Friday, April 20, 2007

Moved by Sorrow with Mourning Online

"We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears
and through all our sadness . . .

We will prevail . . ."

-- Nikki Giovanni -- a poet, activist, & Distinguished Professor of English
at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Virginia's Governor declared Friday, April 20, 2007, as a day of mourning for the victims of the shootings that occurred on Monday, April 16th, at Virginia Tech. He called for a moment of silence at noon on this day.

Meanwhile, parents urged everyone "to focus on healing from the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history." See: "Day of mourning intended to celebrate lives of Va. Tech victims", by Matt Apuzzo (04/20/07); & "Day of mourning and revelation for Virginia Tech community", posted on NBC's KARE-11 TV's website (04/20/07).

Churches around the country, from California to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., planned vigils and prayer services for the 32 victims. * * *

The governor also appointed an independent panel that includes former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to look into how authorities handled the tragedy.

Ridge said Friday that the group would look into the time lapse and how students were notified of the dangers, and whether privacy laws and the need to communicate for safety conflicted, among other things.

"This was out-and-out murder," Ridge said. "This was a horribly, horribly deranged young man."

At worship hall in State College, Pa., the family of shooting victim Jeremy Herbstritt sat quietly as students and staff lit candles Thursday and signed a condolence banner about the graduate student.

"We will remember" read a large sign near the front of the hall. Several students and staff wore Virginia Tech sweat shirts.

Pennsylvanians, including Tom Ridge & the students at Penn State, do mourn for the dead & pray for the injured -- for all victims of this senseless act of indiscriminate violence inflicted within an otherwise peaceful Commonwealth.

Those VT students & teachers were as innocent, as helpless, as were the child victims of the Nickel Mines Massacre that occurred in a simple Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, PA, on October 2, 2006. See: PA EE&F Law Blog posting "In Amish Tragedy, Autopsies Required, Acceptance & Faith Abound" (10/06/07).

They were as innocent & as helpless as any, as all, of the victims of the shooting sprees that have occurred during the past decade in schools worldwide. It is a long list. See: "A Time Line of Recent Worldwide School Shootings" (1996-2007).

The Amish dealt with their tragedy through a community-unifying, individual-sustaining, firm faith:

"[A]t their core, the Amish believe life is based on faith. And belief in the world to come, where there is no violence."

But how can a multi-cultural, geographically-diverse, mixed-belief university population deal with its grief?

The home page on the website of Nikki Giovanni suggests a way -- one likely not intended by her specifically for this situation when it was posted, but clearly applicable today: "living in an electronic age seeing the whole world by pushing a button".

Today, the home page of the website of Virginia Tech shows the photo above, quotes those words by Giovanni, and lists the names of the dead under the heading "In Memoriam -- We Remember".

This is how society today can communicate and commemorate its grief: Through the Internet, on the world wide web.

About a year ago, two national newspapers noted the established new custom of memorializing the dead on websites, where the sad news was announced, where testimony about the deceased could be centralized & retained, and where mourners could congregate & communicate electronically, long-term.
  • "Rituals of Grief Go Online", by Warren St. John, published in the New York Times (04/27/06).

    • Just as the Web has changed long-established rituals of romance and socializing, personal Web pages on social networking sites that include MySpace, and are altering the rituals of mourning. Such sites have enrolled millions of users in recent years, especially the young, who use them to expand their personal connections and to tell the wider world about their lives.

    • Inevitably, some of these young people have died — prematurely, in accidents, suicides, murders and from medical problems — and as a result, many of their personal Web pages have suddenly changed from lighthearted daily dairies about bands or last night's parties into online shrines where grief is shared in real time. * * *

  • "Online Memorials Bring Strangers and Friends Together in Community of Grief", by Yuki Noguchi, published in the Washington Post (05/29/06, Page A01):
    • Viewers use the Web sites to find and comfort one another -- not only to facilitate communication from far-flung or long-lost friends who couldn't attend a funeral, but also to send messages from one dead soldier's wife to another, from one mourning mother to another or among those galvanized to fight a disease. * * *

    • While many non-Western cultures build rituals around death that allow a person to grieve over time, in highly individualistic societies, losing a loved one can be isolating, some psychologists say, which may be why some turn to the Web to reach outside their traditional social network.

    • "When death happens, we're so alone," said George Bonanno, a psychologist at Columbia University. "It would be nice if we had a sense of community, and maybe that's what the Internet provides." * * *

For an exhaustive, academic examination of the new, and likely permanent, custom of online mourning & memorializing, see an excellent paper written by an Australian author, Kylie Veale, of Curtin University of Technology, published in the FibreCulture Journal, entitled "Online Memorialisation: The Web As A Collective Memorial Landscape For Remembering The Dead".

Even media stories posted on the web can aid in mourning. A previously wounded victim or a family survivor of a past tragedy can tell their story of horror, loss, pain, reconciliation, & healing. See: "Columbine survivor: Expect an emotional roller coaster", by Mary Carter, posted by CNN on April 20, 2007.

Perhaps someday I'll explain the details of setting up a memorial website. But not today. Today is a day of national mourning, again.

"We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while.
We are not moving on.
We are embracing our mourning.
We are Virginia Tech ... "

-- Nikki Giovanni

* * *
Update: 05/06/07:

For the political reaction in Pennsylvania, see: "Pa. unlikely to follow Va. on broad mental health gun restriction", by Martha Raffaele, an Associated Press Writer, published May 5, 2007, by AP State News (NEPA):
The Rendell administration is examining laws that control who may buy guns in Pennsylvania in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, but the governor is unlikely to follow his Virginia counterpart's lead and call for barring firearms sales to anyone ordered to get mental-health treatment, a top administration aide said.

"Should everybody who's depressed not be able to buy a gun?" asked Donna Cooper, Gov. Ed Rendell's policy secretary, whose staff is pulling together information about how other states balance patient privacy rights and public safety.

A judge ruled in 2005 that Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho was mentally ill and a danger to himself, but he was ordered to attend outpatient counseling and not committed to a mental hospital. That enabled Cho to avoid being entered into the state's background-check database that licensed gun dealers use to evaluate prospective gun buyers.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine closed the loophole Monday by signing an executive order that requires anyone receiving court-ordered mental health treatment to be added to Virginia's database of people barred from buying guns _ regardless of whether the treatment is inpatient or outpatient.

Pennsylvania does not prohibit gun ownership by people ordered to receive outpatient treatment for mental-health issues. Cooper said most of the people in that category are nonviolent and require counseling to help them cope with such things as eating disorders, the stress of a child-custody fight or the grief of a parent's death.

"If you're a danger to yourself or to others, it is unlikely that (a judge) is going to order outpatient treatment for you," she said.

The administration is considering whether to broaden the scope of mental health records that are included in the state police database of people barred from buying guns to cover outpatients under certain circumstances, but officials have reached no decisions about how and where to draw the line, Cooper said.

"Diagnoses are not consistent across settings, across doctors," Cooper said. "This is a very, very complicated issue." * * *