29.4.07

Your Huddled Masses (pt2)

In the unfolding of grand scale events in the U.S., to ask Why is the quest for the undiscovered country and—by analogy—answers to that question are a Holy Grail. The violent killing spree of Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech at least exemplified this fact—showing again how quickly we process and absorb the whowhatwhenwherehow simple facts and, likewise, how quickly we come screeching to a halt over the conundrum of causation.

Causation—the why—is so distressing because it defies quick and quip-able answers in the face of tragedy. The issue is not that we ask but that we ask demanding explanation. Understandably so, tragedy leaves us feeling vulnerable. It is this vulnerability that we try to cover, like Adam’s nakedness, with the figurative leaves of knowledge. The interrogatives who, what, when, where, and how provide factual information but not knowledge. Knowledge is derived from the application of information in the act of relationship: a move from mere examination to relational experience.

A twofold problem remains. First, westerners’ typical means of acquiring information—bulleted summations of investigative findings and top-of-the-hour tidbits—leave us ignorant of causation. Growing in knowledge is just not something we’re accustomed to doing. Second, while understanding of causation is within our grasp —from 9/11 to VTech—knowledge is costly: ignorance is bliss. By avoiding communal participation in the full examination of causes behind Cho’s actions, we evade culpability. In so doing, we take the “high places”: the judge’s bench (to pass judgment). the jury box (to deliberate), or perhaps the peanut gallery (to be entertained). Yet the simple fact remains—we are co-conspirators in Cho’s actions by our willful ignorance and our blind neglect.

We are a bloodlust culture, in the arts and entertainment. Give us games and films of gratuitous violence and we are satiated; yet, confusticate, we cannot comprehend a reason beyond our borders of safety why one of our own would be employed in war. Our strongest protests against public wars are only as loud as our private fascination with violence. For many American-born people, such a contradiction is acceptable (if not in itself a type of cultural psychosis). But for those from the outside, who have been forced to live between the termini of purposeless production and mindless consumption—and have found such a life wanting, waiting somewhere in between at a stop for a train that never does—the theater meets the dorm room of the oppressed with consistency.

No line of demarcation exists between neglect and oppression. For the recipient, what is willfully subjected to the one (“He’s a freak!”) is passively applied to the other (“the Question Mark”). History demonstrates that there are two common responses to oppression: rebellion and retaliation. For an individual trapped in a cage of perpetual fear and isolation—even of his own choosing—rebellion may mean suicide. Had Cho chosen suicide, he would have just been one of many. Perhaps the local news would have run a blurb. Vague details of his death might even have scrolled across the bottom of CNN’s Headline News. And he would have been forgotten in a moment. Instead (and I believe, knowing this fact) Cho chose retaliation, and thirty-two died.

With such a line between rebellion (suicide) and retaliation (murder)—with as many as 10% of high school student indicating they’ve outlined a way to kill themselves—the issue of integration for the marginalized must be a community concern. Knowledge must drive us beyond collection of information. Human dignity demands that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean more than personal comfort and individual privacy. We must forgo the bench and the box for the dock in pursuit of relational experience. For what the government was never meant to do, individual citizens must—namely, enter into the lives of our neighbors with information leading to relational knowledge. Isn’t that the promise of the Lady of Ellis Island to all who died at VTech?

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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