From the top of the world, you can see how vast the forests and fields can be, appreciate how utterly small a single human person is amid the giant logs and craggy rocks and dense brush and brown stalks of cornfields stretching for miles across the southern Virginia landscape. Heading to Charlottesville for a meeting this week, I took the long way down Skyline Drive, as beautiful and majestic a road as any in the United States. And all along the way, as I stopped to enjoy the view from the many overlooks, I could not help but think about the desperate search that’s been going on for three weeks in the Charlottesville area to find Hannah Graham.
Hannah Graham is the University of Virginia student who went missing three weeks ago. A suspect in her disappearance, Jesse Matthew, is now in custody. However, the search for Hannah continues and thus far it seems that there is little real evidence about what happened to her.
Life goes on in Charlottesville, a bustling small city that is home to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, a place that is, at once, the height of southern gentility surrounded by the more earthy realities of farms and rural life. Think preppy blue blazers and Carhartt boots. Amid the well-kept lawns and golf courses, the area is lush with streams and thickets, deeply wooded hillsides and recently-harvested fields. Hannah could be anywhere.
Hannah’s story is, tragically, far from an isolated tale. Several college women have disappeared or been murdered in recent years in southern Virginia, and, nationwide, the problem of missing students became so serious that the federal government imposed regulations several years ago to require colleges to report missing students to the police after 24 hours. Trinity has a missing student policy which, fortunately, we have not had to use, though we are always concerned if a student does not check in regularly with her friends or family.
My reflections driving through Virginia were not just about Hannah Graham, though her story is the most recent of many tales of children gone missing. I thought about the still-unsolved disappearance of Relisha Rudd here in D.C. — how could anyone be so depraved as to harm a child like Relisha?
Some commentators criticize the Hannah Graham coverage as evidence of media myopia about the much larger problem of abuse, kidnapping and murder affecting children and young adults of many different races and backgrounds. Is the disappearance of a relatively privileged young white woman more newsworthy than the disappearance of a young black girl who lived in a homeless shelter?
In fact, ALL of these stories command our attention and demand our action. Violence against women and children is a social plague that makes a mockery of our allegedly advanced society. College campuses have turned out to be no different from the meanest of streets when it comes to violence, particularly violence against women. Perhaps the media glare seems more pronounced in some cases because of the shock of realization that neither wealth nor status are adequate protection when evil stalks the human psyche. In the end, savage evil stalks the Hannahs and Relishas with equal fervor in a society where violence against women and children runs rampant just beneath the surface appearance of civilization. Cashmere blue blazers over muddy hunting boots.
We pray for Hannah and Relisha and all of the lost children. But the miraculous ending for missing children is mostly a fantasy. The real miracle we need to accomplish can only come in an entirely changed attitude in society toward the dignity and worth of every person regardless of age, of gender or race or social status, and a determination to eradicate the violence that destroys too many young lives.
Finding Hannah, like finding Relisha, will bring some level of resolution, a bitter sense of closure, for family and friends. But finding Hannah resolves nothing in the larger context of violence against girls and women unless and until we resolve the conditions that lead to too many search parties and too much grief.