Tragedy at Virginia Tech
Bill Long 4/16/07; 11:25 a.m. PT
An Unfolding Story
Though I know none of the 26,000 students or thousands of faculty and staff members who belong to the Virginia Tech community in sleepy Blacksburg, VA, I was overwhelmed with sadness this morning for that university and especially for the families of the now more than 30 dead young people who were killed in the gun rampage this morning. I have worked with young people for years, and, almost without exception, they are hopeful and motivated people. They so much want to make the world a better place, even if their major failing is that they believe that people are better (i.e., less evil) than they actually are. Yet after today, a lot more people, regardless of age, will be more skeptical, and even cynical about people.
Details are still sketchy at this hour, but we know that around 7:15 a.m. ET a gunman entered into the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall (an 895-member student dorm) and killed a person. Ambler Johnston is on the south side of the campus. Two or three hours later, a gunman, presumably the same guy, described only at this hour as an Asian young man, executed more than 2 dozen students in the engineering sciences building. Norris Hall, that building, is on the north side of the campus, just north of the sprawling Drill Field, which forms the center of the campus. While sooner or later we will know who the culprit is (a disenchanted former student?), the killings will not only evoke an outpouring of grief, but will, I hope, cause us to rethink campus safety, guns and the terminology we use to describe the "enemies" we face today. A few words on each...
The hard-core realists in the security business know that the best thing that every happened to them was 9/11. Phones began to ring off the hook; profits were up; speakers who could talk endlessly on security topics were in demand. We as a society in a sense gave ourselves over to the security folk without doing "background checks" on them. That, indeed, is a pretty big problem, I think, because often people in that field tend to have different assumptions about what constitutes a good society than the rest of us. Nevertheless, the tragedy in VA will spark debates about making campuses even more secure. There will be demands for more police, more metal detectors, more random ID checks, etc. There will be a greater degree of suspicion/surveillance at places which want to cultivate the values of open and civil discussion. And, there will also be massive discussion of what constitutes proper response and communcation by authorities in the case of this kind of emergency. An argument can be made that after the first shooting at 7:15 a.m., the entire campus ought to have been locked down, with classes cancelled, until the shooting was completely investigated. Dozens of lives may have been saved.
The Culture of Guns
I was actually disgusted with the first report of President Bush's response to this tragedy. Press Spokeswoman Dana Perino couched his words of sympathy with the mention of his continuing support of 2nd Amendment rights (this was the first report in the press that I read. It has since disappeared). That kind of statement is not only a sop to the same people that Mitt Romney was trying to win over a few weeks ago, but is totally inappropriate when first reacting to this human tragedy. The online news clip of Perino only relates Bush's sympathetic comments. In any case, what this shooting should provoke is some kind of debate regarding the types of weapons that we think ought to be fairly easily available in our culture. This debate has been squelched both because of the perception of more important issues "out there" i.e, a "global war on terror," as well as because the powers that be don't want to offend the gun lobby, but it may be time to re-examine what we think about guns. I think in the future that we may have "gun-free zones" or "gun-free cities" in our culture, while permitting them to be properly carried/stored in other areas.
Getting Beyond Ideology
Finally, what I hope this shooting might contribute to getting us beyond the ideological straight-jacket in which we, as Americans, currently find ourselves. Ever since 9/11 we have been told that our enemy is external, primarily Muslim, is a "terrorist," and that we must therefore engage in a "war on terror." Just today a prominent British politician questioned the utility of that phrase for the future. His point was that it connoted too much of a "hard" response to the complex problems of the Middle East. What was needed also was a "soft" response--focusing of values and ideas. Indeed, what this shooting should remind us of is that many of the people that threaten us are in our midst are people who supposedly share the same values and language and experience as those of us who live here all the time. To try to capture the national will with a phrase like "war on terror" when the complexities of our own incompetence and inadequate preparations for that war are becoming more evident by the day, is no longer helpful or necessary. Perhaps the shooting will help us learn to redefine the nature of the dangers we face as individuals and a society.
The story continues to unfold. I hope that the number of fatalities doesn't have to be adjusted upward as the days go on. But I weep for the families of those who lost loved ones so so senselessly. Anyone with student-age kids has to feel this tragedy in a deep way. Mourning days are here.