The shootings at Virginia Tech are another reminder of the sad reality that, within our world, tragedy exists, and will likely always exist. Within such tragedies, we naturally search for answers to questions such as: What motivated the killer? and, Could it have been avoided? These are worthy questions to ask, and in pursuing the answers we can learn things that may help prevent similar tragedies in the future. However, these answers will come slowly and only through a careful and detailed evaluation.
We are still trying to understand the events of April 17, when the shooter, a loner named Seung-Hiu Cho, age 23, killed two students, then hours later laid siege to students and faculty inside Virginia Tech’s engineering building, killing 30 more people and finally turning the gun on himself.
Room for Optimism?
Americans, it has been pointed out, are deeply optimistic, to the point of usually believing that every problem has a solution. In this case, as Legionary Father Jonathan Morris put it recently on his Fox News blog, we’ll be hearing “a national conversation about school security, gun laws, psychiatric medicine and immigration policy” all around us. Politicians will promise legislation to keep students safer, universities will revise their freshman orientation programs, and police forces will improve new first-response strategies.
Will any of these get to the heart of the problem? “I don’t think so,” Father Morris states, “because in this case, the heart of the problem is the human heart itself.”
The Origin of Evil
We know that at the beginning of history, the human heart was purely good. God had created men and women in his image, eager to love one another just as God loves, and to use their intelligence and creativity to build up a good society.
Original sin disrupted that harmony. It broke down the friendship between God and the human family, and it allowed evil, selfishness, and violence to come into the human heart. Ever since then, the human heart has been a battleground between good and evil. In situations like the Virginia Tech massacre, we see how deeply evil tendencies can affect the human heart, and how much damage they can cause.
The Mystery of Good and Evil
But the human heart is not without hope, because God continues to love man. Although mankind sinned, God did not abandon him. God is faithful in the gift of his goodness. He sent his son, Jesus Christ, to redeem man and help man live the fullness of his calling. He continues to guide us toward what is good, and to give us the strength to endure and even to overcome evil.
In fact, good is always primary; evil is only secondary. Goodness is like a healthy body, and evil is like a virus that needs a healthy body to live on, but weakens that body.
Sometimes we fall into the mistake of thinking that the battle between good and evil is a battle between equals. But that’s not the case. Our Catholic faith teaches us that good is much, much more powerful than evil. We don’t understand it completely (which is why the Catechism calls it a mystery), but we do know that good will always win the end. God has promised this to us many times in Scripture, and he has guaranteed it with Christ’s resurrection.
Bringing Good Out of Evil
We have the proof even in this terrible situation. Consider what happened to Zack Petkewicz on the morning of April 17. The senior engineering major told CNN that at first he was frozen with fear upon hearing gunshots and screaming in the hallway of the building. “And then I just realized you have got to do something.”
Petkewicz jumped up and led two other students in holding a table against the classroom door, as Cho shot holes through the door trying to force his way in. The three students held their position, even as bullets passed inches from their bodies. Eventually, Cho gave up trying to enter the classroom and these students survived. In the face of this evil, Petkewicz and his companions found the courage to resist in hopes of saving others.
Even more dramatic was the self-sacrificial actions of the Jewish math professor Liviu Librescu, a man who had already survived the Nazi Holocaust before coming to the United States. Before the gunman could enter his classroom, Librescu stood blocking the doorway, allowing his students just enough time to open the windows and escape to safety. All survived. Tragically, Librescu was shot and killed.
With such examples, we might also ask a question rarely posed amidst tragedy: that is, how we can understand the good actions people do in this world? Heroic actions (and even the normal, small acts of kindness that we encounter each day) are in themselves signs that good will ultimately triumph, as our faith teaches us. They are one of the reasons why the Virginia Tech massacre is not a meaningless event.
This event should also remind us that we have been given a great gift in the Church: the saints. These are men and women from all times and places who overcame evil with good, sometimes even at the cost of their lives. In their sacrifices they resemble Jesus in his triumph over evil and death.
How Do We Move On?
Then how do we go on with our lives after such an occurrence?
First, we might remind ourselves to be more aware of the individuals around us and the needless suffering that many people undergo silently. Several people tried to reach out to Cho but everyone gave up. Maybe one more try would have made a difference.
The Power of Forgiveness
Second, we should also think about the importance of forgiveness in these cases. Even though anger and bitterness is natural in these cases, there can be no true healing without forgiveness. If forgiveness is required, then receiving that grace is the first step to moving on and actually enables us to move on. The beauty and power of forgiveness is already showing itself on the Virginia Tech campus, where students have already put up impromptu memorials, including one for Cho.
Gaining Strength for the Future
Third, reflecting on these events can help bolster the virtue of fortitude. Most of us will not personally experience tragedies of this scale, but all of us will encounter some suffering and pain in life. Christ reminds us that we can be victorious over difficulties and evil when he says, “In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Keeping this in mind will strengthen us in the midst of life’s trials, and enable us to help others in theirs.
If we experience a tragedy, then we should remember to watch for the good that comes with it, rather than focusing only on our pain. Similarly, numerous Virginia Tech students expressed the desire “not to let the darkness win.”
Doing Good and Being Grateful
Fourth, this event has reminded us that every one of us is capable of both good and evil. Therefore, we should take advantage of this moment to renew our commitment to doing good. Christ has given us faith, grace, and hope. Every day, we have opportunities to use these gifts to build up those around us. Just as Cho’s evil actions affected many people in a tragic way, so can our good actions each day affect those around us in a positive way.
Finally, we should renew our sense of gratitude for the simple things in our lives, especially our families and our friends. As one Virginia Tech student put it, “All the things you took for granted, they aren’t for granted.”
The Virginia Tech tragedy has a meaning for us if we will accept it: that while evil struggles with good everywhere in this life, through God’s grace, good will always triumph.