Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Would You Do? A Rumination on the Virginia Tech Shootings

For the most recent update on yesterday's tragic massacre at Virginia Tech you can go to MSNBC; this article identifies the shooter as Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a senior English major. Why the shooting happened is as yet undetermined.

Such events are both familiar and strange -- the violent death of young people who were where they were supposed to be, but simultaneously in the "wrong place," is a particularly paradoxical feature of school shootings. Perhaps this is why it is very difficult to have a cogent response to to them. One person I know pointed out that probably more people who are just trying to live their own lives will be killed in Baghdad today than were killed in Virginia (there's a cheerful thought); while news stories in the Northeast are already pointing to virtually unrestricted gun ownership in Virginia that, acording to the Brady Center, has created a more or less free market in hand guns and assault weapons. Some sales can be made legally without background checks. One of Virginia's few concessions to other states has been to restrict hand gun sales to one a month for each buyer, to hinder domestic and international arms trafficking or the appearance thereof: since the Tech shooter had two handguns, one imagines a two or three month wait before his fantasy attack could be carried out. This is apparently normal for such people anyway, since school shootings are usually planned very carefully and well in advance by the perpetrator for maximum cultural impact.

What will surely follow are new calls to restrict the sale of guns, but criminalizing ownership may really not be the answer to gun violence, particularly given the federal government's lack of success in enforcing other prohibitions and the history of those prohibitions creating lucrative, unregulatable markets that are managed by violent people. I find myself, uncharacteristically, thinking that gun lobbyists (as opposed to the lunatic fringe they enable) may be correct about regulation being a political, rather than a practical, response to escalating gun violence. Where you have to concede a point to the National Rifle Association, whose annual convention begins today (lucky them), is that it only takes one gun, legal or illegal, (in this case two and a lot of ammo) in the hands of one unhinged and highly focused person to do a lot of damage, and that illegal markets will escalate the indiscriminate distribution of guns. I say this as someone who would like to see all guns, except for sporting weapons used by people trained in the ethics and practice of sport shooting, out of public circulation entirely. But I can't kid myself that federal enforcement is the answer: I am a historian who has written about how the federal Prohibition of alcohol created violence on a mass scale and produced new forms of organized, violent crime that then required federal intervention. I am also an observer of history, who has seen the United States government's "war on drugs" produce an unstoppable international trade in narcotics; urban violence that is a direct outcome of drug trafficking in the United States and that is particularly devastating to the poor; and international interventions by the United States military that use the "war on drugs" as a partial cover for the repression of leftist and indigenous movements in the Americas. If federal prohibitions of anything actually work, do leave a comment to let me know when and where.

So I have no fantasies about the federal government's capacity to rid us of guns even if it had the political will to do so. It might be more efficient to do psychological screenings of all undergraduates currently registered as English majors.

But, distraught as it makes me to think about the students who have either been killed or suffered terrible trauma from such events, what I am continually haunted by are the teachers. So far, two faculty members have been identified as among the dead, one of whom may have tried to block the classroom door to give his students time to escape through a second story window. Another faculty member, interviewed yesterday on NPR's Fresh Air, described barricading himself in his office as he heard the gunfire below, listening to students and faculty being shot and not knowing where his two children (enrolled at Tech) were at that precise moment. And I know that I am thinking about this because the human mind grasps precisely what it can handle and no more but: am I the only college teacher wondering whether I would have the courage to try to save student lives in such a pointlessly horrible situation, knowing that mine might be taken in the process? Or the flip side: have you imagined the agony of hearing or watching students being murdered while knowing that you were powerless to do anything to help them?

It's important to know that such events are not confined to large schools where a troubled student may have little or no contact with a professor for most of his or her time as an undergraduate. Here at Zenith, a couple years before I started as an assistant professor, we had a student who constructed and disseminated an elaborate fantasy about himself as a Palestinian freedom fighter who was also dedicated to radical Black struggle in the United States. I won't go into the details, because I know them only second hand, but needless to say he was not Palestinian, and he had not been raised in a refugee camp in the Middle East, but in a pretty ordinary place in the United States. He was involved in some scary events at Zenith and, after he was gunned down in Hartford in a drug deal, it turned out that a great many people knew that he kept an arsenal of weapons in his room.

One thing that has always mystified me, other than the fact that no one effectively put together the fact that this young person spoke about political violence and that students reported having seen guns in his room, is that for the almost two decades I have worked at Zenith, this story will occasionally come up as if it happened yesterday. To many of my colleagues who worked here then it is as vivid a memory, even if they had no direct experience of this student, as anything they have experienced. My interpretation in the past has been that this is some tale that is not unrelated to the general suspicion of young people of color, a suspicion not untypical of central Connecicut and not untypical of white-dominated elite schools. I still think this can be a factor in why, and under what circumstances, this story is re-told.

