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Three score and ten or more

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Virginia Tech

The blogosphere has been full of comments about the Virginia Tech Massacre, as one would expect. That is the kind of event, like 9/11 or the murder of John Kennedy, which leaves a mark. I remember the moment I heard about Kennedy's death, where I was, what I was doing, and everything else about that moment. I also remember being rousted out of a nap by a phone call from one of my sons, who said only "Turn on your TV, the world is being changed". When I first heard of the happenings at Virginia Tech, I was sitting in the dentist's office waiting to have a root canal done. I glanced up at the plasma TV on the wall to see a printed crawl under whatever was playing that said "At least twenty eight people are dead in what has been called the greatest school massacre in U.S. history". Shocked, I requested a change to a news channel, and they had to almost drag me into the office for treatment.

I went home, turned on the TV and watched for as much time as I could stand it. Every channel had a talking head or two, blithering on, obviously without a clue as to what exactly happened, or who was involved. The only newscaster whose report at that time I respected was Sheppard Smith, of Fox News, who, though he was bracketed by Know nothing chatterers said something to the effect that "We have a report that someone has killed up to thirty students at Virginia Tech, and we have no other real facts to report, but we have reporters near the scene and he hope to be able to give you some real information very soon." Already the politics panderers were beginning to talk about gun restrictions, campus police failures (Including one who ventured the opinion that no one on a college campus was safe with the collection of rent-a-cops that were typical campus police).

I am now really tired to the pundits who are going on about how nobody saw the warning signs and did anything about it. If the police could do anything about everybody who is a little weird, writes scary plays, etc. etc. All the horror authors would be in jail or locked up somewhere, as would the movie makers who made all the chain saw, hockey mask, we know what you did stuff and made millions. There just isn't much, in a free society, that you can do about someone till he does something. If the fact that he was "upskirting" girls with his cell phone were easily prosecutable, the internet would be short by hundreds of web pages.

I then take up those who are screaming "what about the two hours?" Why wasn't the campus locked down after the first shooting. This is a campus with well over twenty thousand students. It is a community with a police force that was doing what police forces do, trying to find out who committed the first crime. Locking the campus down would be as effective as trying to lock down any other community of twenty plus thousand. I was once offered a job teaching in a New York City high school (of the arts, mainly) in which, when the bell rang, the doors of the classrooms shut and locked, and the teacher was "locked in" till the next bell (tardies were also locked out). I considered the offer (which was financially much more exciting than the college teaching jobs I was considering at the time) and ran like a bunny. I had taught high school in a place where I could throw students out (send to the principal) and I wasn't about to get into an environment where the unruly might rule. I am a teacher and an artist, not a jailor. Frankly I doubt that this high school procedure might be more effective than trying to lock down a university, but I doubt it. As far as the rent-a-cop thing is concerned, I spent over forty years teaching in universities, and I will have to admit that when I began, the rent-a-cop appellation was appropriate. In that forty years I have seen college police forces evolve to the stage where officers attend police academies, the forces have detective bureaus, and in some cases pay more than regular local law enforcement. In other words, they are, for the most part, very professional.

The final canard that I just can't abide is blaming the victims. "Why didn't they fight back?" "I would rather die fighting than just standing there." And on and on and on. I will state unequivocally that ninety percent of those who say that don't know what they are talking about. You don't know what you would do in a particular situation unless you have either been there before or been trained for it. I admire the holocaust survivor who literally threw his body into the saving of the students, and I recognize the experience that prepared him for it.

I "once had a very close friend" who read an ad in some magazine that the forest service was accepting applications for being smoke jumpers. Applicants who were accepted would go to Missoula, Montana to train, and then would spend the summer jumping out of airplanes to put out forest fires. Jumping out of airplanes sounded romantic and fun. "I can do that" he exclaimed and applied for the position (he actually talked several friends into applying as well). If one were under twenty one, the application had to be signed by a parent, and he talked his dad into signing, was accepted and away he went.

