Unconventional Wisdom | In the end, there's no safe place   

On the campus of Virginia Tech after gunman Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 innocent people - in the inevitable search for answers, the honest truth may be, there are none.

On the same day Cho Seung-Hui was shooting people at Virginia Tech, high winds in Ferndale, Mich., knocked a flagpole onto a 5-year-old girl, killing her in a school yard at recess.

There is a violent randomness to both the wind and the ways of the human heart.

In the aftermath of the massacre, people have called for metal detectors to frame every doorway on every campus. Some have said the answer is fewer guns. No, wait - maybe more guns, but only in the "right" hands.

The hard truth people find so difficult to face is that there is no safe place, no bubble bobbing far enough above natural or man-made catastrophe in which we can live.

Few lives can be lived untouched, unmarked.

In a cosmos that was created by cataclysmic explosion, violent randomness (or random violence) is as natural as comets and thunderstorms.

Unless we psychoanalyze every human brain for murderous intent every single day - and inspect flagpoles with a similar rigor - we are left open to the vagaries of the universe.

It's an uncomfortable thought.

"Life is precious but random," said William Pollack, a Harvard psychologist and expert on school violence who has consulted with the U.S. Secret Service's school-violence task force. "And we're wired to seek reasons for random events of violence. We want a sense of assurance that we're not just helpless.

"So we can study shootings like this, in a kind of act of scientific faith. But we have to be aware that, although it may make us feel better, it is unlikely to fix anything."


That is a hard word to hear, given the carnage in Norris and West Ambler Johnston Halls.

To live every day, folks trick themselves into thinking things are OK.

Self-delusion evolved in humans to enable mental and physical health, said Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University evolutionary anthropologist.

It works like this: Panic, fear and anger are metabolically expensive, an absolute strain on all systems. So anything someone does or tells himself that allows him to feel less stressed and more safe is beneficial.

We try to save ourselves: live in a safe suburb, send our kids to a prosperous, bucolic campus.

Spend enough money and you don't have to live at risk, like people in poor neighborhoods. Spend enough money, and the bad does not touch you.

Until it does.

Many turn to religion to relieve the randomness. A few say that's the ultimate self-delusion. But it seems to work for some.

French Protestant theologian John Calvin said that nothing is random and that everything that happens is divinely appointed - we just don't know why.

Nancy Duff, a Princeton University theological ethicist, disagrees, saying Christians can believe that random things do happen without God's influence. "Acts of violence occur based on human rage, irresponsible action or nature," she said. "Faithful people die horrible deaths. There was no reason for the little girl in Michigan, or the people in Virginia, to die. God didn't cause it. We just affirm that God is with those who suffer."

It is, of course, folly to say there is nothing we can do to prevent bad events. We need police forces and seat belts and antibiotics.

But, finally, there is no ultimate protection from things that happen without reason. The Virginia Tech shootings were as random as the wind.

At the base of all life are constant collisions of molecules. Things happen because they do. And life is a random thing.

Contact columnist Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.