VT Vigils Make Us Ignore Other Tragedies

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VT Vigils Make Us Ignore Other Tragedies

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Commentary
By Philip Grant

Dear Chancellor Drake,


My most heartfelt sympathies are also with those affected by the terrible events of last week at Virginia Tech.


I write to you nonetheless not merely to share my sympathies with you, but to express my anger. I am deeply disturbed by the message you have sent to the community of UC Irvine. My misgivings lie at two levels.


Firstly, I do not understand why the victims of the massacre at Virginia Tech are alone deemed worthy of special e-mail messages from the chancellor of the university, of candlelight vigils and so on. Consider the following statistics:


Wednesday, April 18, 2007, Baghdad, Iraq: 200 dead in six separate bombings.


March 6, 2007, Hilla, Iraq: 90 dead in two bombings.


Feb. 3, 2007, Baghdad, Iraq: 130 dead in a single bombing.


Dec. 2, 2006, Baghdad, Iraq: 50 dead in a single bombing.


Nov. 23, 2006, Baghdad, Iraq: 200 dead in a series of bombings.


These are only the major "incidents" of losses of civilian life in Iraq in the eight months since I have been at UCI. I do not recall any e-mail messages inviting us to candlelight vigils on their behalf. I do not recall that they were even considered worthy of a single second of serious reflection on any of our parts. Perhaps we are overcome by a surfeit of suffering: Whether one Iraqi dies or 100 is all the same to us, since there are just too many deaths for us to comprehend. What need solidarity, therefore? Yet the "families and friends of the victims" of the more than 60,000 Iraqi civilians (Iraq Body Count, reported deaths only) or the 100,000 to 150,000 Iraqi civilians (Iraqi Ministry of Health), or the 655,000 Iraqi civilians ("The Lancet") that have been killed since the beginning of the war - could we but speak with them face to face - might have something to teach us concerning what it means to be confronted with suffering on an unimaginable scale. Perhaps we can no longer muster the humility required to look on them and listen in attentive silence.


What happens to our sense of solidarity, our compassion, our shared humanity, when we turn our attention from Virginia to Iraq? No doubt: The candle-flame of our sympathies is quickly extinguished by the chill currents of the Atlantic.


Secondly, I am astonished that I am being told that "our nation" is in "stunned sorrow," that "everyone at UCI and across the nation" is affected by this tragedy. I remember being very impressed during my TA training when I first came to UCI by the instructors who taught us of the importance of being sensitive as teachers to the great diversity of the UCI community, to the wonderful variety of origins and backgrounds of the people we would be teaching or with whom we would be interacting during our careers here. I hope I have taken this lesson to heart and that I practice it during every waking hour of my time here.


Yet I find that the chancellor of the university is appealing to my sympathies as part of "our nation," and I do not know how to react, except with sorrow.


I am not of your nation! If I were in a minority of one, then perhaps I would shrug my shoulders and let these words pass. But I am not: There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of students, staff, and faculty at UCI who are not of "our nation"; we are grateful for the opportunities we have here, and we strive as hard as anyone to contribute to this community. Have you forgotten this? Am I - are we - not part of this community too? May we not express our sympathies and solidarity for the victims of the Virginia massacre, not because we are members of "our nation," but because as human beings we know that those who died in Virginia had faces like us, because we can imagine ourselves as others who are like us? "We are, on a fundamental level, all members of one community," you write. Does this truly mean "all" of us, or only those of us who are part of "our nation"? The answer must be the first: "Our nation" has no role to play in how we commemorate and mourn this tragedy.


Why is it, in this community that is so palpably diverse, in this country where people have as many origins as there are stars in the sky, that we have to resort to the exclusionary rhetoric of "our nation"? Why mourn those who died and commiserate with those who remain on the grounds that they too are part of "our nation," when we could instead speak in a spirit so much more generous and hospitable, so much more open and humane: We mourn those who died not because they were like us and of us, but because they were like us and yet different from us. Surely ethics starts not with ourselves, but with others.


I remember only too vividly how, after Sept. 11, young people in Iran poured into the streets and held spontaneous candlelight vigils for those who died in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, without it ever occurring to them that they should only mourn those who were of "their nation." Strange thought! It is the "Axis of Evil" that teaches the "land of the free" respect for others, and not the other way round, whatever we might expect. We know what follows, and perhaps now at last, however obscurely, we begin to glimpse an answer - a troubling answer - to the question a very great man posed nearly two millennia ago:


"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?"


I did not attend the candlelight vigil on Monday, April 23, not because I do not wish to express my solidarity with the victims of the massacre in Virginia, but because I cannot express my solidarity with them while excluding those who are not of "our nation," those who die like cattle in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere.


However, from the time I went to bed that Monday night until the time I woke up on Wednesday morning, I abstained from all food and drink except tap water, as part of what the French call a "jeûne d'interpellation," an untranslatable phrase that means something like a fast designed to call people's attention to a problem. I wish to call our attention to the selectivity of our solidarity and compassion, to ask us all not to quench our candlelight in the sea but to bear it aloft in memory of all those who die a violent death anywhere, just as the young women and men of Iran have taught us. I am not expecting to change the world by this one tiny action; perhaps all I can hope for is to make people stop and reflect, if only for a second, on the fact that our community extends well beyond Virginia.


Philip Grant is a graduate student in the department of anthropology.

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Original Source:<a href=http://www.newuniversity.org/showArticle.php?id=5791>New University - April 30, 2007</a>

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Philip Grant

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New University

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2007-08-19

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Sara Hood

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Zachary Gale <newueic@gmail.com>

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eng

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Philip Grant, "VT Vigils Make Us Ignore Other Tragedies," in The April 16 Archive, Item #1140, http://april16archive.org/items/show/1140 (accessed August 21, 2014).