Thursday, April 19, 2007

Blacksburg and Baghdad

I have been uncomfortably silent the last few days, simply because the events in Virginia defy words....and I haven't wanted to fill the silence without acknowledging the Virginia Tech tragedy. I look at the senseless loss through so many lenses; it's difficult to know with which voice to speak. There is Jennifer the mother who already tends toward anxiety when I think of my inability to keep my children safe. There is Jennifer the college administrator who immediately begins playing out the "If this were my institution...." questions. There is Jennifer the believer who tries somehow to find sense or meaning in something that so clearly has none. There is Jennifer the skeptic who finds far more questions than answers. There is Jennifer the pastor's daughter who struggled throughout childhood with a clergy father's commitment to staying close to the grief-stricken, serving primarily in the presence of loss....loss was omnipresent in my growing up years, and my relationship to the dead and their survivors is complex. And there is Jennifer, the citizen of the United States (with noble intentions of being a citizen of the world) who some days is deeply aware of the tremendous privilege of living middle class and white in a country where we presume peace, where violence is hidden on city streets or in far-away countries.

The lens which has struck me most these past few days is this last one. Days after I literally gasped and burst into tears at the early report that 22 people had been killed on a university campus, I clicked on CNN to see the headline for the war in Iraq. The death toll I remember in my mind was something like 178 people, killed primarily in Baghdad. And while I certainly had a moment of pause, there was no kick in the gut--no hand to my mouth in shock and despair. Why? There are some obvious answers--our country's collective apathy and desensitization to a war that seems easy to oppose but much more difficult to end, and my ethnocentric empathy that zeroes in on the losses of people who look and live like me come right to mind. I'm not certain I could open my eyes in the morning and climb out of bed if I absorbed the names, faces and histories of the people lost in the most recent bombing of Baghdad or Fallujah, but I do wonder if I would be a better person. We scroll the local headlines, reading the stories of the hometown fallen heroes, but what of the chaos we've created? If I could look at the Iraqi death toll with an image, a name or a story submitted by his or her childhood best friend, could I honestly watch this war from my living room rather than the streets in protest?

I've been talking to my daughter about war, something I never imagined possible with a five year old. But after her school sent letters to the soldiers ("They keep us safe," I believe was how she understood their job.), and we visited an Air Museum filled with fighter jet relics, it became something I simply had to do. We give the barest of details--people fighting to stop rulers who are out to hurt rather than help people--and share our own conflicted sense of whether it is okay to hurt people in the name of stopping the hurts of others, but it pains me to know that she is growing up with a war abroad that simply must have a wider impact on our conscience, and a war scene at home that seems impossibly close.

God, forgive us. Some days we do know what we do....

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