There’s only one certainty here. This will happen again.

We all hope not at our schools. And when the news breaks, we will hope that no one we know was involved, that the shooter wasn’t moving among our friends and colleagues, wasn’t studying anything in our area, wasn’t anything like anyone we’ve ever known or been. It is sure to be a loner or set of loners, ostracized, picked on, at a moment of great stress—the end of the semester or the end of the year, with graduation or some equally significant transition looming on the horizon. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, wasn’t a computer scientist, an engineer, a mathematician. He was an English major, a creative writer who handed in violent screeds, illicitly photographed women in his classes, tripped alarms wherever he sat and glowered.

Are these the details that should most concern us at this time?

* * *

On September 17, 2002, the Bush administration released The National Security Strategy of the United States. This document articulates the administration’s commitment to preemption in the newly declared global war on terror. President Bush opens with this declaration: “In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action.” In the fifth section of the document, we come to learn that “action” in this new context means “proactive counterproliferation efforts” and “effective consequence management to respond to the effects of WMD use, whether by terrorists or hostile states.” This is governmental prose at its most elegant and nimble; this is language being evacuated of its power to signify right before our eyes.

This policy of preemptive retaliation didn’t originate in the Bush White House. We tend to forget that on August 20, 1988, Bill Clinton approved the launching of seventy-nine cruise missiles into the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in an effort to bring down Osama bin Laden. That the missiles didn’t find their target goes without saying. The missiles fired into Khartoum flattened a pharmaceutical plant with no military value, but this story never captured the nation’s attention. Monica Lewinsky’s dress, Ken Starr’s obsession: these details were scrupulously investigated instead.

* * *

In advance of the Bush administration’s official declaration of the government’s commitment to pre-emptive retaliation, then-defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld bid viewers of CBS’s Face the Nation to imagine “a September 11 with weapons of mass destruction. It’s not three thousand; it’s tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.” Then-national security adviser (now secretary of state) Condoleezza Rice informed viewers of CNN’s Late Edition that “the problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” And Vice President Cheney informed attendees at the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ 103rd National Convention that, “simply stated, Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”

Fear bends everything it encounters into evidence supporting the absolute necessity of maintaining and nourishing the very state of being afraid. Fear is a narcotic.

Seung-Hui Cho was afraid, too.

* * *

What follows is common knowledge.

On October 16, 2002, President Bush signed the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq Resolution of 2002. This resolution was passed in the House by a vote of 296–133 and in the Senate by a vote of 77–23, including affirmative votes by Senators Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, and Kerry. All but the last have since become 2008 presidential candidates from the Democratic Party. Affirmative votes were also cast by Senators Brownback, McCain, and Thompson, all of whom are 2008 presidential candidates from the Republican Party. This vote effectively gave President Bush the green light to proceed with plans for invading Iraq.

On March 20, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced. On May 1, 2003, President Bush appeared on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, stationed off the coast of California, and declared, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Behind him, a banner reading Mission Accomplished responded to the ocean’s gentle breeze. More than four years later, fear’s intoxicating effects are everywhere in evidence.

Empowered by the USA Patriot Act, which the Senate approved 98–1 on October 25, 2001, and which was signed into law by President Bush the next day, the FBI has taken advantage of its new powers to obtain phone, Internet, and library records without notifying the target of an investigation or establishing, before any objective body, grounds for suspicion. Although this may, at first, seem an outrageous abuse of power, it is, in fact, simply a logical extension of the preemptive retaliation doctrine. Here, the government seizes the right to preemptively investigate anyone who is now, or might someday be, opposed to the abolition of the nation’s civil liberties. For surely, who but someone with something to hide would object in these imperiled times to granting the government free access to one’s mail, one’s phone conversations, one’s library records.

In December 2005, then-attorney general Alberto Gonzales verified that the National Security Agency, under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was actively conducting warrantless wiretaps to “engage in surveillance of communications where one party is outside the United States, and where we have a reasonable basis to conclude that one of the parties of the communication is either a member of al Qaeda or affiliated with al Qaeda.”

Despite rising concern about the erosion of the right to privacy under the Patriot Act, Congress voted to renew a modified version of the act in March 2006. Senators Biden, Brownback, Clinton, Dodd, Kerry, McCain, and Obama all sided with the majority. (By this time, John Edwards and Fred Thompson were no longer members of the Senate.) After much seeming debate, Congress voted to expand the reach of warrantless wiretapping in August 2007 by a vote of 60–28. Now officially candidates for the presidency, Senators Biden, Clinton, Dodd, and Obama all voted with the minority. Senators Kerry and McCain did not vote.

Under the circumstances, feelings of frustration, betrayal, powerlessness, and despair aren’t uncommon.

* * *

In the classroom, life goes on much as it did before. There are a few students in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a few folks with friends or relatives deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but, for the most part, in the Age of the All-Volunteer Armed Forces, those who go don’t have a rich network of connections to the university, the House, or the Senate. To date, the only casualty to stay in the news for more than an evening or two lost his life in Afghanistan as a result, it turns out, of friendly fire. An investigation of the army cover-up of this event drags on.

