Thoughts on the tragedy at VT

The horrific events at Virginia Tech last Monday, April 16, that left 33 people dead, including Cho Seung-Hui the gunman, are both sad and terrifying. The sadness is obvious. The disturbing, even terrifying, part is a little harder to put into any kind of perspective but evokes a feeling in our guts that it could happen at any time, in any place, and is undeserved. Indeed, that explains the great outpouring toward us in this community by people from all over the world who in their hearts know what the VT poet Nikki Giovanni said at the Tuesday Convocation: «We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.» My understanding of the VT events makes it clear to me just how fragile is the fabric on which all society is based. In economics we know that relationships between people are with respect to property (ownership). Property, or ownership, and thus markets and all economic exchange, is based on a kind of covenant or social agreement. That agreement is that property ownership is not based on my assertion that a thing is «mine» but rather by your agreement that it is not «yours.» Law is only the formalization of those agreements – it is derivative not foundational. That agreement by you that it is not «yours» is a kind of self-restraint or forbearance and is the fundamental element in the fabric on which all social interaction depends.  When that forbearance or self-restraint is violated, it tears the fabric of the society. It defines what «theft» is and it describes the role of the police. Indeed, most of us will agree that in almost any community an additional $50,000 to $100,000 spent on additional police will not increase community security as much as the same money spent on something like funding neighborhood softball teams that will add to the social fabric of the community. The terror in the ripping of our social fabric as was done here at Virginia Tech comes from the recognition that each of us has feelings of great frustration and anger that we suppress – forbear from acting on. But we all know that any number of others may not so forbear. The USA has decided that as a society we will have widespread access to guns. When, for whatever reason, the failure of self-restraint involves guns, the results are usually of greater consequence then would otherwise be. In 1966, at the time of the Texas Tower rampage that killed 14 and injured more than 30, there were 17,000 gun-related deaths per year. Today there are more than 30,000 such deaths – almost 10 times the number of American deaths in Iraq. We thus have two agenda items for our society that flow from this tragedy. One is to address the issues that cause people to violate our social covenant by failing in their forbearance – mental health services, including anger management, curtailing the causes of anger, such as a clearer articulation of driving courtesy that evokes road rage, and activities that increase our local, national and international sense of community.The second agenda item is to address the control of guns. Our society will not likely give them up, but surely we can have better control of who has access to guns that even the National Rifle Association should support. We need at least the equivalent to auto registration. Finally, we need to renew a commitment to «practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.»** (1) George R. McDowell is a retired professor of agricultural economics at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, and lives nearby. — Coined by American writer Anne Herbert (b.1952)

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