Virginia Tech Massacre – WHERE are the victims?

I’ve been wanting to write something on the conspiracy theory of ‘staged violence’ and ‘crisis actors’, but thought I’d have a little pop at this conspiracy fish in a barrel, a four-minute video entitled ‘Virginia Tech Massacre – WHERE are the victims?‘.

It was posted to the Internet Archive (update: on YouTube here) on or near to the seventh anniversary (2014) of the Virginia Tech shootings that were carried out on 16 April 2007, and shows screenshots of an Ancestry.com search for the death records of the 32 victims in Montgomery County, Virginia – where the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is located.

The point of the video is that the researcher finds no mass list of deaths for 16 April 2007 (they actually search from 13 Apr – 27 Apr), just one name appears for the date of the massacre – a person not listed among the victims of the shooting.

As the description for the video states:

“A search for the “victims” of the 2007 Virginia Tech ‘massacre’ in official records yields some shocking results. There aren’t any.”

I think this video is a good reflection of the research skills of the average conspiracy theorist: woefully poor. The video shows them searching the US Social Security Death Index (1935-current), with no name entered, in Montgomery County, Virginia, USA, on the dates of 13 Apr 2007 (eh?) through to 27 Apr 2007.

“Did you see it?”, asks the video, “did you miss the day where 32 people were killed in Montgomery County? Here it is again … and this ONE name is not even in the list of ‘official’ victims”. The official list is shown, then they go on – “SOME of those names do occur in the US Death Master File but NONE from THIS location! WE HAVE BEEN LIED TO”.

So why didn’t this conspiracy genius find 32 names (33 if you include the perpetrator) registered in Montgomery County on 16 April 2007? Because searching the US Social Security Death Index for Montgomery County, Virginia, will only return results for people whose last residence is recorded as Montgomery County, Virginia (you can even plainly see this on the video), and the victims were students and lecturers who were either not residents of the county or who have no data in the ‘last residence’ field.

If you search for the victims by name, you find them, and they are listed under the locations where their social security numbers were issued. Here are four of the victims, picked from a random point part-way down the list:

  • Kevin P Granata 29 Dec 1961 – 16 Apr 2007: State (Year) SSN issued: Ohio (1979)
  • Matthew G Gwaltney 11 Dec 1982 – 16 Apr 2007: State (Year) SSN issued: Virginia (1988)
  • Caitlin M Hammaren 4 May 1987 – 16 Apr 2007: State (Year) SSN issued: New York (1988-1992)
  • Jeremy M Herbstritt 6 Nov 1979 – 16 Apr 2007: State (Year) SSN issues: Iowa (1983)

Conspiracy theorists aren’t interested in the truth – they want everything to fit into their fantastical and degenerate world view. Whether they’re aware of it or not, they will bend and break the truth to fit that view, and very often lie about it or even fake material in order to make it ‘real’. The fact that the maker of this video admits he found “some of those names” makes me think this one is most probably in the ‘knowing liar’ category.

For them, no disaster, natural or human, occurs out of the blue. The government, the cabal, or the illuminati is behind everything – Sandy Hook, 9/11, Aurora, Fukushima, The Titanic, Boston, 7/7, Princess Diana, Flight MH370, Senator Giffords, and thousands more, including the Virginia Tech massacre. And the conspiracy theorist, more often than not, believes all of them.

When they accuse the parents of the children murdered in the Sandy Hook shooting of being ‘crisis actors’, when they say the victims of Sandy Hook, or Flight MH370, or Virginia Tech didn’t really die, that it was all staged, they are being disrespectful to the point of abuse.

Just looking up the names of the four victims listed above for this article left me feeling slightly uncomfortable – like I was prying. What emotions must these conspiracy theorists be switching off (or not have in the first place) in order to commit such atrocities in the name of their paranoia?

The victims are real, and the parents, children, grandparents and friends, etc. of those who died, those who are left, are real people with real grief.

A thought on the case of Meriam Yehya

Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag is the Sudanese woman who has been sentenced to death for apostasy – she was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother and has married a Christian. She has also been sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery because, under Sudan’s Sharia Law, a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man, so the marriage is not recognised.

But which is it? If her marriage is void because she’s a Muslim, then she gets the 100 lashes, but she can’t then be accused of apostasy – she’s being recognised and charged as a Muslim. However, if she’s being sentenced for apostasy then that means she has left Islam and is no longer a Muslim, so cannot have committed adultery.

Another example of religious logic (not to mention injustice and barbarism).

Is it better to be a humanist than religious?

In the BBC News Magazine on 24 May 2014, an article appeared entitled A Point of View: Is it better to be religious than spiritual? It was written by Dr. Tom Shakespeare, someone who I have great respect for in relation to his work with disability rights, ethics, and social rights.

And I enjoyed his article here too. He talks about the increase in those who label themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR) but argues that they have perhaps chosen an unsound set of beliefs, concluding that a worldview labelled ‘religious but not spiritual’ would be a far better choice.

This is fine as an idea, but to make it he rejects humanism as being “not positive but negative – it centres on rejecting religion”, and makes the claim that it is religion that makes us socially responsible, offering insights into charity and justice, with humanism (and non-religious spirituality) focussing on self-obsessed individualism.

I would call myself a humanist and I do not recognise humanism as being negative, individualistic, or even centred on the rejection of religion. The British Humanist Association defines humanism with three main points, and all fly in the face of Dr. Shakespeare’s assumption.

