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

April 17, 2007, 1:31 pm

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 i
nstitutional 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?

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