Virginia Tech Vigil, Spring 2007

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I would like to extend my personal condolences to those of you here who have a direct connection to Virginia Tech. As a New Yorker, and as someone with friends and family who live and work in the vicinity of the former World Trade Tower, I know how personally wounded I felt on the occasion of 9/11. For you—given the deep, formative, and life-long identification we establish with the places that we have inhabited—the attack at Virginia Tech must have felt like it was an attack on you personally. And I don’t doubt as well that many of you have relatives and friends currently living in Blacksburg who were indeed directly affected by the killings. Again, to the Virginia Tech community, please know that the UNF community joins with you in your suffering and pain.

We do so in part because, while the massacre occurred on one university campus, an event like the one that transpired there this week is an event that affects those of us on campuses everywhere. This is confirmed by the fact that the response to the attack has been predictably and appropriately nationwide, as institutions across the country have been moved by the horror and the confusion surrounding the massacre to review their own procedures for anticipating and responding to emergency situations. I am confident that UNF will emerge from its own review process as a safer institution for everyone who is a member of our community. Indeed, we already have inventoried our emergency resources and made a very preliminary determination of where they must be improved upon.

As desirable as this outcome will be, however, it would be a shame if our need for greater security became an occasion to restrict access to or movement within our institutions of higher learning in ways directly contrary to the spirit of higher learning itself. To a significant extent education or learning occurs through the process of dialogue, and that dialogue is never richer than when it is vigorously engaged in by people from different backgrounds and with different points of view. In other words, higher education thrives on openness, a precious and fragile quality that must be nurtured and preserved, and that would surely be lost if we were to seal off our campuses from spontaneity, discourse, and candor.

As deeply tragic as the loss of life was earlier this week, it would be more tragic still if those of us on college and university campuses did not regard the massacre as something that demands comprehension rather than as an event from which we permit ourselves merely to recoil in shock and in sorrow. What cries out for understanding is how it is that one person can feel so much hurt that he could justify to himself hurting others to the point that he denied them the lives that he apparently valued as little as he valued his own. While grieving deeply for the dead and perhaps especially for the living whose loved ones they were, I hope we will also use this occasion to redeem that horrible loss of life, in precisely the way that it is incumbent upon educational institutions to do so: by reaffirming our obligation to gain insight—from the glorious and the beautiful to the diseased and the horrific—into the full range of what it means to be human.

I would like to conclude with a brief word to students, at the University of North Florida, Virginia Tech, and wherever else you might be enrolled. By all means grieve. This has been a grievous event, and your grief is warranted. But do not permit yourselves to be traumatized. Trauma arrests its victims in the moment. The moment that occurred at Virginia Tech is one that you must find it within yourselves to transcend. It is only by doing so that you can help assure that another such moment will never occur again.

My heart—and my hope—go out to you.