Monday, April 16, 2012

Five Years After Virginia Tech

Over the years, sadly, the American culture has grown accustomed to the reality that, from time to time, somewhere someone will open fire on students at a high school or a college.

It's to be expected, I have heard some people say, in a country where private gun ownership is not only legal but encouraged.

I don't know if that is true or not, but there are a few things I do know.

For one, I know that we seem to have shootings on school grounds every year, at least since the mid–20th century.

Now, even though gun ownership in the United States has been legal — but not absolute — since the nation broke from England in the 18th century, we haven't had school shootings every year.

The first one that I know of occurred in 1966 on the University of Texas campus. There might have been some before that, but if there were, I haven't heard about them.

There were occasional shootings on campuses throughout the 1970s, but not very many, and each was followed by shock and dismay — and then by recrimination. How could such a thing happen? What reason could there have been?

In the last three decades, though, there has been a literal explosion of such incidents. They have not been confined to a single state or region. Sometimes they involve other students; sometimes they involve adults.

I guess the culture adapted to the new reality because it became more difficult to shock people. I suppose people started running out of senseless reasons for senseless acts and just accepted shootings as things that could happen anywhere (not just on school grounds) at any time for any reason.

(Frankly, I have long believed the ultimate in pointless reasons for committing a pointless act was given when a teenage girl gave this as her excuse for shooting at children in a school playground: "I don't like Mondays."

(The gender of the shooter in that case was highly unusual. As the cold and clinical studies of this phenomenon have demonstrated, nearly all school shootings are perpetrated by males.)

Another thing I know is that the body count at Virginia Tech was the greatest of any school shooting with which I am familiar. In nearly all such incidents, the body count can be done with one hand, maybe two. But more than 30 people died on the Virginia Tech campus — and more than two dozen others were injured, some permanently.

I have been a student on three college/university campuses in my life. I've been a journalism instructor on two others, one of which was at the time and in the vicinity of the Oklahoma City bombing.

And I can only imagine what it must have been like on the Virginia Tech campus that day.

Make no mistake about it. The Oklahoma City bombing was a horrific experience for my students, many of whom had grown up in Oklahoma City. That bombing was literally in their own back yards. One of my students lost her father in the explosion.

It doesn't get more personal than that.

But I think it would have been an even more personal event for those students if the bomb had been set off on the OU campus — in the campus food court where just about everyone must have eaten a meal at least once or along the sidewalks the students traversed every day.

That had become their daily lives, and an attack on that setting would have been an even more egregious violation.

It must have been that way for the students of Virginia Tech five years ago today. On that Monday, they were getting up and going about their early morning routines when the first victims were shot. When the other attacks began, of course, classes were under way all over campus.

What started as an ordinary day suddenly went terribly wrong.

And a nation watched in pained — and mostly stunned — silence.

On the first anniversary, Virginia Tech paid tribute to those whose lives were lost on that day and remembered the special talents that brought each to the VT campus.

Many other campuses probably could have (and would have) said similar things about the victims if such a terrible event had happened somewhere else. It would have been proper to do so — as it certainly was for the Virginia Tech community. It was, I suppose, a way of seeking closure.

I've written here before of my skepticism that such a thing as closure is really possible, but even a thing as elusive as closure is easier to achieve than finding answers for why things like this happen. The News & Advocate of Lynchburg, Va., reports there have been few answers for the victims' survivors in the last five years.

It is doubtful that they will find more in the next five years.

No comments: