Friday, April 20, 2007

The Big Lie

I have a friend who teaches at Virginia Tech, so naturally the news of Monday morning's shootings came as quite a shock. This being the information age, we knew fairly early into the morning that she was fine because she posted on her Live Journal from her office and then again when she was home. By the time my three 9-year-olds got home from school, I had turned off CNN and we were on to the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon like any other day, so it wasn't until Wednesday when the news filtered down to them. They asked about it, I gave them the bare-bones basics, and then one of my daughters asked the Million Dollar Question: "That couldn't happen at our school, right?"

Now, I'm the world's worst liar. I can't pull off a convincing fib to save my life. My friends joke that I have no brain-to-mouth filter--if it pops into my head, it pops out my mouth. If I were a man and had a wife, I'd probably spend most nights on the couch for saying things like, "Actually, that dress does kinda make your hips look a little wide." And yet, when my daughter asked that question, without even blinking, I looked her in the eye, and I lied.

"No, honey, that could never happen at your school."

Fortunately, she didn't ask the follow-up Billion Dollar Question: "Why couldn't it happen to us?" Because I would have had no answer. Being a bad liar, I could not have sold any reason why this could not happen at her school because it could. And the lie would have fallen apart.

I've made sort of an uneasy peace with lying to the kids about this because, unlike "Stranger Danger," where I need to let them know there are people in the world who might hurt them so that they're less likely to be tricked, in this case, them knowing the truth serves no useful purpose. Knowing that it is, in fact, possible that some crazed gunman might one day decide that the students of their K-8 school are somehow to blame for all his problems and walk onto their campus and start shooting would do nothing to help prevent this from happening. All this knowledge would do is scare them needlessly. And so I accept that in this case, the lie was for the best.

But my logical reason for accepting the lie isn't the reason it came so easily to my lips in the first place. Like I said, I pretty much lack a decent brain-to-mouth filter. If someone asks me a question, I will automatically answer with what I believe to be true without taking a moment to consider whether that's the best thing to say. So for that answer to have popped out so effortlessly, it would have to mean that on some level I believe it. My head knows that it's a lie, but my heart puts its fingers in its ears and says "La la la, I can't hear you!"

This kind of willful naivety is nothing new to me. It's what allowed me to get on a plane less than two months after 9/11 without thinking twice about it beyond planning ahead for the longer security lines. It's what made me able to leave the hospital to go home and take care of two of my little toddlers when their brother was in ICU after he stopped breathing during a routine tonsillectomy. I was sure everything was going to be fine. Willful naivety--I know it's a lie, but I believe the lie anyway.

To be honest, I'm okay with believing the lie for the same reason I'm okay with telling the lie to my children. Because in these cases, the truth serves no useful purpose. Knowing that bad things can and do happen to anyone will not keep bad things from happening to me. And like my children, I choose to believe the lie without asking "Why not?" because I already know there is no answer. And that's where I'm not willfully naive. I get that I'm powerless, that nothing I do can prevent me from being the victim of the next act of random violence.

But what I see a lot of in the media is the desire to believe that lie, to believe that there is an answer to the question my daughter refused to ask: "Why couldn't it happen to us?" There's blame and finger-pointing and inquiries and a lot of smug assertions that if Campus Police/school officials/fill-in-the-blank hadn't screwed up, then everything would have been fine. The tragedy could have been prevented. It strikes me as similar to blaming a rape victim for wearing provocative clothes. It's not that she deserved what she got, oh no, of course not! It's just the comfort of knowing that it only happened because of something she did. And me, why, I'd do it differently, so that's why it couldn't happen to me.

Now I'm not arguing that we shouldn't look into what happened with an eye towards improvement or that we shouldn't learn whatever lessons history has to offer, but I am arguing against doing it with the kind of smug 20/20 hindsight that only serves to make us feel superior (and therefore safer) while heaping coals on the heads of those who most likely did the very best they could with the information they had at the time.

The truth is, tragedies happen and they can't always be prevented. The only person who could have stopped the Virginia Tech tragedy from happening is the young man who pulled the trigger. Not school authorities, not campus police, not anyone else. And that scares the hell out of us, because we have no control over the gunman. We want to believe that other factors, factors we can control are to blame, but they're not. Bad things happen to good people. This time, it happened to my friend's school. Eight years ago, it happened to another friend--from the same circle of friends--whose sister was a student at Columbine. Lightning struck not once but twice just within one group of people I know, and there is absolutely nothing that makes their schools any more likely targets than mine. Even the saying "There but for the grace of God go I" is a sort of blame game, as if I have God's grace but the students of Virginia Tech do not.

The problem with the blame game is that it inevitably results in cures that are worse than the disease. It's what makes us put up higher and higher walls around our houses and our schools and our country. It's what makes us justify getting the couple two rows up from us kicked off the plane for committing the unthinkable crime of daring to be Arab. It's what lets us wiretap and spy on each other and give up our freedoms little by little, sacrificing them on the altar of Security. Better safe than sorry, the adage goes, but in the name of security, we have only managed to make ourselves a lot sorrier without making ourselves actually safer because we can't. Even my 9-year-old knew better than to ask the question, "Why couldn't it be us?" because there is no answer, and we need to stop pretending there is.

We all have to believe some form of the lie or we wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning. But we need to choose which lie we believe very carefully, or we will find that our need to make the world a perfectly secure place will only succeed in making it one that isn't worth living in to begin with.