When There Are No Answers

Sometimes, when a horrible tragedy happens, there are simply no good answers. Or, if there are, it takes weeks –if not months– for them to emerge.

This morning, I am thinking, of course, of the shocking events at Virginia Tech yesterday. And it strikes me that the one thing we know is that we don’t know very much.

But despite all we don’t know, as usual, there has been an immediate rush-to-judgment; especially by the media.

When things like this happen, there is a natural human reaction to want to regain control, and to regain it immediately. Each one of us has our own natural responses that help us feel as if we have regained control again. Each of us has a natural desire to do something to be helpful.

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But the truth is that, right now, most of us can’t offer much help beyond offering up our prayers, our moments of silence, our mouths covered in horror. And while that might not feel like much this morning, in a sense it’s a beautiful thing to offer because it’s so human and so honest.
And the problem is that we now live in a culture where we expect answers –fully formed, investigated, and justified– within minutes of a tragedy like this. We don’t like just offering prayers and keeping silence. We’re all lemmings in this 24-hour media culture. We want action, and we want it now. Our sitcoms last thirty minutes…why can’t they wrap up these tragedies that quickly too?

In a way that sickens my stomach, the critics and pundits are already “spinning” these events.

There has already been a great deal of second guessing of the local police and university officials. There has been an anti-gun group weigh-in about Virginia’s apparently lax gun laws. There has been a pro-gun group who claims the whole thing could have been avoided by less restrictive laws.

And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of media-types, descending on this sleepy town and university, in the desperate hunt for the “breaking story” and the “hear it here first” scoop…hoping against hope to do what they were trained to do, and to feed our hunger for information NOW.

Enough, already.

Let us honor and mourn the dead. Let us leave the questions about fault, responsibility, and procedure to another day. Maybe even another week. Let us, first and foremost, allow ourselves to feel our grief and shock. Let us PRAY, or meditate, or observer a time of silence. Whatever we’re comfortable with.

And stop the blame game. At least for now. Because we don’t know everything, and we probably won’t for some time.

One thing I know from previous situations like this: much of what gets thrown into the public debate early on is often later disproved and debunked. Remember how everyone believed that the OKC bomber “must” have been an “arab terrorist?” I remember that.

As of now, we’re not even sure that there was only one gunman.

Last night, even on a news show I respect immensely –Countdown with Keith Olbermann– I saw a lot of finger pointing and premature questioning.

I saw Olbermann and the MSNBC staff questioning the actions of the university staff.

They keep asking: Why didn’t they shut down the campus right away?

This question really bugs me, at least right now. Maybe I will change my mind later and be as angry and accusatory as they seem to be now. But I also used to be an “RA,” and I was a Hall Director too. I did that work for five straight years of my graduate and undergraduate life.

And one thing I know is this: college campuses are not like high school campuses.

You can lock down a high school campus in a couple of minutes. But even if you wanted to, it could take hours to lock down a college campus. And even then, it’s doubtful you could ever “lock” it down completely. Most high school campuses consist of a single building. Locking down a college campus would be like locking down 40 or 50 of them, simultaneously.

It seems to me totally reasonable that authorities would assume the first shooting was an isolated incident, and that the shooter might have left the campus. It seems to me totally reasonable that it would take some time for them to ascertain precisely what had occurred and get the word out. A delay of at least an hour, perhaps two, getting any kind of word to the rest of the campus, seems understandable, even in a post-911 world.

As a Hall Director, I can remember working with the campus police to figure out what had happened when sometime as simple as a fire alarm got pulled. In fact, fire alarms used to get pulled pretty regularly in the dorms. Every single time, we’d evacuate that dorm and do a search. That takes time. Dorms are big places. (The one in question at VTA housed over 800 students…)

One night in my dorm, we also dealt with a bomb threat. It took a dozen or so folks, student staff and campus police, more than an hour to do a search of just that ONE building. In that time, nobody ever thought to search another building, or shut it down too. Imagine how long it would take to search every building of a campus, or lock them all down!

And let’s say that the university did immediately decide to shut down the campus. What’s the best thing to do? Do you ask students to walk back across campus to their dorms? Is that safe? Do you ask them to go back to the dorms, where the only shooting you know about has just taken place? Why would the authorities assume that was safe? Couldn’t it be safer to remain inside a classroom, and to try not to panic everyone? Hard to know, really.

My point is, the answers aren’t easy. You’re dealing with student staff –RAs and Hall Directors– who are compensated in room, board, and tuition, and whose main goal is to be a student, not a cop. You’re dealing with campus police, whose are much more adept at towing cars and tucking in drunk students, not practicing paramilitary SWAT drills.

I’ve also already heard the police criticized for not yet confirming the identity of the shooter. But, as for me? I’d rather them do a thorough investigation than rush to put out information that turns out to be faulty.

Given the bitter questioning that’s already taking place, I am not surprised that they are using the ubiquitous “abundance of caution” in what they say now. The more the damning-questions get asked, the more these scared authorities will want to be sure all their ducks are in a row before they say another word.

All I’m asking is this: give them a break. At least for now. They’re grieving too. They’re second-guessing themselves as much or more as anyone. It’ll all come out eventually. Just not today.

Maybe I’ll change my mind about this. Maybe we all will. Maybe we’ll find out there was gross negligence on the part of the university and staff. But my hunch is that, like 911, we’ll find out that it was just a chaotic scene where everybody was doing the best they knew how.

We all want answers. And in our light-speed-paced, media driven culture, we want answers yesterday. Reporters, like everybody else, don’t know what to do, don’t know what to say, and don’t know how to respond either. So, in these cases, reporters do what they do best. They start to ask questions, and begin to assign blame.

Some folks bring bundt cakes over to your house when someone dies. Reporters bring questions.

I understand why. I just wish that, in the first days of a tragedy like this, we could simply all admit that we’re not going to get any complete answers. In those first hours, we’re not even going to get any good factual answers. And in the days and weeks to come, we may never get good moral ones. That’s tremendously unsettling. And in response, we feel like we need to DO something…do more…

But this morning, thousands of VTA students and faculty are in still reeling. Hundreds of people directly involved are still trying to find their feet underneath them. And fifty families, and their close friends, are just now beginning to feel a deep personal shock, that will soon be followed by waves of grief, and finally an abiding anger and confusion.

But all that is yet to come.

For now, let us simply lift our prayers, offer our meditations and deepest sympathies. And let us learn to keep silence, for just a while, in the face of questions we may never know the answers to.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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