The deaths at Virginia Tech are a staggering tragedy. Thirty-two people got up and began an ordinary day, only to be cut down with terrible savagery. All of us are shaken. “How did it happen?” “How can something like that happen?” We try desperately to imbue this violence with meaning, whether it’s to look at larger social issues (gun control) or heroic acts of personal bravery. It affects us deeply — as it should. But it also reminds us about the nature of context, about sympathy and empathy, about tribalism.
The fact is, our daily news, way too often, is filled with stories of ordinary people dying violent, senseless deaths. They die en mass in Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Africa, India, Indonesia, Spain and more places than I can name off the top of my head. They die from bombs, earthquakes, airplane crashes, train wrecks, shipwrecks, and whatever other devices of death that man and nature can provide. With significant exceptions, such as the staggering death rate from Indonesian tsunami, we read of these deaths, feel a shudder of sympathy and, of necessity, move on.
Part of our ability to move on is, of course, compassion fatigue. Living in a wide world where bad stuff happens, we would become dysfunctional were every death in the world to be a wrenching emotional experience. However, if compassion fatigue were the whole answer, we wouldn’t be devastated by 32 deaths, on the other side of the continent, involving people we don’t actually know. That we are devastated is because we go beyond “mere” sympathy, into empathy. In Clinton-esque fashion, we feel these peoples’ pain.
But why do we feel their pain, when we feel only sad about, but don’t feel the pain of, 37 people killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad? I think it’s the nature of tribalism. We seem innately to divide the world into an “us” versus “them” pattern. Most people think of tribalism in warfare terms, in terms of the “us-es” fighting the “thems” for finite resources (or, at least, resources that one or both sides perceive as finite). We forget that this same binary thinking also works at the compassion level. People I know, or that I could know, people who live as I do, or almost as I do, are going to excite more sympathy from me, because I assume that, not only do they live as I do, but they feel as I do. Their loss, their pain, are exquisitely similar to mine.
Or, to put it differently, and more simply, when people die in Virginia, I feel “There but for the grace of God go I.” When people die in Iraq, I think “Thank God I’m an American, not an Iraqi.” The latter deaths I can place at an emotional distance, the former I cannot.
And so, selfishly or not, when someone dies on my soil, on American land, in a context intimately familiar to me, an American college, the fear and sadness I feel is immediate, not academic. It turns out, that in death, as in everything else, context matters.
UPDATE: Here’s James Taranto’s take on why incidents such as yesterday’s shooting at Virginia Tech are particularly hurtful and personal:
For those of us whose job it is to have opinions, an event like yesterday’s massacre at Virginia Tech is a bigger challenge than, say, a terrorist attack. The murder of 32 people by South Korea native Cho Seung-hui is no less evil than massacres carried out by suicide bombers or hijackers, but it is harder to comprehend. Terrorism is carried out by an organized enemy with a political agenda; we can rally to defeat the enemy. The Virginia Tech shooter seems to have been a lone nut. He murdered all those people only to render his own life a nullity by committing suicide in the end.
As is so often the case when he writes, I think he makes an excellent point.
UPDATE II: Speaking of context, here’s a low key headline that 127 people died in Iraq. That’s 127 lives snuffed out, 127 people ripped apart on a sunny morning. We note it in passing and, with sadness, we think “Thank God I’m in America, not in Iraq.” Nevertheless, we don’t spend an obsessive day repeatedly going back to the story for more information, we don’t talk about it over the water cooler, and it doesn’t dominate the news. It’s sad, but it’s not our tribe.