The terrible news that came out of Blacksburg, Virginia yesterday has shocked a nation; and for all of us who live and work and study in colleges and universities, this news has brought with it a deep sense of violation. For our institutions of higher learning are among the most important symbols of what a free and open society should be—for in these places, we pursue knowledge and we share common values; we do not say this enough, but among those values is a deep and abiding dedication to peace and non-violence, without which we could not be free or open; we could not go about the business of learning and teaching.
Yesterday, we witnessed how on another campus that context of peace was violently disturbed; and even all these miles away from Blacksburg, we experienced here, as has every other college and university in the nation, how vulnerable those of us in this setting can be. We should, I think, be mindful that a free and open society is always vulnerable to those who would tear at the fabric of peace out of confusion, or hatred, or misplaced anger, or with some profound dislocation of madness. We can be prudent and do many things to protect the peace of a community, but incidents like yesterday remind us that an individual who wants to hurt and kill others and die in the effort may very well succeed in doing so, since that particular scenario is hard to predict and even harder to prevent—and were this not such a different moment we might even remind ourselves that events like yesterday are rare because, in fact, we are able, in many situations, to help people and relieve the stress of the demons that attack sanity and thus threaten the safety of others.
Because of our vulnerability, a vulnerability created by the fact that we choose to live together not in defensiveness against the outsider, but in peace and in accordance with the values of inclusion and difference, we may at this moment be tempted to give over to fear. I hope we do not give into that temptation. Fear is a terrible dynamic that if unloosed creates suspicion, barriers, and a shifting of values away from openness and freedom. Our university communities must resist giving into fear even as we continue to emphasize the prudence and caution that all members of our community must exercise for personal safety. But as I say, yesterday was the kind of event it is hard to predict, harder to prevent for one willing to die to do what that gunman did.
We do not yet know what may have motivated a Senior English major at Virginia Tech to open fire on students and beset the Virginia Tech campus yesterday with mayhem. We do not know all that happened as university officials tried to respond to and contain a shocking situation in the early morning that compounded exponentially by late morning, but I hope we shall keep this in mind: we are always looking for someone to blame when these things happen—that is natural, I suppose, because in the face of such outlandish absurdity and chaos, we want to blame someone, for that is a way we can control our own sense of vulnerability. So blaming will go on, a sign of our own coming to terms with a need to make sense out of the senseless. It takes real courage to face the poet’s truth, a truth Jim Cohn has put this way: “sometimes the threads have no weave.”
We do not have the weave, only threads, and we need in this moment to be reflective and to understand that in a moment of crisis, information is sometimes sparse, there is no weave, no pattern, and decisions are made in contexts where all kinds of things are not known, and timing is everything—though in the moment we do not even know that. There is much we do not know and much we shall never know, but we must not let our desire to control this event by understanding the details of the event obscure the fact that something terrible happened yesterday, and that how it happened may have simply been unpreventable, for someone was willing to die to do what happened, and that is hard to predict, and even harder to prevent.
What we do know about yesterday—of this there is no lack of information—is that there was a terrible loss of life on the campus of Virginia Tech University, and for that our hearts here at Lehigh are grieved. We here at Lehigh University, in this place, extend our condolences to all the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded yesterday in Virginia; and we gather to hold in prayer those so deeply hurt by the attack yesterday. We know that there are people in our community who know students and faculty there, who know professional colleagues, who know the campus and have friends there. Paul Torgerson, class of 1953 here at Lehigh, is a former President at Virginia Tech, and a 1994 honorary degree recipient at Lehigh—there are probably many connections between our institutions, some of which you know even if the rest of us do not. For those affected by a personal loss of a friend or colleague, our hearts go out to you. We hold you today in prayer, and offer you our hand in hope of healing.
Father Killian and I shall offer an opening prayer for this time together; then the podium here is open for any who would like to share a thought or prayer. We gather in silence, and you are invited to meditate or pray in silence or share with others a thought or prayer as you will.
Posted on Tuesday, April 17, 2007