Sadly, mass killings are no longer shocking

President Bush declared Americans shocked. Buckingham Palace said Queen Elizabeth was shocked. Former Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick expressed shock. According to press reports, world leaders from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Canada said they were shocked, and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing sent a telegram to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressing shock. Officials of Micron Inc., the semiconductor company that has donated generously to the engineering department at Virginia Tech, said they were shocked, too.

But I am not shocked.


And I am not alone.

President Bush's speechwriter might have thought "shocked" was an appropriate word, but I don't believe it is an honest description of how most Americans -- those of us not directly affected by the nightmare at Virginia Tech -- feel this week.


"Saddened" was the other word the president chose, and that was a better choice. Certainly, sadness is something all of us feel at the horrible waste of so many young and promising lives in a center of higher learning. You probably feel some anger about all this, too.

But shock?

Not shock -- not for those of us who have been living in this nation and paying attention.

If you are of a certain age -- and I don't mean 50 or older, I mean 15 or older -- you have already seen and heard enough to conclude that such outbursts of violence are inevitable and here to stay.

The death toll at Virginia Tech gives this incident a grotesque distinction.

But whether it was two children shot in a crossfire on a Baltimore drug corner, or 10 shot at random around the D.C. Beltway, or 13 at a Colorado high school, or five in an Amish schoolhouse, or 32 at a university, I am no longer shocked.

I want to feel shock.

I want to feel stunned.


But instead I feel numb.

And guilty.

Guilty that I feel numb.

Guilty that my generation has not done more to stem the violence in American culture and guilty that, in fact, we have allowed our children's world to become drenched in violence -- real, cinematic, digital.

It's everywhere.

We thought there would be more gun control after JFK was assassinated, and again after RFK and MLK were assassinated, and again after Ronald Reagan was shot, and again after Columbine. We thought Martin Luther King's message of nonviolence would become a national credo, particularly after the Vietnam War. We thought there would be a progressive understanding of mental illness, so that those our society once cruelly institutionalized would be able to live among the rest of us while getting the care they needed. We thought there were would be universal coverage by now, and a generally healthier society. We thought technology would give us a "global village," with more of us connected, and fewer of us living in unhealthy isolation.


But where are we?

Where have we progressed? What kind of a society are we leaving to our children?

I hate these feelings, and I hate to betray them in print because, for one thing, my own kids sometimes read this column.

But since Monday, I have been reflecting on this, watching and listening to others -- young and middle-aged and old -- react to the Virginia Tech shootings.

And so I conclude that I'm not alone in these grim feelings.

I like to think of myself as an idealist. I don't deny the present world, but I stay alive by dreaming of a better one.


It's when we get here -- at the crucible of American pathologies, and the violent, thousand-headed monster that rises from it -- that I am pessimistic.

I believe violence is something we have accepted, can't do anything about.

We're in denial about how the massive amount of guns across the continent contribute to crime and violence, and we refuse to regulate them uniformly and strictly enough that disturbed people don't get their hands on them.

"He was a nice, clean-cut college kid," John Markell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Markell is the owner of the Virginia gun shop where Cho Seung-Hui bought a Glock 19 handgun last month. "We won't sell a gun if we have any idea at all that a purchase is suspicious."

Markell added: "A gun is just a tool. I regret he used it improperly."

Right. Just a tool, and with an attractive feature -- Glocks can be reloaded quickly; once emptied of their numerous rounds, the magazines drop from under the grip with the mere push of a button. Jack Bauer does it all the time on 24.


In light of the number of fellow students and faculty members he killed Monday, reports have speculated that Cho Seung-Hui might have used high-capacity magazines in his weapons. The federal assault-weapons ban of 1994 addressed this, limiting magazines to 10 rounds. But, of course, Congress let that ban die a couple of years ago, and I doubt we'll see the subject revisited again.

The gun lobby has won. The debate is over. Our nation bristles with guns.

We also have 48 million citizens --roughly one-sixth of the population -- without health insurance, and we have to assume that the profoundly mentally ill, including those who are potentially violent, are among those who go without proper care. There are many human time bombs in our midst.

And there's plenty of violence on TV and DVD and Xbox to fill minds, ill or impressionable, with even more ugly ideas.

Sad is the word, not shocked.