Va. Tech students write quiet words of forgiveness

May 01, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Columnist

There were 33 shrines on the campus of Virginia Tech, lovingly built of flowers, letters, candles, photos and gifts. One for each of the 32 students and teachers who died April 16, and one for Seung-Hui Cho, who shot them all and then himself.

At Cho's memorial, smaller than the others, there was a plastic bottle filled with flowers, cards and an American flag, according to New York Times reporter Christine Houser. One of the notes read, simply, "I forgive you."

Another read: "Dear Cho. You are not excluded from our sorrow in death although you thought you were excluded from our love in life. I wish you had given us all a chance. Your choice was so final."

While the nation mourned the 32 victims at Virginia Tech, some of the students there understood what so many grown-ups did not - that there were 33.

There was so much talk about Cho's brain chemistry and the isolation of his immigrant family and the damage done by bullying.

And there was plenty of talk about gun control and about the media's role in glorifying these events in a way that created a can-you-top-this atmosphere for the next unhappy youth.

But the response of the students at Virginia Tech who chose to reach out to Cho in death was as eloquently simple in spirit as the little shrine was in its execution.

These young people understood instinctively the world's collective fault in this tragedy, and they were asking Cho for his forgiveness by the act of forgiving him.

"I hope that if I ever met anyone like you I would have the courage and strength to reach out and change his or her life for the better," read another letter, hand-written and covered in plastic.

The writer wanted his thoughts protected against the elements, and Virginia Tech is beginning the process of preserving these thoughts for the ages. Archivists who have experience from Sept. 11 are helping the university in this mournful process. Heaven help us, we now have a system for this.

But these students, in their fading innocence but resolute idealism, were, in the silent act of remembering Cho, teaching the adults yakking above their heads that he was a victim, too. And that because he was a member of their community, they share in the loss of him - and perhaps in the isolation that may have broken him.

It is a remarkable demonstration of their generosity of spirit, and I am shamed and humbled by it.

We have seen this before, in the Pennsylvania Amish community where parents embraced the wife and children of the man who shot their children even before the funerals had taken place.

A delegation of Amish elders visited Marie Roberts and half of the 70 people who attended her husband Charles' funeral were from the Amish community.

They did more than share the potluck suppers that arrived - the Amish insisted that some of the millions of dollars in donations be put in a fund for the gunman's wife and children.

"They said they felt that we had a harder part to go through than they did," said a member of Roberts' family. "And they told us that there was no hard feelings, that all was forgiven."

Likewise, the women of the Rutgers basketball team, in their dignity and restraint following Don Imus' dreadful characterization of them, gave the world an example of how to behave in extremis: They met with Imus and accepted his apology.

They didn't sue, they didn't name-call. They impressed the nation with their magnanimity and their poise.

In this country at this time, these expressions of humanity are barely heard above the hate speech, the partisan speech, the politically correct speech, the parsing speech, the Imus speech and the stump speech, the angry e-mails and the Congressional testimony.

And when we do hear about these acts of grace, they come to us packaged by an exploitive media, numbing us to their meaning.

Perhaps that's why the students at Virginia Tech wrote their words of regret and forgiveness on paper, and put them in plastic to protect them against the rain.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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