the 33rd stone

One of the privileges that I’ve had through this work is to get to know the mother of one the victims of April 16. She is one of the most extraordinarily strong, funny, steadfast, honest servant heart-types I’ve ever known. I hadn’t had as much opportunity to interact with her husband before now.

This weekend we hosted a screening of the film, “The Power of Forgiveness,” as a part of my work. (www.here-nrv.org) It was in the midst of a whole weekend of programming centered around the screening. As the long, exciting, and sometimes gut-wrenching weekend came to a close, this father pulled me aside to talk about a few things. We were coming out of a larger conversation that had been about various things, but which could have especially been the beginning of a Garden of Forgiveness in our community.

Someone had again brought up the subject of the university’s choice not to create a stone for Cho Seung-Hui, the mentally disturbed shooter, at the memorial. This father looked at me and said, “Do they even understand that it would be like planting a memorial to Lee Harvey Oswald right next to JFK?”

This man told me that he sees Cho as a victim too. It’s not about that. In fact, he thinks that this garden idea would be a real possibility for our community. But that’s a far different thing than to place a stone with Cho’s name on it in a row alongside his daughter’s.

We talked for a while longer, and as we did, I suddenly realized something. If we put a stone there, it wouldn’t really be a stone for Cho. It would be a monument to our own guilt. It would be a granite representation of…
…our feeling that we all failed Cho.
…our ignorance of the cultural, legal, academic, and social contexts in which he was languishing.
…our own sense of victimhood.
…our sick regret that we weren’t there that day.
…our indignation that on that day we thought “Crap, I don’t know what to do!” So, we signed a card. Or that we still don’t know what to do now.
…our embracing of his family and sense of disbelief that Cho’s parents now have to live in hiding under FBI protection—is it because of what their son did? did the parents of the Columbine killers, who were white, have to endure the same “security?”
…our ever-increasing loss of innocence, control, and sense of safety.
…our privilege that we carry with us every day, unquestioned, undeniable.

And as I’ve continued to think about this issue, I’ve continued to be frustrated by it. For those of us out here, who spin our wheels about the fact that Cho was a victim of April 16, along with the 32 other people who died and the 23 others who were wounded by gunfire. Not to mention the mental health fallout in all of us, especially those who had to jump from windows, see their friends mortally wounded, run into that building to help strangers, and the ones who bravely cleaned up the biohazard that it became…

Why not put the energy that we would put into creating a monument to Cho into social reform and action?

We should be concentrating our efforts on writing letters to congress, electing a new president. Educating ourselves on gun control. Giving blood or helping to prevent an over-reaction against our fellow citizens who live with mental illness. Let us not make a stone to the place in which we let him down, but move forward, co-creating a world where it might hopefully never happen again.

Even as I write this, I recognize that I’m propping myself up on an awfully high and prescriptive horse, and I encourage you that, if this missive has made you angry, that’s okay, but let that anger transform into action, not another coffee conversation.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. Over the last few weeks it has come to my attention that the local nonprofit community is down financially, decreased ability to fundraise, at least somewhat attributable to the VT tragedy. I remember hearing about this same phenomenon after September 11th and the attention and resources that were diverted there. Now I’m seeing it in a much more tangible way in my own community. What does it reflect if a tragedy of this nature means that, unbeknownst to everyone around, the local American Red Cross silently goes belly up or the YMCA has to close its doors while we’re all out here complaining over our coffee and scones about a stone?

I’m going to take my clue from those parents I mentioned. The mother has picked up the mantle that her daughter was forced to lay down and is leading a service trip in Appalachia this fall. And the father is teaching a class in global service and leadership in the spring.

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