Friday, April 20, 2007

The Virginia Tech Tragedy and Japan...

When something truly horrible happens overseas, the news penetrates almost everywhere. In America, the news media rarely covers foreign countries unless their citizens are committing genocide, or starving to death, or getting washed away by mighty tsunamis. So it goes with America in the news here in Japan.

My first year in Japan, the Columbine murders popped up frequently in conversations, both personal and in the Nova voice room. Many Japanese people I've met are fascinated by this image of America- that all Americans own guns, that America is a dangerous place.

"Do you own a gun?" they asked me. "Have you ever fired a gun?"

And being the truthful sort, I'd answer "No" to the first question and "Fairly often" to the second, explain that in Georgia hunting is a popular sport and describe my father's personal gun collection. I also took care to emphasize his absolute insistence on gun safety and the fact that we rarely saw those guns at home.

And we were absolutely forbidden to touch them. Because of the way both my parents expressed this household law, I never felt the lure of "forbidden fruit." Maybe I had more common sense than the average kid. Once something was explained to me as dangerous, I was content to leave it be.

I always felt my father preferred fishing to hunting (fishing seemed to fit the more gentle aspects of his character) and he was unsentimental in many ways about animals and guns alike, maybe because of his farm upbringing. Both existed for him in a completely utilitarian way. He didn't take his guns out to fondle them or show them off- they stayed hidden away, only to appear for one of his yearly hunting trips to north Georgia, or in the case of his .22 automatic, for protection against water mocassins and copperheads on fishing trips.

He didn't often force me to do things, but he did make me take a hunter's safety course.

Therefore, I can't understand gun culture, or the fetishization of firearms, or this desire to flash a gun and show it off to friends. Whether or not you believe gun ownership is a necessity, playing with them never is. They are deadly tools and having been present for one frightening gun accident... I really prefer not to be around people who play with firearms, especially when they're compelled to do so. It's foolish.

I always took great care to explain this to the Nova students. I have had to revisit this speech several times this week at my current school.

Of course these negative stereotypes get reinforced whenever something like the tragedy at Virginia Tech unfolds, or something happens to a Japanese national who's living in or visiting the U.S.; for example, to hear people here tell it you'd think Hattori Yoshihiro, who was shot to death in Baton Rouge in 1992, was killed just last week. I think America does its own stereotyping, with organizations like the NRA creating and enhancing suburban paranoia and filmmakers like Michael Moore creating other distortions in order to further their own political agendas.

However... these massacres are mystifying to people here. It's almost incomprehensible. It's not that murders don't happen here. The same day people entered hell in Virginia, the yakuza boss of Nagasaki assassinated city mayor Ito Iccho.

With a gun.

As the mayor of one of only 2 cities in the world attacked with atomic weapons, Ito was a nuclear disarmament crusader who traveled the world promoting peace. The man who shot him was the leader of Nagasaki's branch of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime family, Japan's largest. He was angry because the city wouldn't pay to repair his car after he drove it into a hole and damaged it. What the pro-peace mayor's culpability was in someone's stupid traffic accident, I'll never know.

So, yes, gun murders can happen anywhere... even in safe little Japan. It's just that in a society where guns are largely banned and not even particularly desired (although realistic toy model guns are surprisingly popular), the mentality that goes into shooting and killing another human being, or a culture that romanticizes such killings is alien and difficult to comprehend. Columbine and Virginia Tech are impossible here.

But you can have things like Aum's March 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway, where a doomsday cult murdered 12 and injured hundreds of others (some permanently) with homemade sarin gas.

While guns can make it easier to kill large numbers of people in short periods of time, we should also remember that like in the Aum attack, they're not an absolute necessity. Oklahoma City was perpetrated with fertilizer-based bombs and the September 11th attacks were carried out with box-cutters and, ultimately, airplanes.

So to me, murder isn't just a lone crazy person's problem, or a gun problem, or even an atomic bomb problem. It's a human problem. Something possesses us to kill, and not only to kill, but to justify it beforehand or in its aftermath. Religion, politics, personal slights. These are all stupid reasons to do what should be as unthinkable and alien everywhere as it is in my classroom, or a Nova voice room.

My heart goes out to the victims' families, and also the killer's family. I feel horrible for all of them. I can't imagine what it must feel like to lose a friend or loved one in something as senseless and stupid as this. I can't imagine what it must be like to be related to someone who would do something like this.

I think the family deserves our understanding and sympathy. They are victims in this too, and in some ways the betrayal they faced is the worst of all. At least the rest of us can give vent to self-righteous rage, or engage in sensitive introspection. The gunman's family, though?

Those poor people. He fired as many bullets into their hearts and souls.


John said...

Wow, Joel, I didn't realize you are form Georgia! I'm from Savannah, myself. Small world!

John said...

Now that I've read the second half (sorry about the silly off the cuff previous comment!) . . .

This is very powerful. I assume you have also heard about the NASA incident.

I have heard several radio programs - liberal style NPR programs - about how the message of all this is that the mentally ill need to be watched and weeded out - some are of the opinion that colleges should not accept them. It's all very tragic, partly for the incidents themselves, but also for the aftermath that seems so disorderly and poised to set up further horrors through fear and gut reactions.

I talk a bit about this and the research in such things on my blog this morning.