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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • EvilPoet

    Speaking without actually talking… Too bad NO ONE was really truly listening.

  • EvilPoet

    Speaking without actually talking… Too bad NO ONE was really truly listening.

  • http://atheistself.blogspot.com David W.

    Thank you Adam, this is a wonderful post. Atheists face a significant problem when facing these allegations because we have no one to defend us at that level of publicity. We don’t need the Dawkins’ and the Harris’ of the world here — they are good and passionate speakers, but come off too confrontational for the kind of solemn defense we need for these moments. Yet how can a soft-spoken atheist gain the public ear? We must find a way….

  • bassmanpete

    Surely atheists have more reason to grieve than believers. In fact, why do believers grieve at all if they think that the dead have gone to a better place & that they will be reunited after their own deaths? When you know that this life is all that any of us has then there is vastly more reason to value ones own life & the lives of others. As an atheist, that is my belief.

  • bassmanpete

    Surely atheists have more reason to grieve than believers. In fact, why do believers grieve at all if they think that the dead have gone to a better place & that they will be reunited after their own deaths? When you know that this life is all that any of us has then there is vastly more reason to value ones own life & the lives of others. As an atheist, that is my belief.

  • terrence

    That’s about it bassman, a re-iteration of the essential kernel. I wish I could communicate to all the bastards who think we need more god that Mohammed Atta was a devout and prayerful god-believer.

    That being said, my reaction to this week is purely and simply: why do all of us debaters and discussers burn so much fuel over topics such as, Is there a hell? If there is it would be truly diabolical, meaning, we are in it, and are debating whether or not it exists. What other explanation is there? This is purely a mental exercise as I am not personally affected by these kids and professors, but am thinking of John Donne, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” It’s tolling, folks, and I am becoming more and more convinced about hell.

  • terrence

    That’s about it bassman, a re-iteration of the essential kernel. I wish I could communicate to all the bastards who think we need more god that Mohammed Atta was a devout and prayerful god-believer.

    That being said, my reaction to this week is purely and simply: why do all of us debaters and discussers burn so much fuel over topics such as, Is there a hell? If there is it would be truly diabolical, meaning, we are in it, and are debating whether or not it exists. What other explanation is there? This is purely a mental exercise as I am not personally affected by these kids and professors, but am thinking of John Donne, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” It’s tolling, folks, and I am becoming more and more convinced about hell.

  • Alex Weaver

    I think an update, with some commentary on Schlussel’s contemptible response to being called on her racism and ghoulish opportunism is in order:

    I’ve removed this entry, mostly because I am spending too much time monitoring the slimy comments from the Nazi-infested Media Matters for America cretins.

    Posted by Debbie at April 16, 2007 02:57 PM

    Scumbag.

    In other news, Dinesh D’Souza is both a despicable vulture and a lying sack of sh*t, and saying that insults avian scavengers and bagged manure everywhere.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Interesting, Alex. One almost gets the impression that Schlussel has felt something approximating a flicker of embarrassment for being called on her obvious bigotry.

  • Polly

    Wow! I’m not that political in the sense that I don’t pay much attention to the propagandists. I can’t believe what I’m reading. Thanks for posting this, Adam, it’s a real eye-opener.
    How does one go from staggering in the aftermath of the actions of a deranged loner to bashing rationalists? It’s a big non-sequitor. Clearly, these supposed “victims” of anti-Xian bigotry are looking for a fight. And that assumption about the shooter being Pakistani is pure racism; I might add, of a real, and much more worrisome, variety than Imus’s inane little comments.
    The teaching of a theory of biology responsible for mass murder…are these guys from planet Earth? Have they seen what their religion has wrought the past 2,000 years?

    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!

    SICK SICK SICK! “his creatures!?!” And evolution degrades humanity?

    If he wants attention from his creatures, he could just as easily heal disease and relieve poverty. But, no. According to his apologists (who really do owe us all an apology)he only tries to get our attention through terror, just like another group that springs to mind.

    @bassmanpete: Totally agree. I care more, now that I believe there’s nothing after. Those !@#holes are using this tragedy as a platform to make slanderous accusations against fellow Americans without any basis in reality. Do they even know the people they’re attacking?