Training to jump out of airplanes entailed (then, I don’t know about now) vigorous exercise that would compare to basis training, doing sit-ups forever with one's legs hung over a fence three feet from the ground, practicing landing by jumping out of a moving pick-up going thirty miles an hour (maybe less) down a dirt road while wearing a full pack, dropping from a jump tower a number of times.

Even with that training, you don't know what you will do. Looking out of the door of an old Ford Tri Motor plane at the ground (usually closer than you see for sport parachuting) slipping rapidly along below you and knowing that the parachute is only ten or twelve (I forget) feet in diameter and that you are going to come down like a rock. You don't know what you will do.

Some learn to love it, some grit their teeth and do it because they don't want folks to laugh, but none of them know what they will really do on the first jump, or even the second or third.

My "friend" received a letter from his father sometime after his third jump that said essentially "I wish you would quit and come home, because your mother is never going to forgive me for signing that thing without consultation. I have found you a job that pays just as much, and life would be so much better if you would come home." Some folks would have stubbornly stayed whether their stomachs turned every time that damn plane slowed to jump speed, but my friend said "Thank God, I have an excuse." He showed the letter to his superior, was released (at some minor financial sacrifice) and went home vowing that he would never jump out of an airplane again unless it was crashing, and maybe not then. His worst fear was that he would freeze on a jump. Even after all that training he didn’t really know what he would do.

This is comparable. Those students, like those who criticize them didn't know what they would do, and they all did what seemed possible at the time. Anyone who would like to trade places and try to do better has my permission.

We don't know yet all the details, but no matter. We will never really know why he did what he did, why the students reacted as they did, and any conclusions we draw are really just, to quote an old railroad man with whom I used to work, "pissing up wind". What can we do about it? Nothing. I am sure that we will hear proposals coming close to automatic locks on classroom doors, preventing anyone from ever owning a gun (as if a gun couldn't be found somewhere, someway, by anyone who wants one badly enough, especially if that anyone plans to do something evil.), locking up the mentally disturbed (who decides who is mentally disturbed? Ask Solzhenitsyn!!). As for me, I just wish I could hug the survivors and their families. They will be in my prayers for a long time, and everything else we hear is mostly supposition. I resolve that for the next ten days I will hate all talking heads on TV. Perhaps one, like Sheppard Smith at that one moment, will surprise me, and prevent me from ruining my digestion, sitting on all that hate.


At 9:12 PM, Blogger Gayle said...

You won't be alone, Richard. I already hate all the talking heads on TV. I just posted as to why I won't be posting on this subject again.

Honestly, the media has been showing those pictures over and over, ad infinitum, and it makes me ill to look at that deranged idiot's face. I can only imagine how seeing those pictures must cause even more horror to the loved ones of the victims! This blaring the killer's name and showing his pictures non stop will only generate copycat killers. It's truly disgusting!

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Gayle said...

Richard, I saw your comment on my blog and I will send you e-mailed directions for linking people to your front page, and for de-linking them, but I don't have your e-mail address.

I have comment moderation on, so if you want to, you can post your e-mail address on my blog. No one but me will see it and I promise I won't publish it. I will also delete the comment after I copy your address. I don't want to post my e-mail address here because you don't have comment moderation enabled.

At 3:26 AM, Blogger Norma said...

Having spent all my professional life on a college campus, I've come away from this with tremendous respect for VA Tech's college president and for its marvelous students.

The people trying to second guess what the police and administrators should have done were wrong in most of the cases I remember. They have no idea how difficult it is to "lock down" an area of 2600 acres with hundreds of classrooms and commuters and multiple roads, nor do they understand the privacy laws that have tied the hands of authorities at every turn.

My favorite memory of trying to report a problem on a college campus was when one of my student staff told me of inappropriate behavior of a male using the library. I must have called 5 or 6 offices trying to report this, starting with my own boss. When I finally got to the right one, I discovered the person was "unavailable." Then I glanced at the paper and saw that she had been arrested for stealing.


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