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Facing up to violence in America

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, America needs a day of mourning and reflection.

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"Turn on your TV," a friend instructed via e-mail. "Right now." So I did. And then I saw the murder and mayhem at Virginia Tech, where more than 30 people were gunned down Monday morning. I watched police officers storming buildings, rifles ready. Medics carried away the wounded and the dead. Dazed students embraced each other or looked blankly at the scrum of cameras, wearing empty stares of shock.

But I wasn't shocked. Upset, yes – but not shocked. And should shock all of us.

We have been here before, of course. The sites of prior school massacres are etched on our minds, a symbolic shorthand for the violence and malevolence that none of us can comprehend. Paducah, Ky. Springfield, Ore. And, most of all, Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

So it's hard to be shocked when you see it all again, unfolding in real time on television and the Internet. And it's hard to avoid the same facile questions – and the same superficial answers – that followed the other tragedies.

Whenever something like this happens, of course, everyone wants to know why. So they seize upon the particulars of the case, probing the killers' backgrounds and psyches: this one was bullied, that one used drugs, and so on. Or they make enormous generalizations about American culture, to suggest that we're all going to hell in a handbasket.

In the wake of Columbine, for example, prominent conservative Tom DeLay linked youth violence with the teaching of evolution in schools and "working mothers who take birth control pills." No less absurdly, some commentators tried to make violent video games the culprit, as if playing a few rounds of Grand Theft Auto makes you shoot up a school.

It's hard to know why a specific killer acted in the way he did. Rather than focusing narrowly upon this awful event, then, we should declare a National Day of Mourning and Reflection on Violence in America. Besides memorializing the dead, at Virginia Tech and elsewhere, this annual federal holiday would also seek to spark a national conversation about Americans as a people: who we are, and who we would like to become.

Why, we should ask, are the gunmen in school massacres almost always male? What does that tell us about the ways we socialize boys in America? About relations between the sexes? About the relationship between violence and manhood?

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