  • Archi Medez

    The sheer recklessness of pundits such as D’Souza and others mentioned by Ebonmuse is truly disgusting. I find it interesting how the slow release of partial, woefully incomplete, and often ambiguous information, beginning on the 16th and 17th, seemed to have provoked so many pundits and ideologues of various stripes to reveal their pre-set biases right up front before sufficient evidence was available. Nothing wrong with speculation, but the speculation should at least have some basis in reality.

  • bassmanpete

    This discussion brought to mind an sf story I read 30 odd years ago – Arthur C. Clark’s The Star.

    I should have added in my earlier post, if you believe that when someone dies they go to a better place & survive for eternity, why (if you feel so inclined) would you hesitate about killing them? All you’re doing is hastening their arrival in Paradise!

  • lpetrich

    His name is spelled Cho Seung-Hui, using (family name) (personal name) order, instead of the usual order here of (personal name) (family name), which would make Seung-Hui Cho.

    And after complaining about the luxuries enjoyed by the place’s richer students, he stated, “All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs.” Which is like many Religious Right complaints about the supposed great evil of “hedonism”.

  • lpetrich

    His name is spelled Cho Seung-Hui, using (family name) (personal name) order, instead of the usual order here of (personal name) (family name), which would make Seung-Hui Cho.

    And after complaining about the luxuries enjoyed by the place’s richer students, he stated, “All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs.” Which is like many Religious Right complaints about the supposed great evil of “hedonism”.

  • OMGF

    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.

    Should we be surprised? Their faith demands that atheists be depraved individuals that are necessarily immoral. So, they ignore the physical evidence in favor of their faith, just like they do with evolution and science in general. At least they are consistent in their idiocy.

  • OMGF

    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.

    Should we be surprised? Their faith demands that atheists be depraved individuals that are necessarily immoral. So, they ignore the physical evidence in favor of their faith, just like they do with evolution and science in general. At least they are consistent in their idiocy.

  • Eric

    There was one very important atheist involved in the VT incident: Professor Liviu Librescu, who was apparently an atheist Jew — he was a cultural Jew, but has been described as non-religious. And if there was one truly heroic personality worth our attentions, surely Librescu is a stand-out.

  • Eric

    There was one very important atheist involved in the VT incident: Professor Liviu Librescu, who was apparently an atheist Jew — he was a cultural Jew, but has been described as non-religious. And if there was one truly heroic personality worth our attentions, surely Librescu is a stand-out.

  • David Ellis


    Yet how can a soft-spoken atheist gain the public ear? We must find a way….

    Two words:

    Julia Sweeney

  • terrence

    Hey David, yes! And see also, http://www.MrDeity.com

  • http://www.brad-johnson.com/forum/index.php Kevin Malone

    Eric: Where’s your source material for the claim that he was “apparently an atheist Jew” and was “described as non-religious”?

  • http://www.brad-johnson.com/forum/index.php Kevin Malone

    Eric: Where’s your source material for the claim that he was “apparently an atheist Jew” and was “described as non-religious”?

  • Jeff T.

    What is the gift of prayer? It was offered over and over by countless politicians and others after this tragedy. It seems to provide comfort and a mutual bond between complete strangers. Regardless of the particular faith systems of those that give their thoughts and prayers to the victims, there is an honest attempt here to connect and alleviate some of the pain.
    I thought about this as I followed this story. I thought about what similar comfort that atheists may offer to may provide similar comfort. I am at a loss here, because for whatever reason, people are programmed socially, culturally, and behaviorally to seek answers from the religious.
    The truth of atheism does not change the pain of those affected by this tragedy and my hopes and wishes are that people one day understand that people are responsible for people’s actions, not imaginary beings that are created for every excuse under the sun.

  • Jeff T.

