Opinion » Bill Cope

Virginia Real

A plague of quiet boys in our house


I could be cynical about it, easily. And given a few more days, I'm sure I will be. It's my nature to relate one event to another when they involve the same broad features—for instance, the senseless deaths of young people, in the many ways that comes. Cynicism is born from irony, and irony is born either when like events coincide with different responses, or when unlike events coincide with the same response.

I'm not alone in reacting to horrible news with irony. Within 36 hours of the killings in Virginia, I heard one pundit comment how ironic it is that we, our nation, can show such a depth of genuine sympathy and sorrow and shock for those 32 Virginia victims, yet can virtually ignore the fact that in the 10-day period prior to their murders, 32 of our soldiers died by violence in Iraq. Same number. Same ages. Same aspirations. Same senselessness.

It happens all the time. We tighten in on one murdered woman from some place we've never been and follow the story like she's our own kin, even while dozens of other women go murdered, unnoticed, across the country. We vicariously join the search for one little missing kid, even while dozens of other little kids go missing, unnoticed. There's no mystery in why we do it. We simply are not built strongly enough to grieve over everyone, all at once, all the time. I suspect irony (and its offspring, cynicism) is our mechanism for acknowledging those others, the unnoticed ones we simply don't have the capacity to feel for.

So I've no doubt the cynicism will come to me in time. Already—as I write, only 48 hours after the mayhem—I'm wondering how many more parents' prides and joys will have to be buried, how many more impromptu shrines will rise on the blood stains of the slaughtered, before our leaders have the courage to face down those bullies and fools who make it their business to arm the killers and madmen.

But at the moment, as I watch a father speak of his bright, fallen daughter ... a brother try to capture the essence of his lost brother in a handful of words ... a mother try to hold herself together long enough to tell us how wonderful and funny and promising her son was ... I will not allow myself to become too cynical. Not yet. Right now—still fewer than two days after the full horror of it became generally known—is one of those rare occasions when our country should all feel exactly the same. It is one of the few times when I want to belong. When I want to include myself in what those fathers and brothers and mothers are going through. When I and you and all of us can maybe take on some of their burden, their grief, and maybe make it a little more bearable because they'll know an entire land mourns with them.

It's also one of those fleeting moments when I—and you and all of us who still have our children safe at home with us—must question what kind of country we're sending them into.

I'm a little over a year away from watching my daughter leave for college. I won't be going with her. She has to do it alone. Her mother and I have done everything we could. She knows to look both ways before crossing the street. She knows to not talk to strangers and to never get into a car with a drunk behind the wheel. She knows to not play with matches or guns and to not smoke cigarettes. She's far enough along that if she wants to play a violent video game or listen to a threatening lyric, I won't stop her. I must trust she's learned real from unreal, right from wrong, safe from unsafe. There's nothing more I can do to make her realize how vulnerable she is, how suddenly her future could be switched off. I didn't even have to teach her that someday, possibly, she could be chained into a college classroom and shot to death by a madman. She learned that on her own, just this week.

I couldn't possibly have taught her such a thing. I've never imagined such a thing could be a possibility, not until just this week. Same with Columbine. Prior to that, I could never have warned her to be on the watch for disturbed classmates with semi-automatic weapons in her school cafeteria. That was a new one on all of us, wasn't it?

That's the thing. It seems like the quiet boy who never gets noticed until his madness erupts ... the disturbed classmate who no one takes seriously until he opens fire ... that faceless mute we pass unnoticed until the day he delegates a gun to do the talking for him ... that boy has a better imagination than we parents do. What we can't conceive of, he can. We can never anticipate him. We can never guess what he might do next. Once he sets off down such a deadly road, he'll always be a step ahead.

Heavier security can accomplish only so much. Security measures are always an afterthought—something we wished we'd thought of doing before the unthinkable happened. Besides, security, by its nature, is to keep something horrible out, and this horror is born within, a fire smoldering in the walls of our home while we sleep. These quiet boys are our doing. In some way, we are making them.

I don't pretend to know how we are making them, or how to find them, perhaps heal them, before they go beyond the potential to be healed. Nor can I pretend to care as much about them as I do my daughter. But I know this: I have spent the last 17 years protecting her in every way I could imagine—putting medicines and poisons and firearms beyond her reach, watching her closely while she played outside on the lawn, trying to look ahead for the dreadful possibilities. Any decent parent would say the same: It's been my highest duty and my highest joy to keep her safe. And I refuse to give up now and deliver her over to blind luck when there must be more we can do. There must be.

We have wasted so much of our time, our resources, our young people and our values, in vain attempts to reshape the rest of the world in our image. Yet in our own land, in our own body, we still have little notion as to what makes these faceless, quiet boys go mad. What lessons about real and unreal, right and wrong, safe and unsafe, did they miss? Is it too cynical to suggest there might be something in our national heart that corrupts them so thoroughly and turns them into such accomplished monsters? And isn't our highest duty, our nation's first calling, to figure it out? To fix it? It's become apparent to this father that if we don't attend to the well-being of all our children, especially the quiet boys, none of them will be safe.