Some Words on Exploiting Tragedy

In the wake of the recent horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, where a mentally disturbed student named Cho-Seung Hui murdered 27 students and five faculty members before taking his own life, a shocked nation has struggled to understand. There has been agonized debate over what could have caused this young man to commit such a horrific act of violence – whether it was due to persistent harassment and social ostracism which he suffered, or whether it was mental illness, or some combination of both. Could this have been prevented if only we had reached out to him, tried harder to help him? Or was he merely a human time bomb, foreordained to explode eventually no matter what anyone else said or did? Can a person freely choose to do such a thing, a human being whose motives can be analyzed and understood, or was this simply an eruption of pure evil, an inexplicable and senseless cosmic occurrence from which we can learn nothing?

No answers have been found to these questions, and none may ever be found. For now, there is nothing to do but mourn our losses, offer what consolation we can to the survivors who now have holes in their lives that can never truly be mended, and vow to remember the heroism of those whose selfless actions helped others to escape, often at the cost of their own lives. One such was Professor Liviu Librescu, a survivor of the Holocaust and persecution by Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime, who was killed after holding the door to his classroom shut, giving his students time to escape through the windows. That a life marked by such endurance, such resilience in the face of far greater evils, should have ended in this way adds to the sick sense that this was not meant to be.

For all that we have seen horrors like this before, every time we find ourselves as ill-equipped to handle it as if it were the first time, and understandably so. Neither school administrators, nor teachers, nor students do their jobs thinking that an event like this may happen, because who could live their life with such unlikely and catastrophic scenarios constantly on their minds? We do not prepare because we cannot prepare. Instead, we focus on the daily minutiae of life – writing budgets, grading papers, doing classwork – and trust that we personally will never be placed in such danger. But a tragedy like this shatters the steady rhythm of our lives, like a meteor that smashes through the walls of normality we build up around ourselves and lets a vast and terrible light from outside pour in.

What can a humanist do in tragedies like this? There is very little that anyone can do, but what little we can, we should offer without hesitation. Though words of sympathy and compassion are a poor balm for those bathed in grief, we should give them. If possible, we should donate to funds set up for funeral expenses and other aspects of the tragedy. In a spirit of free inquiry, we should support the work of the reviewers empowered to find the cause of this event and determine if others like it can be prevented. These are the normal human responses to disaster, which is precisely the point.

However, not all have taken this road. Even as the wounds of grief are still raw, there are some callous and reprehensible individuals on the religious right who thought nothing of exploiting this tragedy as a crass prop, using it to promote their own political beliefs and tarnish groups whom they dislike with the taint of guilt by association.

On the very day of the massacre, before anything was known about the killer’s identity, right-wing pundit Debbie Schlussel speculated that he was probably a Pakistani Muslim (source). When the killer’s identity and South Korean nationality became known, Schlussel then seamlessly shifted to blaming America’s immigration laws, saying that we need to stop “letting in so many foreign students”.

But even worse was the utterly contemptible Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza did not go quite so far as to blame atheism for this tragedy, but he did assert without shame that atheists have no reason to condemn such events and did not do so:

Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found.

For the record, this is completely wrong. Here’s one.

For scientific atheists like Dawkins, Cho’s shooting of all those people can be understood in this way – molecules acting upon molecules.

Truly, I am sick and tired of being accused of lacking a belief in goodness and evil because I am an atheist. Has it ever occurred to any religious apologist that they are the only ones saying that atheism makes this claim? No atheist I have ever met, known or heard of has ever said anything like this or anything close to it. It is the lowest depths of mendacity for apologists like this to continue bandying about the lie that atheism denies morality, when all the actual atheists are saying completely the opposite.

Even worse, for all D’Souza argues that atheism offers no solace in times of tragedy, his explanation is far more appalling: God stood by and allowed the murder of thirty-two innocent people to coerce others into believing in him!

But perhaps God’s purpose in the world (I am only thinking aloud here) is to draw his creatures to him. And you have to admit that tragedies like this one at Virginia Tech help to do that!

In a similar vein, other apologists and proselytizers have argued that the way to prevent these tragedies is to install their preferred vision of theocracy. Rod Parsley wrote that, “Choosing a world view that excludes God and disregards the value of human life makes the unforgettable scenes from Virginia Tech possible.” Rush Limbaugh speculated on how “there needs to be more religion and prayer at our universities”. And creationist Grady McMurtry claimed that Cho’s massacre was inspired by schools teaching evolution.

The shamelessness and hypocrisy of these people is beyond compare. To promote their own bigoted and small-minded worldviews, they literally accuse their opponents of every crime in the world, without needing or presenting a shred of supporting fact. In their own minds, the twisted reasoning that has led them to conclude that teaching evolution or being an atheist “should” cause people to behave immorally makes them feel comfortable with asserting that people who actually commit atrocities must be motivated by these things. Not only is this stunningly dishonest, it is the height of arrogance to assert that one’s own cartoon-simplistic sketch of the world so perfectly describes the cause of every event that it can be projected outward without hesitation or need of evidence.

This is not the first time members of the religious right have used horrible tragedies to further an ideological agenda. After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, Republican U.S. Representative Tom DeLay, later to become House Majority Leader, wasted no time in blaming that event on the teaching of evolution in schools (source):

Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup.

Answers in Genesis’ president, Ken Ham, echoed and praised DeLay’s comments, blaming school violence on the failure to teach young-earth creationism in science classes (source):

Until our nation allows God to be the absolute authority, and accepts the Bible as truth (beginning with its teaching of the fall in Genesis), then violence, suicide, murder, and all manner of evil will continue to proliferate in our school systems.

However, in this case, we need not rely on the fevered imaginings of D’Souza, Parsley, Limbaugh, McMurtry or any of the others. We have Cho’s final statement – a chilling video of hate he made soon before the attacks – in which he describes why he did what he did:

“Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”

…”Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon a cross and left to bleed to death for your amusement?”

Predictably, the self-satisfied religious right pundits have fallen silent rather than address this new evidence. When reality fails to prop up their delusions, evasion is their only response. But I will not evade it. Does this prove, by their distorted logic, that Christianity was responsible for this massacre? Should we urge less prayer and less faith in schools, to prevent tragedies like this from happening again?

Obviously not: this was the act of a lone disturbed individual, and no single reason can wholly explain it, nor should his own self-serving rationalizations be believed uncritically. For the same reason, we should be cautious and reluctant in the extreme, as many among the religious right are not, to claim this tragedy for any particular set of political views. In this dark hour, what is most important is comforting each other, not crying, “I told you so!” to everyone nearby. Those pundits who trumpet the evil act of a sick and disturbed young man as proof of their own views, in reality, prove nothing but the painfully shallow and circumscribed limits of their own compassion.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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