Total Drek

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Unprepared

As Slag mentioned yesterday, we here at Total Drek feel the deepest sympathy for the faculty and students of Virginia Tech as well as the families of everyone involved in Monday's violence. What has happened is shocking to a great many people, not because violence this bad or worse is uncommon, but because violence like this at a major U.S. university is so very unusual.* Perhaps beyond that simple reason is the senselessness of it. A single individual pursuing and gunning down so many of his fellow students and instructors** without a clear reason is horrifying and disturbing.***

In the coming weeks we will doubtless learn more about how exactly this all came to pass. We will learn about the perpetrator and his mental problems. We will hear about how he obtained firearms and, perhaps, why he chose to use them. We will also hear about how colleges are prepared to deal with this sort of violence. That, in particular, has already begun. The president of my own University, within a day of the Virginia Tech debacle, sent a mass e-mail detailing all the steps taken by the university in recent years to make sure something like that doesn't happen here. What concerns me is that, had this incident happened here I am quite sure the president of Virginia Tech would have sent the same e-mail.

Years ago when I was learning to be a teacher I asked a member of my faculty if there were some procedures or guidelines for dealing with a student who came to class armed and unbalanced. What I was given was a set of instructions from the university that began with "Evacuate the classroom in a calm and orderly fashion." To this I could only respond, "That's really the trick, isn't it?" I can figure out for myself that if someone comes to class armed and dangerous we should all probably try to get away, but it's the HOW of it that I need help with. I'm not saying I want the university to train me as a hostage negotiator, but some sort of advice would be helpful. Reading this recent e-mail from my university President, I experienced an echo of the same disbelief I felt all those years ago. The e-mail told me about all kinds of training seminars, workshops, and initiatives to deal with such problems... all of which I had never heard of. Considering that my department teaches an awful lot of students, if we've not received any of this training I find it doubtful that very many instructors have. I don't object to training SWAT teams and campus police to deal with this sort of thing but, really, by the time they get involved the carnage is already largely over.

I know that research is the primary goal of an awful lot of universities. I know that we're usually discouraged from devoting too much time to teaching. I get that. I don't always agree with it, but I get it, and most of the time I'm onboard. The problem is that when I stop and think about it, one thing keeps running through my mind: This didn't happen because we've been paying too much attention to the students.

We are now, and have been for quite some time, unprepared for this sort of thing. Speaking personally, I just wish we wouldn't pretend otherwise.


* One of my colleagues is very specific on this point, arguing that violence like this is constantly occurring around the world more or less unnoticed in the U.S. This is, of course, true but it doesn't in any way reduce the impact of this event for us. Rightly or wrongly we, like most other humans, feel tragedies that strike our own tribe members more strongly than those that effect others.

** Including a holocaust survivor, Liviu Librescu, who attempted to prevent the gunman from entering his classroom by blocking the door with his own body.

*** It's one of the interesting quirks of human nature that we react more strongly to "senseless" killing than other kinds. So, if you kill me because I got in your way during a robbery, we at least can understand that. It was instrumental killing. Killing someone just for the hell of it? That seems to elude most people's grasp and, thus, is more terrifying. Yet, at the end of the day, killing is still killing.

As a side note: Quite clearly I'm in a bad mood about all this.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Drek's Officemate said...

Well, the news about why he did it is starting to come out. There's new article up at the NYTimes that begins laying out his history.

Apparently he has a history of complaints against him, along with a stay in a mental institution. The write-up seems to be suggesting that the complaints continued post-release, but that no one pressed charges. Really makes one wonder (1) how things might have been different if charges were pressed at some point and (2) how common an occurrence it is for someone to not get treatment when needed. My guess is relatively common in our society, but have nothing in the way of evidence to back that up.

Also, looks as if both of the firearms used were legally obtained. Demonstrating my loyalties to the far left here, but seems to be one more piece of evidence that handguns should be more tightly controlled and regulated.

Depressing stuff all around, which just goes to demonstrate just how unprepared we are for these sort of crises.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My university sent similar e-mails, including a message from the chief of police about how they've been encouraging and training (!) students and faculty to use keys and pass cards to get into campus buildings. This less than 6 months after the powers that be told us that we couldn't lock the floor to our building* at night anymore because it's an open campus. Left hand, meet right hand. Kim

*where, coincidentally, most foreign language classes are held.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007 10:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a post for you, Drek: notice that most CNN and MSM pictures of students mourning have been labeled with a variant of the caption, "students pray for victims...?" I know it sounds petty, but why does the caption-writer assume they were praying, as opposed to crying, or thinking about their friends, or observing a moment of silence, or any of the other hundreds, if not thousands, of ways people deal with grief?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007 10:36:00 PM  
Blogger TDEC said...

To elaborate on your point about how we are more sensitive to sensless killing than to "instrumental" killing - pre-meditation makes things worse. We can somehow understand a murder in blind anger; but the kind of cold-bloodedness that allows someone to plan out the media reaction to the murders is beyond the comprehension of most of us; though it didn't stop anyone from broadcasting the video. The aversion which this media-amplified natural reaction creates is not especially helpful though; instead it just ends up in morbid examination of details, and repeated I-told-you-so statements from people who noticed something wrong. Not sure what the alternative is. While predictably I am for gun control, I don't necessarily believe that that would have prevented this, and I don't think this is the kind of eventuality you can really cover yourself for. As you mention, though, some real and practical guidelines might help.

Thursday, April 19, 2007 5:20:00 AM  

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