People get killed.
Everyday, and for no reason other than the sad coincidence of place and time, people get killed.
The front page of the New York Times today is taken over by coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. Every known detail about the killer is made public. Interactive features about the victims are provided.
A news article next to the main story says 171 people were killed in bombings in Baghdad. They remain nameless, unseen.
It would be easy to make this a question of arithmetic, to say "how come 33 American deaths count for more than the thousands of innocents dying elsewhere, many of them because of US indifference / aggression?"
But when it comes to death, all comparisons are meaningless. When it comes to grief, we are all selfish.
"Any man's death diminishes me", Donne writes. It's a noble sentiment, but one that none of us can hope to live up to. If we were stronger, braver, more large-hearted, we should mourn every murder, weep for the death of every innocent. But none of us has the emotional stamina for that. Not when the supply of horrors is varied and inexhaustible. In the world we live in, indifference is not a failing, it is a survival strategy - the only way we can hope to stay sane.
So we choose what to grieve for, and our choices are subjective and arbitrary. Like trying to decide on a poem you like, a painting that moves you. Between the tragedies we are universally appalled by and the intimacy of our private losses, lies a shop's-worth of horrors that we must greet either with tears or with a shrug of the shoulder. Are we to blame if some events, deserving of our sympathy though they may be, leave us unmoved? Does this make us inhuman? Or does it prove that we are, in fact, human, and have only a limited capacity for sharing in other people's grief?
The killings at Virginia Tech are newsworthy because they are unexpected, because they are a shock. A freak incident of mass murder that is unlikely to be repeated is more 'interesting' than the unspeakable predictability of the daily violence in Iraq. Is it right that this is so? No. Is there any virtue, therefore, in withholding our sympathy from the victims of these killings, in saying they are not the only innocents to die, they do not 'deserve' our exclusive sympathy? Not really. They deserve all the sympathy, all the tears, that we can afford to give them.
Whether or not you grieve for the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings is irrelevant - a matter of taste rather than of principle. Some people are affected by pictures or by individual stories. Others by numbers. Some people mourn for what cannot be stopped from happening again, others for what can but will not. These are preferences, patterns of thought behind which we hide the impossible choice that faces us everyday: the problem of deciding which among a hundred injustices we engage with emotionally, and which we choose to ignore.
The question is not how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see. The question is: how many times can he afford not to?