American Proscenium

Sense and Sensibility

The shootings at Virginia Tech inaugurated a new round of debates not only over such obvious issues as campus security and gun control but of the more fundamental questions of who we think we are as American and who we would like to be.  The debate, as much as the killings, gives testimony (though not “eloquent testimony”) to our degeneracy.  The grandiloquent statements of public officials were particularly disturbing.

The president of the university, fumbling for the right cliché, described this as a tragedy of monumental proportions.  These incidents are inevitably called tragedies, but that is precisely what they are not.  In a tragedy such as Oedipus or Macbeth, a basically great man, trusting too much in his own abilities, deludes himself into making self-destructive decisions.  Flaws in his character lead him first to arrogance, and then down the path of folly and ruin.  Tragedies make moral sense of the human world, while these pointless murders seem to reveal a world that makes no sense.  In calling them tragedies, we are essentially saying that human existence is pointless.

This is not just a “semantic point.”  It is all too true that most Americans, like most people everywhere in all periods of history, speak without thinking.  But the proverbs of unreflective peasants are deeply rooted in historical experience. ...

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