Students gathered in Richardson Auditorium last night for a service in memory of the victims of Monday's shooting at Virginia Tech," reported The Daily Princetonian on April 18. A day earlier, President Tilghman stated that "my reaction was horror at the loss of so many innocent young lives," a sentiment echoed by President Bush when he remarked that "those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They leave behind grieving families and grieving classmates and a grieving nation." Congress openly prayed for the victims and their loves ones. Flags flew at half-mast across the nation.
It was good. Solidarity with stricken fellow human beings forges a group of people sharing a geography into a "community" or "nation." As Associate Dean of Religious Life Deborah Blanks put it so eloquently during the memorial: "We dare to affirm that there is strength in community."
It takes nothing away from the grief we share with Virginia Tech's community to let the mind wander from that tragedy to another one, the daily toll of fellow human beings grotesquely destroyed or maimed in Iraq, among them many American men and women just as young and innocent as those killed at Virginia Tech. As Keith Olbermann of MSNBC's "Countdown," standing out from the herd politically correct journalists, asked boldly on April 17: "In just the last 10 days, 32 American troops, many the same age as the Virginia Tech students, have died. While one may take issue with the comparison, one cannot ignore the similarities ... It seems fair to ask the question, if the violent deaths in Virginia send the nation into shock and expressions of concern and anxiety, why is not the continuous flow of blood in Iraq creating a similar reaction? Why isn't our flag permanently at half staff?"
Olbermann has a point. In just the two days following the shooting at Virginia Tech, close to 400 Iraqis were brutally blown to shreds and hundreds more seriously wounded, along with the usual daily toll of U.S. military personnel. Stories on their fate were pushed way down the list of reports on TV or in the daily press. Did Congress pray for them? Are these human beings part of Dean Blanks' "community"?
It appears that the daily slaughter of people in Iraq has become so routine now that reports on it must compete for America's attention with updates on Wall Street, sport scores and the Anna Nicole Smith story. On our campus, the indifference may be amplified by what USG president Rob Biederman '08 called at the memorial the "Orange Bubble," namely, the fact that "every college should be a place apart," presumably from the outside world. The tragedy at Virginia Tech seems to have penetrated that Bubble only because of what Biederman called "the similarity of all students' campus experiences."
Military service for one's country and the horrors of war are as far removed from the campus experience as one could imagine. To illustrate, in early October of 2005 I wrote to the then editor-in-chief of the Daily Princetonian: "I would like to make a suggestion that would add grace to the 'Prince.' Show every day, on the front page of the paper, the names of American troops who have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea would be to remind young Princetonians, many of whom aspire to be future leaders, that there is a war going on and that they have contemporaries who are willing to stand tall for their country and to pay the ultimate price for it."
In a courteous email, the editor replied that she understood and agreed with my sentiment, but that "The Daily Princetonian has a defined scope as a newspaper: We cover events and people affiliated with the University Community." She pointed out that the national newspapers are to keep us abreast of other events. Alas, who among college students these days actually reads these dailies?
In fairness to the 'Prince,' not all dailies report on the blood cost of the war either. For example, I had earlier asked The Wall Street Journal, a major cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, to honor on its front page the names of the fallen warriors. That request did not even warrant an answer, presumably because the Journal does not want to highlight that war has its costs.
As a member of the University community, I can well understand the comfort the stricken Virginia Tech community may find in Princeton's and the nation's vigils for them and the sentiment that begot the vigils. But as the parent of a Marine who narrowly escaped death on the battlefield in 2005 and may yet have to serve a fourth tour of duty (because too few career-minded inhabitants of the College Bubble are willing to take over from him), I also share the loneliness that all military families feel in a nation that seems preoccupied with things other than the human toll in Iraq. Uwe E. Reinhardt is the James Madison Professor of Political Economy and a professor in the Wilson School. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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