Sometimes, a little time must pass before we can gain some perspective on the events in our lives and our world. This is especially true in the wake of a tragedy, when the sheer horror of things can make calm deliberation next to impossible. The heartbreak of Virginia Tech is still fresh in our minds, but it is time to consider its ramifications on our lives as Americans.
The dilemma surrounding Virginia Tech is a microcosm of that faced by the entire country – what freedoms, if any, should we sacrifice in the name of safety? As members of a free society, how much do we alter our daily lives in acknowledgement of the world's dangers? And perhaps most profoundly, if we sacrifice too much, will we still be able to recognize ourselves as a people?
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government's answer has been simple and direct: Be afraid, be very afraid. The combination of legislation and executive action emanating from 9/11 has eroded the writ of habeas corpus (the right of Americans to not be held in prison without being charged with a crime); vastly increased the government's ability to monitor the lives of Americans, in many cases without a search warrant; and has embroiled us in a foreign war which, in addition to being unconnected to 9/11, has by every measure exacerbated the tensions that helped lead to the attacks and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. And to make matters worse, Hurricane Katrina exposed the dark underbelly of class and race in America, as well as the seeming unwillingness of the establishment to intervene.
Many of the responses to the Virginia Tech tragedy have been similar – some have advocated turning college campuses into virtual police states, while others have claimed that the shooter could have been stopped early in his rampage if only his fellow students had been armed. Be afraid, be very afraid.
In my opinion, the mindset behind these responses – both to the Virginia Tech shooting and to the larger question of terrorism – is one that leads us in the wrong direction, away from our birthright as Americans and away from the ideals of intellectual freedom and collective responsibility embodied by colleges and universities.
Should we be wary? Should we have a healthy respect for the dangers that beset us in the modern world? Absolutely, we should. But at what cost? Is our society worth defending if, in so doing, we slide inexorably down the slippery slope toward authoritarianism? Can we rightly claim to be the defenders of freedom in the world if we foster an environment that is ever more paranoid, more fearful, more restrictive? Are colleges and universities still bastions of discourse and intellectual exchange if they become high-security enclaves?
We have at our disposal two distinct and powerful advantages – a flexible form of government designed to withstand the ebb and flow of internal and external pressures; and, more importantly, a culture, shaped by that government, that is inclined toward openness, tolerance, and freedom. The way forward after 9/11, the Iraq War, Katrina, and the Virginia Tech tragedy lies in maximizing liberty, not restricting it. The way forward lies in reaching out to other nations and cultures, not alienating them.
We must be on our guard, to be sure, but we must not continue down the road to being less than what we are. We must make the advantages of intercultural and international cooperation so evident that violence and terrorism are easy to see as the dead-ends that they are. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells us, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
I am happy to see that this view appears on its way to becoming predominant.
In a free society, we will never be able to completely eliminate every threat to our safety and security, and nor should we – an acceptance of a certain amount of risk is one of the prices of liberty. But given the choice between hope and fear, I will choose hope every single time.
Dr. Algie Gatewood is the president of Portland Community College Cascade Campus.