Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thoughts on the Virginia Tech shooting

This post originally appeared in my MySpace blog on April 20. I'm reposting here, as part of my effort to maintain my content in both places. Plus, as depressing as it is, it's one of my better posts IMHO (well, at least the second, personal part is).

I debated whether or not to write about the shootings at Virginia Tech. I usually don't write a lot about current events, because most of what needs to be said, gets said--plus a whole lot more. Events like this one get the usual saturation coverage, so why clutter my blog with more? Ah, well, I shall now clutter...

First, I read a great opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education a couple weeks ago by Gary Lavergne, who wrote a book about the infamous shooting at the University of Texas in 1966. His book is called A Sniper in the Tower. I haven't read it, but it sounds interesting. Anyway, Lavergne's essay in the Chronicle, entitled The Legacy of the Texas Tower Sniper, compares that case with the current nightmare, especially addressing our need to place blame and find reasons for these senseless killings. The essay is available free from the Chronicle site, at In case you don't want to read the whole thing, here's a paragraph from near the end, which summarizes his argument (and my own opinion too):

Before we identify and learn the lessons of Blacksburg, we must begin with the obvious: More than four dozen innocent people were gunned down by a murderer who is completely responsible for what happened. No one died for lack of text messages or an alarm system. They died of gunshot wounds. While we painfully learn our lessons, we must not treat each other as if we are responsible for the deaths that occurred. We must come together and be respectful and kind. This is not a time for us to torture ourselves or to seek comfort by finding someone to blame. Maybe as a result of the tragedy we will figure out how to more effectively use e-mail and text messages as emergency tools for warning large populations. We may come up with a plan that successfully clears a large area, with a population density of a midsize city, in less than two hours. Maybe universities will find a way to install surveillance cameras and convince students and faculty members that they are being monitored for their own safety and not for gathering domestic intelligence. All of those steps might be helpful in avoiding and reducing the carnage of any future incidents. But as long as we value living in a free society, we will be vulnerable to those who do harm -- because they want to and know how to do it.
Much of what he says here could be applied to 9-11 also.

Now, from the academic to the personal:

School shootings of any sort always take me back to 1989, when a nutcase named Patrick Purdy opened fire with an AK-47 on a schoolyard full of children in Stockton, CA. It happened just a few months before I left Stockton, and it remains one of my most painful memories from my time there. I had worked at the school two or three years prior to the incident, and I was just a few blocks away when the shooting occurred.

I remember scanning the list of the dead and wounded for familiar names. There were none, but that didn't make it any better.

I remember driving to the blood bank to donate blood (which I had never done before, because I was deathly afraid of needles, but it was the one thing I thought I could do to help). When I arrived, the line of blood donors stretched out the door and clear around the block. I decided they'd probably get enough blood, and I drove away with my faith in humanity slightly restored.

I remember Michael Jackson coming to the dilapidated county hospital in French Camp, where many of the survivors were receiving care. He tried to keep his visit quiet to avoid a media circus and nearly succeeded. When he was accused of molesting children a few years later, I had a hard time believing that could be true of someone who cared enough to visit wounded kids in a run-down county hospital, without a PR team in tow.

I remember news coverage of the memorial service for the victims, which drew thousands of people and, for one brief moment, seemed to bring together people of all ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic levels, united in mourning for these children who were slaughtered so senselessly. In a city like Stockton, such unity was rare.

I remember watching CNN coverage, listening to commentators try to make sense of a senseless act. Purdy's family and friends said he hated Asians. They said a lot of other stuff I don't remember. But nothing they said came close to explaining why he murdered 2nd-graders in cold blood. And since he blew his own brains out, there on that schoolyard, we'll never really know why he did it. Maybe he didn't know why he did it either.

I still have the newspaper articles about the incident. I don't know why I keep them, since I can't bear to read them. And I still can't listen to White Lion's "When the Children Cry." It was popular around that time, and the lyrics hit too close to home.

I suspect the folks in Blacksburg, VA, will always remember where they were when they heard the news, and they'll remember pieces of the aftermath, just as I remember what happened in Stockton over 18 years ago. There will be newspapers they can't read and songs they can't listen to. And someday something similar will happen elsewhere that will bring the painful memories flooding back to them, as this incident has brought back painful memories for me. Tragedies strip away much of what separates us, leaving us with only our pain--and our common humanity.


Anonymous said...

Sigh. In almost every case the individuals involved have been allowed to plea bargain major charges down or their victims were encouraged to not file charges.

Mr. Purdy had pleaded violent sexual assault down to a misdemeanor; Kip Kinkel (my brother is an ER nurse in Springfield) had been allowed to roam free after attempting homicide by dropping large rocks onto the windows of cars passing under a freeway overpass; the Columbine Crew were already on probation for auto burglary and made repeated threats against other students that were ignored by police and other authorities; and the offender at VA Tech had not been charged in repeated stalking incidents - and to make matters worse, clerical error meant that his involuntary commitment by a court wasn't entered into the state database as the state law required.

The reality is that when violent individuals act out repeatedly, we tend to excuse them, and then we all act surprised and horrified when they kill someone. And then we blame everything from firearms to video games and indulge in narcissistic guilt. Maybe we need to start taking violent behavior seriously, and recognizing that sympathy, counselling and therapy do not cure sociopaths?

M.Lib, UW, Seattle, 1985

Janet said...

Thank you for your comment. You're right. In an overloaded criminal justice system, we're more concerned with moving cases through the system than with protecting society--or even determining guilt or innocence. In such a system, the guilty often go free, and sometimes the innocent are convicted.