I have a serious question. When did it become okay to criticize college students, or indeed any innocent bystanders, for failing to prevent or halt a horiffic school shooting? Is this the internet’s fault, or talk radio’s? Honestly, I feel like something has seriously changed since 1999, when Columbine got people blaming the parents, the guns, bullies, Doom, and Marilyn Manson … but not, as I recall, the actual students who had to run and hide for their lives. If I’m right, and this is new, we are worse people since then.
I agree that it is appropriate, after a school shooting, to ask whether the school administration and security did enough to predict and prevent it, though we should keep in mind that hindsight is 20/20. I agree that it’s fair to suggest that a culture of harassment and bullying makes it more likely that violence, including fatal or mass violence, will occur, though obviously there isn’t a one-to-one ratio. Diciest of all, I can agree that it becomes fair game to at least wonder whether the parents and home life contributed to a shooter’s mental problems, though I’m certainly not going to invite any bad parenting karma by bragging that no child of mine could ever, ever, ever do such a thing. But to say, as the National Review’s John Derbyshire does, that Virginia Tech students were deficient in not rushing a deranged shooter in an attempt to disarm him … well, there’s no “though” there. That’s just fucked up.
As NRO’s designated chickenhawk, let me be the one to ask: Where was the spirit of self-defense here? Setting aside the ludicrous campus ban on licensed conceals, why didn’t anyone rush the guy? It’s not like this was Rambo, hosing the place down with automatic weapons. He had two handguns for goodness’ sake—one of them reportedly a .22.
At the very least, count the shots and jump him reloading or changing hands. Better yet, just jump him. Handguns aren’t very accurate, even at close range. I shoot mine all the time at the range, and I still can’t hit squat. I doubt this guy was any better than I am. And even if hit, a .22 needs to find something important to do real damage—your chances aren’t bad.
Yes, yes, I know it’s easy to say these things: but didn’t the heroes of Flight 93 teach us anything? As the cliche goes—and like most cliches. It’s true—none of us knows what he’d do in a dire situation like that. I hope, however, that if I thought I was going to die anyway, I’d at least take a run at the guy.
If I try to write about this thoroughly (“count shots”? Even the goddamn Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook says that’s nonsense) I’m going to get sick again, so let’s cut to the most important thing here, one that took me a few reads to pick up: the way Derbyshire redefines the extremes of the situation as the norm. Normal people, when they imagine finding themselves on campus with a maniac who is shooting people at random, would unanimously define that as an absolutely critical scenario, and would define the minimum (and probably only) condition of “success” as simple survival. In order for Derbyshire’s pornographic fantasy to make any kind of sense, though, he has to define the scenario as far removed from critical (he only has “two handguns, for goodness’ sake,” and he’s killed less than three dozen people) and define basic success as much more than survival (“I’d at least take a run at the guy”—at least, meaning, “that’s if I couldn’t take him on with a samurai sword”). Furthermore, make no mistake—Derbyshire is directly blaming the victims, as when he says how much braver he would be “if I thought I was going to die anyway.” In other words, Derbyshire is normalizing the concept of a murderous rampage, and is defining a code of honor for those being killed for no reason.
So okay, that’s the National Review, they’re crazy over there, and the right wing in general seems anxious to assert how well they could martyr themselves to prove a point (as with the British sailors captured by Iran, or the captured journalists who disgrace themselves by saving their own lives—post satirical, news real). Then I see this letter to the New York Times, showing how cruel compassion can be:
To the Editor:
Re “Black Day in the Blue Ridge,” by Lucinda Roy (Op-Ed, April 17):
Struck by unimaginable grief, an otherwise unsentimental man says, “We’ll need to act like a family.” Too bad no one thought of that before.
Cho Seung-Hui was the invisible student. It was clear that he was deeply troubled. But instead of reaching out, those closest to him labeled him strange. Instead of intervening, they dismissed and ignored him.
The shooting spree may have been unthinkable, but the suicide was foreseeable. If it had been solitary and silent, would anyone have cared, or even noticed?
To prevent future massacres, we don’t need metal detectors, armed guards or reflexive campus lockdowns. We need more compassion and more humanity. We need to act more like a family.
Austin, Tex., April 17, 2007
Oh, brother. Listen, I don’t know what ABC Family specials you’ve been watching, but the difference between murderously troubled and relatively stable is not an invitation to a birthday party. “Those closest to him,” as defined by this writer, apparently means those who shared a dorm or a class with him by pure chance, and in fact those people acted just as they should have: they went on the record when he wrote troubling material, the teacher told the appropriate authorities and tried to persuade him to go into counseling, and they otherwise stayed out of his way. With no knowledge of the nature of his problems, and no overtures from him whatsoever, no more should be expected or even advised. The idea that anyone, let alone a college student with no psychological training, has a duty to get closer to a loner who makes those around him uncomfortable; the idea that this was a question of deficient “compassion” and “humanity” (my god!), is the most inappropriate sanctimony I’ve seen since Jerry Falwell blamed gays and atheists for 9/11.
When a tragedy strikes, many people become convinced that it could have been, not just predicted, but easily prevented. This is understandable, and probably preferable to the opposite extreme (“no one could have seen this coming, and we need learn no lessons from it”). People want to assign blame, which is nothing new; what is new is the sense that every nearby citizen must consider themselves conscripted, at all times, to prevent random violence, and that it is fair game to blame them after the fact, even if they or their friends were killed. This is a pathology brought on in part, I have to think, by 9/11 and the story of Flight 93, and more generally by the permanent state of siege that we have been told we are under. The letter writer above says that we need more compassion, but what he betrays is a sense of alienation and paranoia, a belief in a world where some of our fellow citizens kill us while the others selfishly let it happen.
• • •
In Gavin DeBecker’s book on predicting violence, The Gift of Fear, he describes a psychological process often undergone by battered women:
The relationship between violence and death is no longer apparent to them. One woman who’d been at a shelter and then returned to her abuser gives us a good example: She called the shelter late one night to ask if she could come back. As always, the first question the counselor asked was “Are you in danger now?” The woman said no. Later in the call the woman added, almost as an aside, that her husband was outside the room with a gun. Hadn’t she just a moment earlier said she wasn’t in danger? To her, if he was in the same room with the gun or the gun was being held to her head, then she would be in danger. (177)
Without in any way trying to lay claim to the specific victimization and trauma De Becker is describing, this is very close to what I think of when I hear people say that our society is self-destructing. We have passed the point where school shootings are thinkable; we are now able, two days after the massacre, to blame the dead for being cowardly and selfish, and to talk matter-of-factly of what we hope to do when we’re caught in the crossfire, without any realization of how insane and monstrous that sounds.