By Robert Matteson
America was beginning to lose its innocence at the same time as my generation lost its own.
I remember playing with toy soldiers the day that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in Oklahoma City. Four years later, I remember my teacher crying as she walked into class, undoubtedly looking for the words to explain to 7th graders what had happened at Columbine.
On September 11th, 2001, I was sitting in my physics classroom watching news coverage about the plane that had collided with one of the World Trade Center towers when the second one hit.
It seemed up until that day, the national mentality was that terrorism was something that happened in the Middle East. Even afterward, I felt completely safe knowing that Chapel Hill would probably not rank high on any terrorist target list.
And after a Jeep was driven through the Pit last year, injuring nine, we were unsure how to react. Was that terrorism?
And on Monday, another sad chapter was written in our coming-of-age story when 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech by a fellow student.
The events mentioned have very little to do with one another except the magnitude of their effect on me. Each of us can claim a different set. I’ve grown up watching the world through the evening news. I remember Peter Jennings’ voice reporting the Gulf War, and then that in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The violence seemed far away and artificial.
But no longer can I fool myself by saying “That could never happen here.”
On April 16, the world became that much smaller again. We were all shocked by the senselessness of violence, and I have heard us ask many of the same questions: How can we prevent this in the future?
Both sides of the gun-control debate have offered solutions. As a society, we could make it harder for individuals to purchase firearms, but this would not prevent determined and premeditated violence. Likewise, if everyone owned a firearm, it might prevent rampages, but encourage a ‘kill-or-be-killed’ mentality.
I won’t claim to be an expert, but so far, life has taught me this: There are no perfect solutions. Answers to problems that our society has faced for years will not present themselves because another tragedy has occurred.
When someone can rent a car and use it a weapon, we have to realize how complex protecting ourselves can be.
On my 18th birthday, there was a free Gillette razor and a letter from the government in the mail for me. I’ve gotten significantly more use out of the razor than my Selective Service registration card. For my entire adult life,
America has been at war ‘with terror’.
I don’t know what terror looks like. I can’t look into the faces of my fellow students and immediately know if they are struggling with the stresses of life or that they had just missed their alarm that morning.
For me, that’s the difficult realization: that we rarely know from whom or what we need to be protected.
I’ve heard people say that the Vietnam War was when America lost its innocence. Having not been alive then, I’m not sure I could argue the point. But whether you were for the Iraq War or against it, I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t developed like anyone initially expected. The difference I see between Vietnam and Iraq is that the latter hasn’t struck home for nearly enough of us yet.
I don’t know how to protect myself or anyone else from a school shooter or from a terrorist, domestic or foreign. But the violence has finally struck home. Both the shooter and the victims could have been my friends. They were my peers.
If nothing else, let what happened at Virginia Tech remind us how precious and fragile human life is, and that the greatest thing we can aim to do is cherish the lives we have, protect them as best we can and remember and celebrate those that have been lost.
Tomorrow, we may be Tar Heels or Blue Devils or part of the Wolfpack, but for today, we’re all still Hokies.