    What is the gift of prayer? It was offered over and over by countless politicians and others after this tragedy. It seems to provide comfort and a mutual bond between complete strangers. Regardless of the particular faith systems of those that give their thoughts and prayers to the victims, there is an honest attempt here to connect and alleviate some of the pain.
    I thought about this as I followed this story. I thought about what similar comfort that atheists may offer to may provide similar comfort. I am at a loss here, because for whatever reason, people are programmed socially, culturally, and behaviorally to seek answers from the religious.
    The truth of atheism does not change the pain of those affected by this tragedy and my hopes and wishes are that people one day understand that people are responsible for people’s actions, not imaginary beings that are created for every excuse under the sun.

  • KShep

    Nice comment, Jeff T, you are thinking the same thing I was, except for the question of what we, as atheists, can do in times like this to provide comfort to the grieving.
    When I heard the president say (I’m paraphrasing here), “We can all take comfort in the grace of a kind and loving god,” I wanted to scream:
    “Grace? What grace? A kind and loving god wouldn’t have let a tragedy like this happen!!”
    I agree that many people seek out religion to help alleviate some of their pain, and like you I hope to see a day when most people see these actions as those committed by people, and only people.
    The issue of providing comfort to the grieving need not be grounded in religion, no matter what the devout may claim. If you think about it, comfort words that religious people use are really not necessarily religious, with the exception of the “He’s in a better place now” type of thing.
    So we only need do what anyone, religious or not, would do when we are needed for comfort. Listen. Cry. Reminisce. Laugh at the memories. Don’t be afraid to use the words “died” or “dead,” they are accurate (unlike “passed on”). In short, grieve with the grieving.

    It has always worked for me. Funny, my ultra-religious in-laws were glad I was there for them when the family matriarch died a few years ago. I think most people at the funeral would have been surprised to know of my atheism.

  • OMGF

    I hear that Fred Phelps was planning on protesting at the funerals, but decided not to when a local radio station offered to give him free air time. What a scumbag.

  • OMGF

    I hear that Fred Phelps was planning on protesting at the funerals, but decided not to when a local radio station offered to give him free air time. What a scumbag.

  • Ric

    yeah, I read D’Souza’s rants. He is truly subhuman to exploit the tragedy like this.

  • Eric

    I tried to find a news item substantiating my earlier statement that Librescu was a non-religious Jew. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything. I based that statement on a statement that I think his doughter-in-law made that he was non-religious. However, I have been unable to find a transcript of that interview anywhere. I suppose under the circumstances I should withdraw my comment until such a time as supporting documentation can be produced.

  • http://www.anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    You know, that Arthur C. Clarke story “The Star” was adapted into an episode of “The Outer Limits” (the newer version of the series, not the 1950′s version). I just realized it when I clicked on the link for “The Star” and after reading the synopsis was like “Hey, I saw that!”

    I did not see the entire episode actually, just the last few minutes, but I remember one of the characters lamenting what a terrible thing it was that such an advanced race of beings was allowed to be extinguished, and then another crew member tells him that the supernova happened around the time of the birth of Christ, thus ending the episode on a hopeful note, which was a rarity for “The Outer Limits”.

  • Dookers

    That’s why FSTDT has a Vulture of the Month Award. Some fundies just swarm whatever the tragedy du jour is and try and use it to convert people to their god. Shameful, really, but I guess it’s convenient for them in a sickish way.

  • Dookers

    That’s why FSTDT has a Vulture of the Month Award. Some fundies just swarm whatever the tragedy du jour is and try and use it to convert people to their god. Shameful, really, but I guess it’s convenient for them in a sickish way.

  • Jim Baerg

    Hi Tommykey:

    I think you missed the point of Arthur C. Clarke’s story. In the written version the astronomer who is IIRC a Jesuit priest determines that the light of the nova would have been visible on earth at the time of Christ’s birth & is appalled that god didn’t use some star with no planets rather than destroy such wonderful people. Hardly a ‘hopeful’ ending.

  • Jim Baerg

    Hi Tommykey:

    I think you missed the point of Arthur C. Clarke’s story. In the written version the astronomer who is IIRC a Jesuit priest determines that the light of the nova would have been visible on earth at the time of Christ’s birth & is appalled that god didn’t use some star with no planets rather than destroy such wonderful people. Hardly a ‘hopeful’ ending.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X