It always feels weird swallowing real-world events like the Virginia Tech massacre in the hazy cosmopolitanism of Uris Library. Cornell and its libraries, after all, are fleeing from the bustling Manhattans, from the culture of CNN and even the busy humming of our own town. It feels like fleeing from all that is extremist, religious or vulgar. And the Promised Land is the Hill, which, legend has it, is populated by a super-strong Atlas who can not only pick up the planet, but also stop it from warming too, and just foster utopia in general, all at the reasonable rate of only $40,000 a year (tax-free if you use Big Red Bucks!).
This detached cosmopolitan Cornell is proud, richly endowed, but can be shaken. When an English major murders 32 people at a university, our university shakes. Finally, something has hit home; but utopianism hits back. Our president responds in the eloquent universalism we know best: “We are one; one community, one people, one planet.” This is me responding, stuck in Uris Library because it’s raining outside; I’m stuck, too, in this Skortonian universalism, as I consider the murderer, his condition and ours too.
“Three Pro-Gun Bills Pending in Nevada Legislature!” exclaims a headline from NRA.org. You should press your senators to pass them, urges this National Rifle Association writer, so people can have the freedom to not register their handguns! Gun activists argue that Cho Seung-Hui should have been lawfully prevented from buying his .22-caliber and 9mm guns because of his mental illness. They also argue that gun-control laws should be toned down! This is utterly strange, this exaltation of the Second Amendment at a time like this.
Considered in a vacuum, there’s really nothing wrong with the right to bear arms. But when the bald eagle of America is made to hold rifles in its talons (the NRA logo) — a powerful symbol is crafted. It speaks loudly for a lot of Americans. The symbolic exaltation is poor form, with poor results: the nation that made Terminator I-III, Rambo, Quentin Tarantino and Cho too. Tarantino is not Cho — a talented artist, not a murderer. He doesn’t shoot, he makes aesthetics. But what is his aesthetic? It is images of Cho and for Cho. Aesthetics broadcast culture, and culture affects people.
What Cho most needed was probably medication. But what he needed second most was a culture that says, “don’t shoot.” This he did not quite have; rather, he had Kill Bill. And he had a precedent of almost 20 school shootings in America in the past 10 years. Add this to the list of things in which we lead the world; Germany is a not-so-close second, with only three.
We have a cult of violence in this country. We also have a cult of hyper-individualism: the kind that cherishes individual rights like not having to register your gun. Violence could exist without this cult and so could mental illness; but I merely suggest some cultural change wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Diversity within Cornell works because the lack of religious and ethnic unity is compensated for: the minute you get here you are hit over the head with Freshman Orientation. You are explicitly told, that despite the diverse backgrounds and different colors — we are all friends. You are showered with programs and people your age, with your interests, your intelligence ... But diversity in the real America is ugly at times — the same diversity is extant, but there’s no Freshman Orientation. There’s no one really saying we are all friends. (In fact, we compete with out neighbors for almost everything.) We lack, then, a common language with which to tell the school shooters, “don’t shoot.”
The American suicide murderer has no cause — unlike those who blew up themselves and 191 Iraqis in Baghdad just days after Virginia Tech. But perhaps what an American rebel with no cause needs is … a cause. And a peaceful one to boot.
In America, everyone has a different moral code — from the Bible to Gandhi to Oprah. The only normative force we share is our secular law: don’t shoot because you’ll go to jail. But Americans feel oppositional towards the law anyway: the under-21 collegiate “elite” could proudly drink most baby boomers under the table. The law is not enough.
If there’s anything that could work it might be Christianity; but America is no longer Christian. So why not just let each denomination speak its piece? A chorus of don’t shoots in different languages and moralities? We already have this multiplicity, and Cho falls through the cracks.
To add to our diversity, we a need language more common, so widely held that it can be strong enough to speak to the next Cho.
If Americans are so different, it’s only knowledge of each other that will bring that commonality. It’s a university, or at least a good high school, that will bring that knowledge. It’s getting everyone, even the poor, into those schools …
Consider, then, our Cornellian cosmopolitanism — “We are one; one community, one people, one planet” — turning around with the Hokies and the citizenry and facing reality, facing Cho, facing his Columbine counterparts Dylan and Eric. Consider gathering the psychological knowledge of their sickness, the practical knowledge of how to make society safe and the moral knowledge that murder is wrong. Consider gathering all this and broadcasting it mercilessly on TV, alongside images of eagles with no rifles in their talons. This might take a really long time — culture does — and there will always be psychological violence. But if the relative peace of this campus on a Hill is any paradigm, then let’s take the reigns of the real world.
Let’s be powerful the way we know how. Let’s create some ideology, disseminate it and brainwash everyone. If we’re good enough at it, we’ll even reach the next Cho: mental illness could resist even a culture of peace, but it’d be quite a bit harder. Yes, we’ll pick up where the sixties left off: we’ll brainwash them into thinking we are all one. Maybe, in fact, we are.
Jeremy Siegman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cosmology on the Rocks appears alternate Fridays.