But sorting my jumble of responses to the Virginia Tech shootings has altered my perspective somewhat: I now think that there are versions of institutional trauma that do not go away, no matter how tangential the connections to individuals in the community are. As tragic as this situation at my university was -- a deluded young person who didn't think it was good enough to just be himself, whose delusions led him into a situation he was utterly unprepared for, and who might have taken other students and faculty down with him -- I think what my colleagues who worked at Zenith then are still asking themselves is: Why didn't I know? What should I have done?

Incidents like yesterday's massacre at Virginia Tech open a terrible chasm of speculation and doubt, even -- or perhaps especially -- for those of us who experience them second or third-hand. What are our responsibilities towards students and to each other? We are not trained to make the kind of decisions that being confronted by a mass murderer calls for, that detecting lunatics in our midst and differentiating them from students who are simply grandiose and/or strung out, requires. Nor have many of us sorted through the ethical dilemmas that watching people in our care and friends in lethal danger might call for. There is part of me that hopes that I would be brave enough and strong enough to help my students, or perceptive enough to know that all was lost anyway and that one act in the breach could save many other lives, but I really don't know that that is true.

Would you? And horrible as it may seem that such a calamity could happen on any campus just as unexpectedly, do we need to talk about this as a community of educators?


Anonymous said...

I think we do need to talk about it. One step further, as odd as it seems, maybe part of the curriculum in the 21st Century includes how to react in the face of exteme violence.

I struggled with many of the things you mentioned myself over the last 24 hours. How do I prepare my own kids to handle such a crisis? How do I make the kind of decision that will result in lives saved if ever put in a similar place with my students? Do I even know how to do that?

Life in the 21st Century dictates rethinking the curriculum in many ways, maybe safety and ethics in danger are two more areas about which we should be talking?

Stop by my blog and let's keep the conversation going.

Anonymous said...

They don't do the fire safety inspections at Zenith just to look for tapestries and candles.

Anonymous said...

Tenured Radical:

I'd just like to comment on the Virginia Tech shootings, and your BLOG comes the closest to my own feelings on it as any of the many I've looked at. I'm looking at it from several different angles myself. This is such a horrible incident. My prayers and heartfelt sympathy go out to all those touched by this incident -- including the family of Cho Seung-Hui.

I'm a former police officer and soldier. I'm an expert rifleman and pistol shooter, but have not been active in those sports for years due to time constraints imposed by my current career. Being a seasoned shooter, the first response that popped into my mind was "What if one - or more - of the students or faculty members had been armed?" Then I remembered another mass shooting that occured in a mall less than a half-hour drive from my home & work. A young man who suffered from shcizophrenia and depression opened fire within the mall with an AK-47 so that others would "know his pain." Unlike Cho Seung-Hui, this individual should have never been able to acquire any firearm under current law. (But he obviously did.) There was a young man in the mall who had a valid concealed-carry permit and was armed at the time. He made the mistake of drawing the shooter's attention while drawing his pistol by shouting at him to drop his weapon, and was severely wounded for his trouble. This underscores the point that merely being armed when one of these events occurs is not enough. In these situations, you need to be at a level of training where your reactions are instinctive, because when lead is flying around there's no time to think through your response. The young man who was shot while drawing his pistol probably hoped that by displaying his weapon he could diffuse the situation. An admirable - but mis-guided - endeavor on his part. My point is: Unless you are willing to spend the time & money to become thoroughly familiar with - and trained in the use of - your weapon, you are probably better off to not go armed. There's a lot more to weapons training than just hitting the target these days. You need to be sure that you are justified in even displaying your weapon, much less using it, if you want to avoid felony assault charges in most jurisdictions.

All the considerations invovled with weapons carry by civilians could lead to a book, so let's just leave it as a point for further rhetorical discussion, since there were obviously no armed citizens present at this incident.

I try to understand what would drive a young man with his whole life ahead of him to plan and execute such a horrendous act? Ultimately, the responsibility is his, but I still have to wonder about the motivating factors. Obviously, those actions were not the product of a normally reasoning mind. We hear that Cho Seung-Hui was quiet & kept to himself, that he didn't appear to make friends easily. There have also been reports that his writings were so dark that at least one professor reported him to the Virginia Tech administration. Sadly, she was told that there was nothing that the school could do to address the situation. To her credit, she attempted to counsel him to seek professional help, but I'm unclear as to whether he did or not.

As a father in a driven family (we're heavy on professionals and technicians), I also look at this situation and wonder if I'm putting too much pressure on my children to excel. This is just one of the reasons why my sympathy & prayers go out to Cho Seung-Hui's family. They have to be soul-searching during this very painful time. Do we - both as families and as a culture-at-large - put too much emphasis on excellence? Everything has to be the best -- we have to be the best. Best in our studies, best at relationships, best in our career choices . . . We have to go to the best schools, have the best jobs, drive the best cars, live in the best houses, watch the best TVs, and eat only the best foods. Could we be happier and better people if we weren't always striving to be, and to have, the best?

