech’s history and how the school is remembered. Because in erecting public monuments, his legacy of violence remains.
Yet, I don’t know what I would have the administration of Virginia Tech do in this instance. It is much more likely that if the university officials hadn’t planned a memorial they would have been considered heartless and uncaring. Somewhere along the way between 1966 and 2007, the way we deal with grief has altered. In our culture today, we don’t want to sweep feelings and tragic events “under the rug” to not be talked about or dealt with. We want them out there in the open for everyone to experience, for everyone to feel. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know if it has anything to do with September 11 or not. I don’t know if it’s something that only time can answer. Is the fact that sixteen people were killed by a sniper in Austin at the University of Texas not well remembered in our society because it happened 40 years ago or is it because the city and the university didn’t erect grand monuments to the event? I wonder how the families of those who died that day feel about the lack of a memorial there for forty years. Did it help them move on? Or was it a gaping absence in the process of their grieving?
I guess the one thing I do know is that however we deal with grief; we must in fact deal with it and move on. We can’t stay rooted in tragic events forever. If we do, we slowly die and forfeit the potential that life holds for us even if that potential was taken from those we dearly loved. Life goes on and so has Virginia Tech. Students, faculty and staff have returned to campus and today have started another school year. Great things will continue to come out of that university despite what happened last spring. My hope is that it will be those achievements that history truly remembers.
DB Reacts to Malia:
I had no desire to look at stuff when we were in Blacksburg in June. I don’t know how restoration and healing can occur by looking at stuff people sent to the university from all over the country or at flowers and trinkets placed on small stones near Burruss Hall. It reminded me of that day and I don’t want to remember that day. The people and their accomplishments bear remembering not the event that brought about their deaths.
Concerning the university administration: my cynical side thinks that the university is erecting monuments to placate the litigation sure to head their way, that somehow showing care and compassion for the victims will win points with juries. On the other hand, there does seem to be some cultural shift that I can’t pin down either.
I echo your hopes that people move on and don’t let this define who they are, especially the university.