The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

If Not Now, When?

This feels a bit like cheating as far as blogging is concerned, but it’s something that’s been on my mind since yesterday, when I saw Mike’s post at Questionable authority, about Chad’s post at uncertain Principles asking everyone to ease up on debate in the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

Of course, the bodies aren’t even cold yet, and already the blogosphere is a-flutter with people touting this as proof that the US needs to change its gun laws in one direction or another. I’m not going to link to them, but I’ve already seen three or four pieces using this to push one side or the other of the gun control debate, and I have a simple message for those people:

Stop. Please, just stop.

For the love of God, show a little tact, and shut up, at least until the families of the victims have been notified, and the community has had a chance to grieve a little. Next Monday would be a fine time to start– personally, I’d prefer “never,” but at a minimum, I’d say that while there are still families out there who don’t know whether their loved ones are alive or dead, you can sit on your hands, and spare us all your opinions.

MIke responded:

People are dead, and we should not use their deaths as toys in a political game. …

… But we also cannot forget that people are dead. We cannot forget that people have been murdered. We cannot forget that many – too many – lives have been brought to a sudden, random end. We cannot forget that these deaths were not necessary, that they could have been avoided.

We cannot help but wonder if there were things that we should have done before now, that would have prevented this tragedy. We cannot help but wonder if there are things that we should do to keep this from happening again. We cannot help but wonder if something like this could happen again tomorrow. We mourn for the dead but we worry about those who are alive.

How, in good conscience, could we possibly be expected to shut up right now?

To which Chad responded:

Yes, people are dead. And you know what? They’ll still be dead tomorrow. They’ll still be dead next week. They’ll still be dead in thirty fucking years, because that’s what being fucking dead means.

This is not a time-sensitive topic. They’re not going to pop back to life three days hence, when Keanu Reeves reboots the fucking Matrix, thus invalidating all your arguments about the political significance of their deaths. They’ll still be dead in a week. And a week from now, we’ll probably even know their names, which we don’t yet.

This is the problem with the blogosphere, and why I sometimes think of giving the whole thing up– it’s a million monkeys at a million keyboard typing away with absolutely no fucking sense of perspective.

There’s a lot more to Chad’s post than I can possibly quote here, so I’ll urge you to read the whole thing.

In the midst of all that, I commented on Mikes post about Chad’s post about Mike’s response to Chad’s initial post.

Sorry, but I don’t buy “now is not the time.” It seems like every time an event happens, any attempt to talk about it in any way other than what’s generally approved is discouraged.

If that’s the way it’s to be, all anybody can say about it is “What a shame.” So, we should go ahead now and appoint someone to do that and all shut up until …. when?

I have a sneaking suspicion that set in after 9/11, and again after just about every debacle of the Iraq war. It’s that “now is not the time” means there will never be a time, or at least that the appropriate time won’t come until well after anyone’s listening. (Because by then the next “big story” will be on everyone’s minds.)

Maybe it’s me. I’m one of those people who sees any number of news events and immediately thinks of how they relate to a host of other things, often in terms of how some tragic events might be avoided next time. But if seems that now, after every event, there’s a grace period when we’re not supposed to think. Or if we do, we’re supposed to keep quiet about it.

In this case, I don’t have a problem waiting until the families are notified. Or is it after the funerals? Or a week after the funerals? Or … when is the arbitrary deadline after which we can talk about what we’re not supposed to talk about, so that maybe we won’t have any need to talk about what we’re not supposed to talk about the next time something like this happens because maybe something like this won’t happen if we talk about what we’re not supposed to talk about? And will anyone be listening by then?

But, now is probably not the time to ask those questions. Is it?

If I posted that today, there would be a bit less snark in it. But the main question would still remain for me. Is there a way to have a thoughtful discussion about events like this soon after they happen? From my perspective, there are a whole lot of issues that are relevant here, beyond just the gun control debate. (For example, I wish the media would stop hammering over and over that the shooter was depressed, without some context that the depression may not have had anything to do with the shooting, but other underlying or even undiagnosed psychological conditions may have played a part. Depressed people are more suicidal than homicidal.)

I don’t necessarily have any answers, but I think there’s value to having some sort of thoughtful discussion, because I’ve seen it happen more than a couple of times that in the absence of such, emotionalism rules the day and we stop short of pursuing any understanding beyond the simplest explanations.

