Monday, April 23, 2007

April 23, 2007 - The Value of a Life

I’ve been thinking – as many others have, as well – of the horrible incident on the campus of Virginia Tech University, as Seung-Hui Cho, a deeply disturbed young man, randomly murdered 32 of his fellow-students and professors. Accounts are now emerging that portray the shooter as a lifelong loner, who had difficulty discerning reality from fantasy. He told roommates, for example, he had a girlfriend who was a supermodel who traveled by spaceship, and that he had recently vacationed in North Carolina with Vladimir Putin. The projects he submitted in creative-writing class were filled with dark fantasies of violence. An English professor who tutored him (after another professor had ejected him from her class for strange behavior) felt so uneasy in his presence that she arranged a code-word her administrative assistant could use to summon police. From a very early age, Cho was so sullen and withdrawn that his family expressed amazement at the diatribes on the video he’d mailed to NBC News. They had seldom heard him speak in such complete sentences.

When all the pieces of the puzzle are assembled, it seems clear that Cho was suffering from serious mental illness, and had been for some time. Everyone knew he was troubled; they just didn’t know how much. The second-guessing is likely to go on for a very long time: why the counselors who worked with him didn’t try to commit him, why he was permitted to purchase guns. But, there may never be any satisfying answers. Cho was a cipher. No one, it seems, had seen all the puzzle-pieces that made up his twisted personality. No one fully understands him, even now.

Thirty-two people – 33, counting him – is a large number. So are the numbers coming out of Iraq daily, as the suicide bombers and the mortar attacks exert their grisly toll. I’ve been through months of very costly medical treatments, aimed at saving my life. It’s disconcerting to hear of how many otherwise healthy lives can be snatched away, in a few brief moments of random violence.

I find it ironic, and sad, that some members of the human race can work so hard to save lives through medical treatment, while others can – with such apparent ease – slaughter so many others. We can all agree that cancer is an enemy that should be fought with every resource at our disposal. Yet, why are we so reluctant to work equally hard to uproot the causes of violence?

The experiences I’ve been through in recent months have focused my thinking very intensely on the value of a human life. So many good people – from the researchers who developed my medicines, to the doctors and nurses who administered them, to the radiologists who puzzled out the images on my scans – have devoted their lives to saving people like me. Life is precious, and worth that kind of effort. When a young man in Baghdad straps plastic explosives around his waist, or another young man in Virginia methodically buys guns, bullets and chains to bar the doors of a building, it seems to negate that good work.

My life is of no more value than those who have fallen in Blacksburg or Baghdad. Why I am still alive and they are not is a mystery. Call it survivor’s guilt, but it’s very real to me these days.

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