All the wrong answers

By Matt Barnum

“What’s going on in America?” wondered Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. In the wake of the Northern Illinois University (NIU) shootings, Zorn asked readers to respond to this question on his blog. 382 comments later, we are no closer to an answer.

In Sunday’s print edition of the Tribune, Zorn ran several—presumably the best—of his readers’ responses. “Debra” informs us that “the answer is very simple”: We need more gun control. “Michael” disagrees. He says that “the outcome would have been much different” had any of the students been allowed to carry a weapon.

But wait. Laura explains, “Parents need to love their children.” “David H.” answers with “two words: media attention,” “Maria” thinks it’s because of legalized abortion, “Garry” blames too much immigration, and “Jacck” (in the online comments only) bemoans “the culture of violence.”

Everybody has the answer. Even more troubling than the ridiculous answers, though, is the underlying assumption that there is one.

Finger-pointing is a natural response to any tragedy, and it’s not surprising that, for many, blame morphs neatly into their favorite political causes. Of course, the fingers will not all point in the same direction—in part because there is no way to determine some sort of root cause. The failure of these readers is important: It demonstrates the question’s inherent flaw.

It should go without saying that we will never determine the precise origin of this shooter’s—or any murderer’s—rage, or violence, or motives. Unfortunately, this unavoidable ambiguity only breeds the rampant speculation—none of which is supported by evidence—that it ought to deter. Eager to make sweeping generalizations about public policy and cultural phenomena, media commentators, as well as regular people (like Zorn’s readers), exploit the horror of last Thursday, using it as a platform to express their political and personal opinions.

In response, it is tempting make the “there’s always evil in the world” or “this is just one crazy person” argument. But these—admittedly comforting, but unfortunately glib—narratives fall short. How do we know that the killer wasn’t influenced by a “culture of violence” or by possible media attention? We simply can’t say one way or another.

So what can we learn from this tragedy?

One of my Facebook friends from NIU had this status right after the shootings: “Nick had all his bullshit put into perspective today.”

If there’s one lesson, it’s perspective. Political perspective—the realization that you don’t make policy based on a few incidents, however emotional—is important. More significant, though, is personal perspective.

Going to the Blackhawks ice hockey game Sunday showed me just how much and how little perspective we have: I saw several people wearing NIU shirts. The Blackhawks players’ helmets were adorned with an NIU husky and the game was preceded by a moment of silence in honor of the shooting victims. But after that moment, they got on with the game.

During the first period, a Blackhawks player tackled one of his opponents, punching him in the face as he laid on the ice; the refs had to pull him off. All of us fans got to our feet and cheered, egging the two fighters on. As he was led away to the penalty box, our hero grinned toothily up at us, his adoring fans, while we continued to holler with glee.

I think perspective’s great. I just don’t know how to keep any.

Matt Barnum, a Maroon Viewpoints Editor, is a second-year in the College majoring in psychology. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.