The post-9/11 moratorium on analysis, and Gay Patriot’s post linking to Hugh Hewitt’s take reminded me of it again.

What makes tragedies like this one so gut-wrenching, though, is precisely their inexplicable nature. They are truly, literally senseless.

And yet it’s in our nature to try to make sense of the things we don’t or even can’t understand. But I’ll tell you something: Searches for reasons and explanations here are going to bring us up empty. The painful fact is that terrible things happen. There are evil people who do evil things. There’s nothing more to it than that. There’s no policy prescription that can make things like this never happen again.

This response from “Scarborough Country,” linked by EvolutionBlog is another.

Well, I don’t blame God for it, Joe. This is what we have to understand. There is–there is evil in this world. There is a devil who’s called the god of this age, who wants to seek and destroy your life and my life and every life. And when a tragedy like this comes, I think it’s time for us to remember how short life is, and we need to be prepared to stand before a holy God. There is a God in heaven who cares for us, and we are going to have to stand before him.

I said after 9/11 that for our own good we should reach further than simple, blanket analyses like “evil.” It’s not that I don’t believe in evil. It’s just that seems like too easy a response to me; one that provides an easy certainty that absolves us of any responsibility in shaping our society and our world. It’s that I don’t believe it’s born in a vacuum. It’s something that we create in ourselves and in others through our words, actions, beliefs, and even our thoughts.

The harder work is looking into ourselves and rooting out what’s in us that leads to awful events like the one we witnessed this week. That requires stepping out of the easy certainty of simply believing “the devil did it” or “the devil made him do it.”

It is harder to leave the embrace of certainty and make peace with uncertainty — to admit that you don’t know or have all the answers to how the world should work, and that they can’t be easily found between the covers of any one book — but that may also be part of what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.”

There may not be a policy that can make things like this never happen again, but if we do the hard work of reaching beyond simple “evil” as an answer, we may find it in ourselves to prevent the next tragedy from happening. But it will require taking an honest look at our words, actions, thoughts and beliefs in terms of how they impact others and ourselves. And then, if we want to make a difference, if we want to prevent the next tragedy from happening, we will have to change whatever in our words, actions, thoughts and beliefs needs to change in order to bring about the change we want to see in the world. (That’s a much longer way of saying what Ghandi said.)

Policy debates around events like this are, I think, an easy way of avoiding introspection by pointing fingers at one another and not taking a look at ourselves. It’s a very human response. When awful things like this happen, if we have any empathy at all, we feel for the families and friends of everyone involved. But there’s an awful helplessness in that, because there’s not much that most of us who aren’t in Blacksburg, VA can do to help beyond some show of solidarity with the people at Virginia Tech. There’s not much we can do to stop the next tragedy either, because we won’t know about it until it happens, and it will unfold far beyond our reach.

But if we do the work mentioned above, we can respond by changing what is within our reach. When the Iraq war started, I felt pretty hopeless and — like a lot of people — pretty helpless. Nothing I’d done — no march that I attended, no vigil I joined, no petition I signed, no calls to my legislators — did one bit of good towards stopping what I believed was going to be a long, bloody war that would leave many Iraqis worse off than they were, and that we would find no easy way out of.

One evening, as we were driving home from a social event, I looked out of the car window and saw a banner tied to a wrought iron fence outside of a church. It read, “How are you living your life to prevent the next war?” I had to think about it for a while before I understood what it meant. I saw that meaning echoed today in an email David Kou quoted on his blog today.

“So many are asking what can we do to stop the continued random acts of violence. There are no easy answers, but I say to all of you….. each time you bring yourself through the doors of Immaculate Conception Church, on a Tuesday night… even after a long and tiring day….. that hour and half you spend with a child or young person, is the best ammunition we have against the enemies continued attempts to rob us of precious lives. Every open book. Every math problem solved. Every paragraph read. Every checker game played… serves to keep our kids safe as we love and nurture them and prayerfully bring them to a place where they will never be the one with a gun in their hands. Instead they will spend their lives being agents of peace.”

I’d go even further and say that you don’t need to bring yourself through the doors of any church (though there’s nothing wrong with doing so). Any act of kindness may be the best ammunition we have against events like we saw in Blacksburg this week; even the smallest things like a door holding a door for someone, giving up a seat on the train to someone who may need it more, helping someone pick up papers they’ve dropped in the middle of the street, or taking a deep breath in a moment of impatience instead of responding in anger. Even forgiving a slight (real or perceived) that you wouldn’t have otherwise, holding back on an unkind or hurtful word that’s on the tip of your tongue, or offering an apology that you’re not sure is necessary or are reluctant to offer, will go further than we can imagine.