With the current socio-econmic climate in our country, our young people are under more pressure than ever before. How can we ease this pressure on our young people? How do we increase their levels of hope and self-confidence? How do we help them manage their expectations and anxieties?

Right now, I'm full of questions and have very few answers. I have faith that God will use even an event as horrendous as this for ultimate good. How He will go about this is a mystery to me, but that doesn't surprise me either -- since each passing year just continues to show me just how little I really know & understand.

For everyone touched by these shootings: my heart and prayers go out to you. May you find peace.

Anonymous said...

Well, the fact that OBHS is notoriously understaffed and overbooked prooooobably doesn't make the faculty feel any safer about the mental stability of their students.


Bardiac said...

Your question about what you'd do as a professor, whether you'd have the bravery to be the one blocking the door or something echoes with my thoughts today. It's a hard question, but alas, we have to wonder.

Anonymous said...

I think that you HAVE to act. We recently had an office-place shooting. As soon as I heard the announcement to stay in our office suite -- I went to the front, and told the receptionist to lock all the doors and move away from the glass. I then had some husky computer guys move white boards and chairs in front of all the windows and glass doors facing the building. I am not the office manager or highest ranking person in the office -- but I still did it. I told the COB (and basically persuaded him of the right course of action) that we should slow whoever it was down, and make him chose another target.

Luckily for us, the shooter was stopped on another floor. Not so lucky were four workers at another company.

I got teased ALOT about it later. Today though I had several co-workers thank me as they had read articles about how "slowing down" the shooter at VT saved several classrooms. The (very young) receptionist made a special point.

I also contrast the bravery of these engineering faculty -- saving their students and ACTING -- with the selfish behavior of the humanities faculty at Duke. At Duke, they did not even have to risk their own lives to save their students -- but they chose agenda over truth.

pseudored said...

Thank you for this post. I walked through the halls and across campus today pretty much in a daze thinking of these same things. Students are "technically" adults, so how much responsibility do I have for them? Of course that is just talk because I do feel responsible for them. They are MY students and today I thought about how devestated I would be to lose any of them, how much I do feel responsible for them, would hope I would be able to stand for them.
Worse today I found myself sitting in my classrooms wondering what the best way to barricade the door was and where I could put my students so they would be safe. But I am so unprepared. My mother is a middle school teacher and they have a lot of lockdown training, she knows what to do, I don't. I am waiting for some distance to try to sort everything out, but I am shaken, partly because this happened only a few hours away from my school, party because I think all academics are shaken right now. Shaken and heartbroken.

Marcelle Proust said...

I like what the 2nd anonymous said, about action having to be ingrained; you may not have the opportunity to think through the right thing to do, as Been in That Situation did. I ask myself the question you and Bardiac ask, and I think it would depend on how fast things happened, my physical position relative to the danger and to my students, and whether my response was more fear or more anger. If someone barged in and started shooting at a class, and I were near the door, I can imagine that my fear would turn to fury and I would--perhaps stupidly--launch myself at the person. But if I were far from the door and there were a desk to get under, I think I'd get under it and then feel I should do something but be quite unable to move. I also know that when I am frightened I do not think clearly, so it is important to have a plan--multiple plans. What would I do in this classroom, in that, in my office?

Joe said...

It seems clear, in this case, that the educators themselves did everything they should have done. They saw a student developing psychosis and tried to get him help; privacy regulations and fear of litigation, however, prevented their helping him.

We can probably all agree on restricting the sale of firearms to people with psychosis. The problem is a litigational climate (and regulatory climate) that makes it impossible to informally and tenatively identify and formally deal with people who are showing signs of psychosis.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

The other way the effects of this tragedy could've been mitigated is action in the moment of crisis by the students and teachers: tackling, throwing a desk, blocking the door. We saw some of this; fear prevented some of it; shock prevented some of it.

There's the off chance that he could've been immediately stopped by an armed faculty/staff member, but that slim chance alone isn't a basis for legislation (I think there are other reasons to allow professors to pack, but the slim chance it would've mitigated a past tragedy isn't sufficient).

The opportunity to prevent this most clearly lay in recognizing the mental illness which had clearly been building in the student for some time, and was evident to a plurality of the faculty and students involved with him. We should be reexamining current legislation and tort practice that tied the hands of what seems, in this case, an exceptionally perceptive and well-intentioned faculty.

Joe said...

Several of the commenters are asking what motivated this young man; I think this approach represents a fundamental misunderstanding of why these types of cases happen. They are the result of a seriously malfunctioning brain; it is a mistake to try to attribute normal human reasoning to the perpetrators. This is not a case of someone needing to be treated better and talked out of something, it is a case of someone needing behavioral-cognitive therapy and (probably) medication for a chemical brain disorder.

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