Humanists tend not to be religious, that is true, but this is merely a result of the fact that most humanists look to the scientific method and reason to understand the world around them. As religion is largely made up of unfounded, and very often completely irrational claims about the natural world, it is no wonder that the majority of humanists reject religion.

But this is not a negative assertion. It is the by-product of a positive world view that puts trust in human ingenuity and endeavour, both of individuals and from our fellow humans as a social group.

And Humanism is not an individualistic (I can only read this as a euphemism for selfish in this context) stance. Humanists place great importance on empathy for their fellow sentient beings (not just humans, animals too). They tend to believe that we only have one life and we should therefore do our best to make it the best we can, both for ourselves (certainly) but also for those with whom we share our only planet.

At one point Dr. Shakespeare says “without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe”. Apart from the fact that we can’t help but see the world through our own eyes from within our own head, I don’t see religion making any difference to this point of view.

If we take Christianity as an example, many believers think that they are constantly and personally being watched by a god, that it is judging them as individuals all the time, that it will answer their prayers (selfish or charitable), that the Earth was created just for humans to have dominion over, and that there is a special place in Heaven for them – and this is the place, after death, that really matters. (There are probably many ‘christians’ who are actually closer to being humanist than true Christian, especially in the Church of England.)

What about a seemingly more benign religion such as Buddhism? This is very much about the self, the enlightenment of the self and the rebirth of the self – the term ‘navel gazing’ could not be more at home here. Yes, there are charitable and social aspects to Buddhism, as with all religions, but I would argue that is almost as much a by-product of the religion as non-religiousness is of humanism.

Is the humanist view of the world self-centred? Humanists tend not to believe that the world was put here just for us; we recognise that we live in a stupendously vast universe, possibly one of many, in which we are a tiny speck upon a tiny speck; that we have one life but we also have a great responsibility to our fellow humans (and other life-forms) who will come after us.

Here is another quote from Dr. Shakespeare’s article: “If you’re an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion. It offers a sense of belonging and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting. It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will.”

Well, perhaps I can recommend karate? I have been attending karate clubs for almost 30 years now. It is one of the main social events of my week and is deeply mired in tradition, with the formal patterns (kata) being handed down through generations and having roots in the ancient past. It offers reassurance in the form of improved self-confidence. Karate is all about discipline – involving a high work ethic to practice the tiniest details in order to improve technique, but also to foster awareness and respect for your training partners. And it promotes social responsibility too, if that’s what is meant by ‘something outside ourselves’.

If not, then I’m a bit lost. Most atheists don’t accept that there is ‘something outside ourselves’ in any spiritual sense. Bending your ‘personal will’ to ‘something outside’ of yourself brings up several of the more distasteful aspects of religion: acting out of fear, obeying authority without question or skepticism, and sometimes doing morally questionable things for those very reasons.

Dr. Shakespeare is worried that those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ are subscribing to a pick-and-mix set of beliefs that have nothing to say about charity and justice – unlike traditional religions.

Well, where justice is concerned I would rather keep our more secular moral system than one that stems from, say, the Bible, where stoning to death, slavery, and eternal punishment and torture, among other things, are advocated as forms of justice. If you argue that there are good things in these religions and that very few people adhere to these darker pronouncements, then I’d say you’re subscribing to a pick-and-mix set of beliefs, which is a good thing, and I’m glad your secular, humanist morals are trumping the outdated laws of your deity.

As for charity – does religion make you more charitable? Well, yes, it does seem as though some studies indicate charitable donations tend to be the domain of the religious. But they also show that it is not necessarily the religious aspect that compels this giving attitude – it is more the social construct.

And, the question must be raised, when a religious person gives to charity, is it completely altruistic, or might the donation also be seen as oiling the runners on the escalator to Heaven? It doesn’t really matter – the point is that charity, whatever the motive, helps in the real world, but if you’re arguing for the superiority of religion over humanism in this area, you should tread carefully. Philanthropy is a love of humanity, and what could be more humanist than that?

If we could snap our fingers and vanish religion from the face of the Earth tomorrow, charity would not end. We humans are social creatures, and it is social ties that promote charity, not dogmatic faith.

Taking my earlier example of karate, some of the clubs I’ve been involved with put on events to raise money for charity – something a multitude of secular groups, big and small, do all the time. Personally speaking, I tend to give to charity these days at the behest of those in my own circles, whether asked at social events, or by responding to requests via online networks such as Facebook or Twitter (both of which have been used by many individuals and causes to raise vast sums for charity). Religion offers a fantastic community structure, but without religion, existing secular networks of many kinds would expand and new ones would be created to fill the gaps.

I have a couple of other minor issues with the piece. Dr. Shakespeare says that ‘nones’ (those who answer ‘none’ to religious preference on census returns) are “people who belong to no religion but still believe in God”. This is not accurate – ‘nones’ include atheists (who do not accept the idea of any gods).

I’d also take issue with his description of paganism and Scientology as being “new religious movements”. Paganism covers a wide range of religious beliefs, many of which pre-date Christianity by several centuries. Perhaps he meant Neo-paganism, but that is usually a resurrection of an older religious idea anyway. As for Scientology, I wouldn’t class that as a true religion – a label it mainly uses in order to avoid paying tax wherever possible and to claim religious discrimination at every opportunity. It’s more of a pay-as-you-go self-help course, at best.

My overall response to Dr. Shakespeare’s article, however, is that it’s not religion that makes us socially responsible, caring, empathetic creatures – it is the fact that we are human, and that is what humanism is all about. It is not religion that is good, it is people that are good.