Last Day on Earth may help us learn from a tragedy

What can we learn from tragedy?

David Vann’s new book, Last Day on Earth, aims in part to understand what makes someone walk into a crowded lecture hall and open fire. His book focuses on Steven Kazmierczak, the man who killed five students and wounded more than 20 others on Feb. 14, 2008 in Cole Hall.

Vann will speak at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in DeKalb tonight, a fact that has caused a bit of a stir in the community. Members of the Northern Star editorial board have heard reports of complaints filed against the bookseller for hosting the author, and Vann himself said he’s received letters discouraging his visit in an Oct. 21 interview with the Northern Star.

The Northern Star editorial board respects everyone’s right to disagree with Vann’s decision to speak here or even the publication of the book itself. But we feel the discussion Vann is trying to foster is one worth having.

Does this hinder the healing process? Maybe. But we feel avoiding the discussion can hinder that process as well.

There’s no doubt that, less than four years later, the wounds Kazmierczak caused – both physical and emotional – are still fresh for some.

The editorial board understands how sensitive a subject like this is for the NIU and DeKalb community, and we intend no disrespect to shooting victims or their families.

However, we feel Vann’s book is more than a cash-grab or a glorification of Kazmierczak or his actions. We believe it is a legitimate exploration of the factors that may have contributed to Kazmierczak’s rampage in Cole Hall.

What Kazmierczak did was a heinous, unforgivable thing. But in the end, he wasn’t some otherworldly monster; he was a human being. With that in mind, we believe any endeavor to understand what could drive a man to commit an act so destructive and vile is worth pursuit.

Less than four years later, we understand many of the facts of what happened that day, but the things that may have motivated Kazmierczak are still shrouded in mystery; we know the “what,” but we’re not sure on the “why.” That, to us, is the true value in Last Day on Earth. Giving us a peek into the mind of Kazmierczak – however disturbing that may be – offers some degree of understanding, however small.

This kind of understanding can be good in a number of ways. Some may find it cathartic. Some may find it challenging. Some may merely find it informative.

Most importantly, analyzing the factors that may have led to the Feb. 14 tragedy may help prevent a similar situation in the future. In that case, we feel that more information is always better than less.

Some may see Vann’s visit as needlessly revisiting a tragedy. The Northern Star editorial board believes it’s a way to understand, learn and, perhaps, a way to move on.