Monday, April 14, 2014

No Strangers To Tragedy

Courtesy CBS News

Two recent stories continue to haunt me, as I’m sure they haunt the rest of the nation.

At a Pennsylvania high school, young Alex Hribal, age 16, greeted his fellow students one morning last week by stabbing 21 of them with a set of kitchen knives.  He also attacked a school security officer.  Four of his victims remain in critical condition.

Tomorrow, the school will reopen so parents and students can do a walk-through.  The school plant has been cleaned and sanitized of the blood and gore, but the fear, I’m afraid, will be much harder to clean away.  Classes begin on Wednesday, but it is safe to say no one in the community will be the same again.

Hribal did not stand out as a troubled teen before the rampage.  Mental illness does not necessarily broadcast its presence to the world before bullets fly or steel flashes, bloodstained and corroded, in a school hallway.  There are sleepers out there, psychologists warn us.  Some of them sleep in our homes with us.  They are the children we thought we knew, until the day without warning when they rise up and act out.  Then we are left to wonder why.  I still cannot believe there were no signs from Alex before the morning of the knives.

Maybe his signs were not so obvious, as they were with Sandy Hook school shooter Adam Lanza.  He refused to communicate with his parents except through email even when they were in the next room.  He blacked out his bedroom windows with trash bags and duct tape.  One would think that was evidence enough that the dam was about to break.  We don’t know what his mother was thinking because she was his first victim.  In this latest knife attack, the perpetrator did not give the kind of warnings Lanza did.

Post-attack, it is clear that Hribal will face the consequence of his actions, if he even comprehends what he has done.  If convicted, he faces 585 years in prison, which is a long time to think about things, or he may be institutionalized to simmer away in his madness.  Whatever happens, it is doubtful he will ever see freedom.

The second tragedy befell students about to graduate this spring, and was not the fault of an insane kid carrying a gun or a knife.  On board buses headed for California State University at Humboldt in northern California, five students and three chaperones were killed when a Fed Ex tractor-trailer crossed the center median and struck one of the buses head on.  This is a tragedy without a clear evil intent, but it is a horrific tragedy nonetheless, and equally nonsensical.  Many of these victims, only a few months away from starting a new chapter in their lives, were severely burned in the inferno, leaving both physical and mental scars that will last a lifetime.

Graduation.  The cusp of the rest of your life.  Death should come for us in old age and include a celebration around the casket for a life well-lived.  Now we mourn what never will be, a life aborted in its infancy.  These kids never had a chance to bud, much less flower in this burgeoning spring of their lives.

We have become inured to the horror.  The phone call from the school administration, the state police, the county coroner, has become the expected, not the exception.  Tragedies happen and we prepare for when, not if.

It is naïve to wish events like stabbings and shootings and car crashes would never happen, or to wish those lost souls alive once more.  I’d be happy to go back to the days when such events happened so infrequently as to be the aberration they should be, the horrific anomaly instead of the more commonplace events they have become.  Now we stagger, from tragedy to tragedy, anticipating this nightmare that has become our reality.  And we try to go on.

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