In the end, there were bodies strewn about, the atmosphere was wet and miserable and an entire community was left to sort out one of the biggest disasters in American history. In short order, the whole nation paused, transfixed by the sheer size of the tragedy. Families desperately sought information about their loved ones, while survivors clawed their way back to some semblance of emotional stability. Media dropped regular programming to offer moment-to-moment updates, while the all-too-familiar collective grieving began. The dead ranged in age from 18 to 76. They were Americans, Israelis, Indians, Canadians, Peruvians and Puerto Ricans.
When the chapter is finally written in the annals of American history, it will be marked as one of those benchmark cultural moments -- a moment that would wound the American psyche. Like JFK in 1963, MLK in 1968 and the World Trade Center in 2001.
Although it sounds much like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, this time it is Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. Virginia Tech, once known for engineering, football and the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, will now and forever be etched into the national consciousness as the place of blood-stained pavements, the place where American students were assassinated in their classrooms and death trumped life on an otherwise ordinary Spring day.
Can Americans truly survive 9/11, Katrina and Virginia tech all in less than a decade? Are there commonalities among the mighty triumvirate of tragedy that will inevitably define early 21st century America? How do we define the cultural shift that results from six years of repeated horror? Consider the images -- 2001: Americans jumping from windows 80 stories up. 2005: Americans clinging to their rooftops, hoping for rescue, but ultimately drowning; 2007: Students murdered in American college classrooms.
Whether terrorists, nature or deranged individuals produce the mayhem, the result is always the same. The collective heart of the American people suffers another crooked wound, but the culture perseveres and moves on. The fear this time is that the students at Virginia Tech might not now how to move on. After all, most of them are barely old enough to have lived away from their childhood homes. But those of us who have persevered and moved on, time after time, can tell them that in a way, we are indomitable.
I was 10 hears old when John F. Kennedy was shot in the head; 15 when Dr. King was taken down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis; 15 when Robert Kennedy's blood flowed into the cracks of the cement kitchen floor at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A.
But it was May 4, 1970 that served as the true wakeup all for those in my generation. The setting was the usually tranquil Ohio campus of Kent State University. The students had been staging protests against an escalation of the Vietnam war; this time, Richard Nixon had announced the invasion of Cambodia. The unrest at Kent State had been building for several days. By May 4, the Governor had sent in National Guard troops to quell the anticipated violence. In the end, one student died instantly when shot through the neck. Two others died after Guardsmen shot them in the chest, and a fourth after being shot through the mouth.
Now, 37 years later, every year, a campus organization called the May 4th Task Force commemorates the event annually. This year, two of the nine students wounded at Kent State will make appearances, along with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, and the founder of the radical 60s SDS, Tom Hayden. The mother of one of the students who was killed that day will also be present.
Kent State has never gone away, as well it should not. Less publicized, but just as heinous, was something that happened 10 days after Kent State. This time, the setting was Jackson State University, a mostly black institution in Mississippi. Again, students were protesting the war. This time, the shooters were police officers. In the end, two students were dead and 12 were injured.
Pre-dating all of these horrific events was something that happened in 1968 at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. This time, the student protest centered on racial segregation. Three students were murdered and 27 were wounded. This was the first event of its type at an American university in recorded history.
Besides the obvious distinction that the shooter at Virginia Tech was a deranged psychopath, and the shooters at all of the earlier events were officers of the law or military personnel, all are cut from the same cloth. Young people are murdered in the prime of their upwardly mobile youth. The American resolve is once again tested, and the culture must again pick itself up and dust itself off. Each time, however, we are slightly more battered, considerably less innocent and remarkably, eventually able to find new joy, new optimism and renewed spirit.
Here, along the Gulf Coast, we are expert at this. We have endured the unthinkable losses of our people and our homes, and our cities remain in ruins 20 months after the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history. I am writing this on the eighth anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, and just weeks before Kent State's annual commemoration. And 20 months since Katrina. In America now, it seems we track our personal calendars by the tragedies that have befallen us.
Repeatedly, over the past few days, students from Virginia Tech have uttered the same sentiment: "We just never thought something like this could happen here." But it certainly can. Just as it can happen in Dallas, Memphis or L.A. Just as it can happen in Orangeburg, Jackson or Ohio. Just as it happened on that sweltering August day, two years ago, in New Orleans, Pass Christian and Biloxi, MS.
Sudden loss is generally followed by unexpected kindness from unlikely sources. That is perhaps the important lesson here. Humanity is more good than bad. Except for one seriously disturbed and inexplicably armed student, Virgina Tech would still be the warm, inviting place its community members keep telling us about. But now it is the site of academic killing fields where dozens of students were never allowed to fully grow up, and who will all be buried and memorialized in the coming days. After that, the nation will embrace the survivors and guide them through their unspeakable pain.
I know this only because I have seen it happen again and again in my lifetime. And I know that the pain so many people feel at this moment is necessary in order to move toward hope. Author Barbara Lazear Ascher said it so much more eloquently than I can, in her book, "Landscape without Gravity." (Delphinium, 1992):
"When you are grappling with your soul, after you have made the long, dark journey in search of it, you flail about like a person in convulsive seizure. You should have something clenched between your teeth so that you don't break them. You should be restrained. You should wear infants' protective mitts over your hands so that you don't scratch out your eyes. Grief is a landscape without gravity."