Phi Beta Cons

The Stories We Tell

I so appreciated Bill Bennett’s commentary that Kathryn linked yesterday.  The stories we tell in response to a tragedy help define our sense of national identity, character, and unity.  In fact, it is the very lack of a cohesive national story of 9/11 that has led to much of our division today.  To some of us, the dominant story of 9/11 is that of an attack by evil men that brought out the best in American courage and resolve, with the final act of a terrible day being the defeat of the terrorists by the unarmed passengers of United 93.  This story leads to hope and courage.  For others, 9/11 is the culmination of a long period of governmental incompetence, misguided foreign policy, and American imperialism.  In this story, we are hated because we are responsible for much of the world’s ills, and we are so poorly-led that we can’t protect our citizens despite clear warning signs.  This story leads to self-doubt and despair.

What will be the dominant story of the Virginia Tech massacre?  We are already (particularly in the European papers) seeing one version: A sick and violent American society fails again.  It fails to help a disturbed student, it gives that same student ready access to firearms, and then it fails to protect its citizens when the campus isn’t locked down after the first shooting.  While we should always evaluate our responses and actions in an effort to improve, that should not be the story of Virginia Tech.
Here is the real story: In a fallen world, there will always be evil and disturbed individuals who perform evil acts.  That much we know.  But what we don’t know — what we can never take for granted — is the human response to evil.  Will there be courage or cowardice?  One of the most moving and profound declarations in human history is the vow made by the Jewish people (and much of the world community) after the Holocaust: “Never again.”  On April 16, 2007, a survivor of that Holocaust – facing a much smaller-scale massacre in his adopted country (but a massacre nonetheless) – laid down his life for his students. In his own way — and with his own life — lived out that essential meaning and essential values of that vow.  For Liviu Librescu, “Never again” became “Not here.  Not now.” 
And professor Librescu represents just one story of heroism on that awful day.  So long as evil is confronted by courage, I will retain hope.  And so should we all. 


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