Violence comes home

My typing is a little slow today.

My hands, my arms—they’re heavy, like a great weight is pressing down on them, slowing their productivity. I’m having trouble seeing the screen through a constant stream of tears. My hands shake as I try feebly to type. So forgive me in advance if this comes across as lacking a certain finesse. It’s been a trying time for your humble columnist.

Violence has permeated our society in a way that I’m sure I’ll never understand. Like so many others, death and destruction was something that only happened to “others,” a group of people that are mysterious unknowns. I spent my working career (before returning to school) as a hospice worker, and death and sickness was something that I was intimately familiar with.

But not violence. Not until Thursday.

My academic trajectory began at Umpqua Community College many years ago. A crappy student, I bounced from class to class, from program to program. Like a bee trying to find the perfect flower, I tried to find the path that best married my interests with the ability to actually make a living. Part of this process led me to the office of a wonderful instructor, a bright, beautiful professor who encouraged me to apply to the school as a writing tutor. After following her advice and being offered the position, I began to glean a new understanding of the challenges, the difficulties and the rewards that instructors encountered every day.

People who teach for a living are amazing, dedicated public servants. They spend their lives working with others to build strong citizens and a strong community. Oftentimes putting their own financial and mental welfare secondary, they strive to help others in ways that I’m not sure those who are not born teachers can understand. I know I certainly didn’t. These dedicated people put, in so many ways, the weight of the world on their shoulders and offer a future to those that will inherit the reins of our society. Their lives are deeply intertwined in so many other lives, their efforts and toils felt, like the ripples in a pond, throughout an entire community. Sometimes these ripples are large, obvious and striking. Other times they are small and subtle, their effects only notable under close scrutiny. But make no mistake, these ripples are there.

These ripples do not just originate with instructors. If the instructors are the heart of higher education, then the students are the soul. As cliche as that may appear, there is much truth in that analysis. Students give a campus life, a personality, a raison d’etre.

The events of that Thursday morning don’t just hit close to home. They are home. They happened in a classroom I frequented—where I learned to write a business proposal and where I learned to conjugate Spanish verbs. They happened where I sat and discussed the future with my fellow classmates, dreaming of the day we could reap the rewards of our toils. It happened to people I know, people I worked with and people I care about.

The shooting at UCC wasn’t an abstract, distant event. The Friday after the shooting, I sat in the lobby of a hospital talking with friends old and new, people who were connected not only by our friendship but by our friendship to a wonderful, amazing woman who came within moments and millimeters of having her life ended by a madman. We talked about how dedicated she had been to her community and to the people in it, devoting her life to helping others both professionally and personally. Several floors above us, our friend lay in the Intensive Care Unit hanging onto life by only the finest of threads. Unable to actually visit her in person, we did the only thing we could: We talked about what had transpired while trying to find some rationale in an event where rationality has no presence.

We live in a society that in many ways glorifies and excuses violence. “Kill everyone and let God sort them out” was an oft-heard mantra during the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We need to bomb ISIS into a pool of molten glass!” say the war hawks. Bumper stickers with a “terrorist hunting permit” logo are a common sight on vehicles in southern Oregon, and I’m sure in many other places in our country. We have become a people that does not truly value human life. We think Matthew 5:39 applies to other people and are constantly bombarded with propaganda that supports that narrow view: how we need to “protect” our homes and our cars and our jobs from those that may not have the same values or religion—and the only way to do that is to dehumanize “others.” We value our lifestyle and our comfort at all costs—even if it costs the lives of other human beings.

Today, as my friend lies in a coma in the ICU after a madman filled her classroom with blood and death, my Facebook feed has lit up with arguments about guns and Second Amendment rights, how Obama shouldn’t politicize the issue and how the problem isn’t guns but rather the lack of valuing human life. But our society considers violence the answer to our problems. The man who killed nine people at UCC saw violence as an answer to his problems. To think he was an aberration is willfully ignorant and is indeed part of the problem we are facing.

Until we collectively agree that all lives have value and that violence is the answer to absolutely nothing, these horrific crimes will continue. Many people who read this will not agree with that. Those same people don’t agree that our society not only condones but encourages violence. But it does, and until that changes the bloody scene on a quiet college campus will happen again and again—and again and again will our society refuse to judge itself or hold itself accountable.