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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 19th, 2007 - 01:05:08

Blacksburg and Baghdad: Sister cities for a day
By Ben Tanosborn
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 19, 2007, 01:00

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On April 16, 1861, the United States began a civil war that would have the country torn apart and, during the next four years, claim the lives of one-half million soldiers. For a noble cause we�d like to believe. On that same day, seven-score and six years later, shock and incredulity covers the nation as a mentally-disturbed student mows down, without pity or external evidence of rage, the lives of 32 individuals on a college campus, most of them about his age -- this time, a tragedy of ignoble purpose.

And barely 24 hours later, here we are at the campus of Virginia Tech in a ceremony transmitted for all the nation to see; a formal invocation taking us from shock to mourning; a ceremony of bereavement, marred in part, I am compelled to add, by the high profile presence of too many politicians . . . of both denominations.

All of a sudden, as if by magic, mass killings become �real� although we have had four years of horrible events of this magnitude, some much worse, occurring daily just seven or eight hours of sun east of this plateau by the Blue Ridge Mountains and its bucolic setting. Darfur and Iraq continue to be far away, but somehow their reality, at least to some people, does seem now closer . . . and definitely far more real.

Shock from death . . . and shock from fear! Baghdad has been experiencing such horror on a daily basis for well over 1,000 days. But that has been for us, in these United States, a subject of limited political discourse and little else. But then, Blacksburg�s academic enclave receives its very own bloodbath. For Baghdad�s neighborhoods, it�s been one suicide bomber at a time; for the people cut down at Virginia Tech, including the perpetrator of the crimes, death was not met by way of bombs but, instead, one bullet at a time. But regardless of method or circumstance, fate made Baghdad and Blacksburg sister cities in suffering and pain, if just for a day. And one can hear the anguish, and sense the helplessness, as people in both communities ask why . . . why us?

There seems to be an order of priority in how we value human life, one we prefer to keep silent about. On this day following the massacre at Virginia Tech, one can say that much of the nation is in mourning for the victims, including relatives and friends. At the same time, those American soldiers who reportedly lost their lives in Iraq that same day, all seven of them, for them most Americans probably offered just a cursory thought as their number is casually added to the now approaching 3,500 military death tally in Iraq; and as for the daily-hundred Iraqis killed, many of them children, their demise has become only a passing concern, and a continuing denial of responsibility. Perhaps this indifference and cold-heartedness are ingrained in mankind for its survival, but I prefer to think not, holding apathy and amoral leadership as the mixture that dehumanizes us.

It is at times like these that we come to realize that America must liberate itself from the many demons that we refuse to have exorcised. The demon of a truly unflinching and righteous sense of world dominance as exemplified by a foreign policy that makes us at the very least complicit to the massacres that take place daily in Baghdad and other points of Iraq. The demon of our purported addiction to firearms, and a deranged national policy on this issue politically and patriotically sanitized by an NRA (National Rifle Association) lobby dispensing an idiotic rationale that �it is people who kill people, not guns.� But as we saw at Virginia Tech, the issue is far more complex than that.

Perhaps the most important demon to surface during this tragedy at Hokieland is our lack in this great wealthy nation of ours of a strong and deep social safety net. If for no other reason than our great diversity, and all the demands that entails, ours should be the greatest social safety net on this earth. Instead, ours probably ranks among the weakest in the so-called group of industrialized, first world nations.

We have become a disengaged society where we resent people because they are poor, and unable to pull themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps. We also seem to resent the mentally ill, affording them hardly any counsel and extending their psychiatric help to just a few precious minutes that would allow a physician to prescribe the proper pills. Millions of people with mental health problems roam society as time bombs ready to explode, hurting themselves and possibly others -- many of them homeless.

Among the pictures that accompany a tragedy, such as the one in Blacksburg, there�s always at least one that we must archive in our memory. Mine appeared this time on a television screen as a Korean-American older gentleman, Lim, I believe was his name, was overrun by emotion as he took upon himself an act of apology on behalf of an entire ethnic group . . . a group that has done this nation proud, just like so many others.

No, Mr. Lim, you need not apologize for the acts of a mentally disturbed young man who came to America from Korea when only 8, and was raised in a society that for whatever reason(s) was unable to provide him with the help he needed. We in America failed this young man, just as we fail millions of others crying for help.

We need to exorcise our demons and in the process prevent tragedy, be it in Blacksburg or in Baghdad, or in the most recondite places of our minds and our hearts.

� 2007 Ben Tanosborn

Ben Tanosborn, columnist, poet and writer, resides in Vancouver, Washington (USA), where he is principal of a business consulting firm. Contact him at

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