The Facing of Death

One wonders why today’s generation has such a problem with death, especially death of one considered “too young” or “too good” or “too anything.” The recent deaths at Virginia Tech bring the subject front and center again as similar instances of massacres in the past are replayed in the media, with the same exasperation regarding the necessity to bring about “closure,” usually by finding someone or some institution to blame.

This is not to disparage the grief expressed by a whole nation’s citizens in the VT matter, not to mention those directly affected such as parents and other relatives of the dead, but to remark that the notion that death and unhappiness seem unacceptable to the “now” generation. This is graphically seen every night in the newscasts as the media keeps count of the ones who have fallen in the war on terror and talk-show hosts such as John McLaughlin present a morbid accounting every Friday night, complete with humongous fatality-estimates regarding Iraqi civilians, the intention apparently being to account this nation as one big murderer.

A young man – probably deranged, though no one will ever know – took the lives of 32 people for no reason, since no reason for what he did is possible. He did it because he decided to do it. That explanation doesn’t bring comfort to parents, just as parents are not comforted when a drunk driver – for no reason – kills their child. Those killed happened to be in a killing field, whether at a university or on a highway, through no fault of their own. Some years ago, a drunk in northern Kentucky driving the wrong way on a four-lane highway slammed head-on into a church bus returning youngsters from a day at an amusement park and managed to kill 27 people and horribly burn others, while he was hardly affected. They happened to be in a killing field that night…no reason to die…but they did.

In 1982, there were 26,173 people killed in traffic deaths caused by drunk-drivers. That was 72 per day or well over twice the number killed at VT. In 2005, the traffic-deaths caused by drunks totaled 16,885, or 46 per day. Strangely, there was no outpouring of grief over drunks-induced traffic deaths on any day, and John McLaughlin did not bother to keep score, though they were caused by insensitive people with absolutely no reason to kill, the same as the circumstance at VT. Yet, there is an ongoing reaction in Blacksburg, Virginia, that will go on for weeks and then be revisited for years, just as the Columbine killings a few years ago.

The religious fundamentalist will say that death occurs just the way and at just the time God decided before he created the world, yet cautions people against doing bad things that could lead to their deaths. That’s his way of not taking any responsibility for anything that happens, without understanding the obvious contradiction. The atheist says, “no God, no reason, no reality, no nothing,” but rails against Christians for believing something, as if that should make a difference to them since it changes nothing. Others, whether religious or not, state the obvious, namely, that mankind has free will and has a lot to say about death, taxes, and everything else. These people mourn with a reason, but realize that answers will not be found to the killing fields anywhere this side of death itself, assuming another opportunity on the other side to discover the answers.

None of this is to say that there shouldn’t be grief when a loved one dies, or that there will ever be “closure” in the sense of understanding the mystical, the unknowable. During the1,642 actual days of combat in World Wars I and II (4.5 years), an average of 320 Americans died every day…10 times the number at VT on just one day out of decades in Blacksburg. Back home, people understood as well as they could. The deaths resulted from actions taken by German leaders who were unbelievably wicked or crazy or both…no reason for the killing fields, just as at Blacksburg, assuming the young killer was mad, seemingly the case as proven posthumously by his own account, or just plain evil.

During the Korean Conflict in 1950-53, an average of 35 Americans died every day for 1,095 days. In the long nightmare of Vietnam (7.5 years), 21 GIs died every day…2,737 days. Think of the Civil War – 340 dead per day for 1,460 days. The deaths happened to people from all over the country and were the results of madness and evil, but there was no racking, continuing vigil or ceremony in the capital, Washington, D.C., on those days…just the facing of the fact.

The counselors descended on VT in Blacksburg, as they do in any town at a high school when a student has been killed in a car wreck, an accident. This didn’t used to happen. The notion seems operative that young people or all people just have to have help in “getting through it,” as if death isn’t as much a part of life as life itself – an absolute even more certain than life. Surely this generation is not so fragile that its members cannot accept death – no matter the horrific circumstances and lack of reason – as a matter of course and, without a lot of folks weeping, hugging, and encouraging them to be upset, just dry their tears, attend or tend to the rites, and get on with their lives.