Most contracts for goods and services contain an "Act of God" provision. Such provisions typically allow contracting parties to dissolve a contract in case of an unexpected and unavoidable catastrophe: an earthquake, a tsunami, a lightning strike. This is perfectly logical. Man can act based on predictions about human behavior, but has no control over forces of nature. Conversely, human actions demand human responsibility. Only Divine action should be written off as inevitable tragedy.
The Virginia Tech massacre was not an act of God — it was undeniably an act of man. Yet many Americans have instinctively treated this massive act of evil as a "tragedy," the kind of inevitable calamity destined to befall us from time to time. The media ubiquitously labeled the handiwork of Cho Seung-Hui a "tragedy." They grouped Cho together with his targets in their lists of victims.
This is nothing new. Many Americans described the Columbine massacre as a "tragedy." In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many Americans — including President Bush — termed the most heinous mass slaughter in American history a "national tragedy." When two snipers in the Beltway area began shooting innocents during October 2002, politicians and media alike branded the murders "tragedies."
This addiction to "tragedy" — and the concurrent refusal to recognize instances of human evil — breeds a sort of national complacency. Last week, I was discussing the Virginia Tech massacre with a friend, who suggested in passing that we view the mass killing the same way we view airplane crashes, something that "can technically be stopped, but won’t in the aggregate ever disappear." This may be true realistically, but it is eminently wrong morally — and it is tremendously dangerous. It absolves us of the responsibility to make difficult choices. When toleration of evil simply becomes a cost of doing business, we fail in our human task: distinguishing between right and wrong, and fighting for right.
So far, we have been asking the wrong question: Why did Cho Seung-Hui do it? The question does not help us. There is no foolproof way to excise evil at the root. Evil is a weed: resilient, able to sprout and flourish in the slightest crack in the sidewalk. We must assume that there will be evil men and women, no matter how good our society.
The real question is: Why didn’t anyone stop him? Cho Seung-Hui walked largely unhindered through the halls of Virginia Tech for almost an hour, systematically mowing down students. A few had the courage to try to do something: Professor Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, blocked a classroom door with his body, allowing students time to escape; an ROTC student reportedly attempted to tackle Cho from behind; several students attempted to barricade doors against Cho.
But the stark fact remains: One man, armed with a 9mm Glock and a .22-caliber pistol, fired over 100 rounds, killing 32 people. It is difficult to ask why unarmed students did not charge Cho — but we ask the same questions about Holocaust victims, who faced far greater odds. These are questions worth asking, simply because they force us to ask ourselves what we would do in such a situation. How would we fight evil?
Treating human evil as such creates a culture of resistance; treating human evil as "tragedy" creates, as columnist Mark Steyn puts it, a "culture of passivity." Mass murders may be inevitable, but their extent is not. There may have been no way to prevent the Holocaust; there may have been no way to prevent Cho Seung-Hui from attempting a murderous rampage. But if every death matters, we must create a culture of resistance. As long as we refuse to identify and fight evil, the Warsaw Ghetto will be the exception, not the rule. As long as we refuse to call Cho Seung-Hui what he is, Liviu Librescu will be the exception, not the rule.