It may be a little naive, but at times like this I have to believe that enough acts of kindness like those above can accumulate and shift the odds in favor of avoiding another tragedy. But we have to choose, as this post at WoodMoor Village Zendo suggests, to which seeds we want to water.

If past such events are any indication, we’ll continue to look for the motivation behind the attacks, as if looking for a light switch that somehow gets flipped and off we go.

To be sure, understanding that psychological account is important, but it strikes me that it is not the only explanation we should seek or value. On the other hand, I’m certain we’ll encounter the other kind of explanation: this is a punishment from God, or somehow we live in such a corrupt and corrosive society that we are led to such madness. Right now it seems to me that we can pick from various accounts. When we don’t address our suffering carefully, and we instead water those seeds of pain, despair, and violence (in whatever way we do so), we see horrific results — and we end up nurturing massive suffering, and the conditions for its continuance.

At times like these, I set aside extra time to meditate and focus on doing Tonglin meditation.

In tonglin practice, we think of a person we know who is suffering and whom we want to help. Perhaps we visualize that person in front of us. We can see or sense their suffering. And we breathe in. We offer to take that suffering into our own being, trusting that the resources for healing are inside of us. And we breathe that healing out, making our offering to the other person. We are making the greatest gift we can, the gift of our loving and healing energy, to help relieve another’s suffering. As you breathe in suffering and breathe out healing, you will find quite naturally that compassion arises. This is because a compassionate response to suffering is to offer some help. In tonglin, awareness of suffering and compassionate action are inextricably linked together.

Tonight, I’ll go home and spend a couple of hours playing with my son before bedtime, reading to him, and probably a little extra time holding him as much as he’ll let me, being the active 4-year-old he is. I’ll sit and talk with my husband about his day, about mine, and just being together. When everyone goes to bed, I’ll do another Tonglin meditation for the people of Virginia Tech, the people of Iraq, of Darfur, and even for Cho Seung Hui, and use the same words in the post at Woodmoor.

May you be safe.

May you be well.

May you be at peace.

May you be happy.

May you live in harmony.

May all beings be safe.

May all beings be well.

May all beings be at peace.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings live in harmony.

And then try to live the next day, the next hour, or even the next few minutes in a way that may help prevent the next person who, as a Virginia Tech faculty member put it, “yearn[s] to blast a hole in the world” from doing so, even though that may only mean being as kind as I can to the people within my reach right now.

If it has to start somewhere, what better place. If it has to start sometime … If not now, when? Now is always the time for that response.


  1. If not now, when? Monday would be good.

    I’m not saying nobody should ever talk about what happened in Blacksburg, just that I think it’s incredibly inappropriate to start saying things like “This just goes to show that…” mere hours after the event. If nothing else, I would say that we still don’t have enough information to say anything sensible about what happened, let alone what the implications are for anybody’s pre-existing political beliefs.

    I also don’t have a problem with thoughtful tributes and expressions of sympathy– those are wholly appropriate, and in fact, I’d be happy to see more of that. I think Timothy Burke put it very well:

    “Is it so hard to let the dead lie in peace for a few days, to reflect quietly and somberly on the horror and pain of it? Do we have to domesticate every event into the simple-mindedness of single-cause arguments, master the meaninglessness that sometimes comes with being human with the jabber of the punditocracy? Can’t we just reach out collectively to put a quiet hand on the shoulder of those who have lost friends, family and colleagues?”

    There will have to be policy arguments at some point, of course, and those will inevitably involve a fair amount of jabber. I’m not asking for a complete ban on ever discussing these issues, just for a few days of calm.

    A week doesn’t seem like too much to ask. If nothing else, it allows time for the facts to come out, reducing the chances of saying something absolutely idiotic from sheer ignorance.

    If you want to know what I think this means for public policy, ask me on Monday.

  2. I could’ve sworn I spent a long time posting a comment in response to this last night, but it appears to have vanished into the void. I don’t really have the energy to re-create it right now. Maybe later.

  3. I could’ve sworn I spent a long time posting a comment in response to this last night, but it appears to have vanished into the void. I don’t really have the energy to re-create it right now. Maybe later.

    Got stuck in my spam filter for some reason. I liberated it this morning.