The War is out there, somewhere, a vague and threatening presence, a point of reference in a mass of coursework, papers, and assignments. Much of this classwork makes anything from a nod to a deep bow in the direction of multiculturalism.

Is the government another culture? The military? Are the major political parties? And where exactly do the mentally ill fit in the multi-cultural curriculum? As we think, teach, and talk about cultural difference, what are we to do with those who, by dint of their biochemical makeup, their neurology, or both, find themselves in our classrooms but beyond the reach of our words? That we are not prepared for these encounters goes without saying; mental illness effloresces in many forms, including behavior that is idiosyncratic, extravagant, doggedly focused, actively, even obsessively, conventional, dictatorial, autocratic, or outright dangerous. All these behavior patterns occur among the neuro-normal as well.

There’s no question that Seung-Hui Cho stood out from the crowd,that he was a threatening, scary presence. Early on in his college career, efforts to use the legal system to restrain him were initiated; these faltered and then failed. Ignoring a court order that he receive mental health treatment as an out-patient, Cho returned to the safety of the university and sunk further into madness. As Christopher Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center to which Cho was referred, explained to the Washington Post in the aftermath of the massacre,“When a court gives a mandatory order that someone get out-patient treatment, that order is to the individual, not an agency.” In other words, it is up to the mentally ill individual to get himself to the outpatient facility and to make the court order known upon his arrival. If the patient never shows, no one’s the wiser.

With the National Security Advisory System’s threat level stuck at “elevated,” Seung-Hui Cho slipped through the gaps in the security net and on at least four separate occasions early in 2007 was able to purchase the firearms and munitions used in his assault.

Given this, one might say that we are living in a time where our civil liberties are shrinking and our ability to arm ourselves is increasing. This is the logic of fear working itself out at the level of practice.

* * *

The problems that confront us now outstrip the ability of any one person or organization or political party or nation to generate workable solutions. Indeed, today’s major problems all share the same outsized modifier: the global economy; global warming; global terror. As the Internet and the marketplace continue to commingle peoples, desires, conflicts, and opportunities, the frenetic pace of change accelerates, dragging in its wake an ever-increasing sense of impending doom. The markets will collapse. The damage to the environment is irreversible. We’re one border guard away from Armageddon.

In the rush to know the end of the story in everything from the War on Terror to the meaning of one’s life to the nation’s role in the global future, something crucial has been missed. Indeed, every time we relate our movement through time as a story, whether that story casts the main characters as “evildoers” or liberators, we ensure that the very essence of reality is hidden from view. The future is unknown; it is not out there waiting to happen or to be revealed or to be fulfilled; it is created by our actions in the current moment.

As an alternative to pre-emptive retaliation, which claims to know in advance what the future holds, those of us in the teaching professions have the option of committing ourselves to providing our students and colleagues with proactive training in the arts of remaining calm in times of calamitous change. This doesn’t mean making sure everyone knows what to do when the gunman is at the door; that’s a question for the folks in emergency-response training. Our job is to establish an environment that promotes reflection and to provide our students with multiple opportunities to experience mental acts that take them to the edge of the unknown. That is, before we have our students argue for or against a given position, we need to teach them the finer arts of deliberation, speculation, and meditation.The function of the humanities is to provide such instruction. Those of us who work in the humanities can do a much better job of fulfilling this role by committing ourselves to showing our students that there are ways to respond to the unknown other than lashing out in frustration. To counter the instinctive tendency to react to the unknown with pre-emptive judgments about others, we can illustrate the challenges and the opportunities that come from living in a multi-perspectival world. If we are to realize this goal, we will have to set aside the profession’s obsession with critique and devote ourselves, instead, to providing students with concrete opportunities to engage in the creative work of generating local, temporary solutions in an imperfect world.

It turns out that creating such opportunities is not so difficult. For the past couple of years, I’ve been offering courses in which I ask my students to “read in slow motion.” Instead of a curriculum packed with reading assignments, the students have worked slowly through an extended piece of nonfiction prose. Moving back and forth through the long essay, the students learn to focus, to follow the rise and fall of detail, to attend to the moment of the moment. And what happens next is all but inevitable: the act of reading in slow motion opens out onto a fresh world of connections and possibilities beyond the classroom walls. For this is what seeing the world through the eyes of another entails—a mixture of imagination, creativity, and the search for a deeper understanding.

If we are to offer an alternative to the violent options that are now always just a click away, then we’ve got to foster an equally powerful counter-experience—one that cultivates optimism and resourcefulness and resilience. Confronting the limits of one’s own understanding is a scary business, but this is the task that lies forever before all who are committed to the life of the mind. A tolerance for ambiguity, patience in the face of uncertainty, calm while the earth moves beneath one’s feet: these are the attributes of a mature mind, attributes that can be acquired through introspection and then expressed through action in the world we have, a world always just outside the reach of full understanding.

We cannot wait for better, more responsible leaders to emerge. And we shouldn’t expect the drumbeat for terror to diminish if there is a change in the party in power next year. These are the conditions in which we find ourselves. But these are the very conditions that the life of the mind should prepare us to confront, for surely the true value of education is realized in the moment that the illusion of predetermination is dispelled and the horizon of action appears.

Our future is now.

(Published in Academe, November-December, 2007)

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November 24, 2010

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