Co-opting tragedy through institutional identity

Why is all this outpouring of support and sympathy for the victims of the VT Massacre being extended to the entire body of Virginia Polytechnic Institute? I can see having support for the students and faculty who were directly affected, but why is the institution the perceived injured party? The school is, at best, incidental to the event, and may even hold some responsibility for it. But all I see are flags, bumper stickers, etc. with VT logos, colors, etc. - as if supporting the school has anything to do with appreciating and honoring their lives.

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing but sympathy and prayers for the victims and their friends and family. But for the grace of God my brother could have very well been in that building. I can also understand how something like this affects the local community.

Still, the way that VT alumni and fans have latched onto this in some display of faux-victimhood seems inauthentic, opportunistic, and even disrespectful. My neighbors have a flag and sign out to show just how "hokie" they are. Well, that's great and everything. But if your intention is to honor the lives of those who were killed, injured, or traumatized by the massacre, you're not saying much. Those lives have importance and meaning aside from their association with a particular institution.

Waving a VT flag to honor the particular victims is no more meaningful than waving an American flag to honor the victims of 9/11 or the fallen in the current wars - that is to say, it is not meaningful at all. The perverse way we collectivize and dehumanize tragedy through institutions implies an understanding of people as mere members of a larger group, as if their individual lives, hopes, and accomplishments were of less importance than their constituent role in an organization. And come on: going to a school of 30,000 is not the way these students wanted to be remembered, I am almost certain.

The victims were each human beings worthy of being mourned in their own right. The obsession with extending sympathy to VT as a whole is just a matter of convenience for those who like to be seen "caring in public." You're not being thoughtful - you're just advertising for a cynical, inhuman institution. You're not a victim - you're co-opting a tragedy in a disgusting, political way.

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Written on Friday, May 04, 2007