Tuesday, April 17, 2007

VA Tech Massacre: Time for More Second-Guessing

As a parent of a college student and a college professor and administrator, SWNID imagines the grief of the Virginia Tech community, and we offer our sympathy.

We observe briefly that this awful event has already become the object of what has become a favorite American preoccupation: second-guessing the decisions of people with executive power.

By the afternoon of the day of the shooting, Fox News was reporting that some parents were calling for the ouster of VA Tech's president and the police chief of Blacksburg. One parent is quoted as follows:

My God, if someone shoots somebody there should be an immediate lockdown of the campus. They totally blew it. The president blew it, campus police blew it. . . .

I hold this president completely accountable. They are cowards. They can’t come out and say they made a mistake.

Today's WaPo contains similar sentiments, more tastefully muted:

More particularly, what more, if anything, could the authorities at Virginia Tech have done to prevent yesterday's carnage? Were possible warning signs, such as bomb threats in the weeks before the incident, adequately investigated? And between the first shootings around 7 a.m., when two people were killed in a dormitory, and the second ones two hours later, when 31 died at a classroom building, did the city and campus police take all possible steps to lock down the university and scour it for the shooter? On a sprawling campus of 2,600 acres and almost 22,000 students, given imperfect communications, is it even feasible to lock every door and bolt every window on short notice?

The good editorialists at the capital's paper seem to answer their own question by the end of the paragraph.

SWNID says (a) humans are bad at predicting the future; (b) evil is ubiquitous and adaptive; (c) the world can't be perfected, even by smart people. We are therefore tired of indignant armchair quarterbacks who rant about "holding people accountable," a phrase we nominate for most irresponsibly and self-righteously employed cliche in current usage, when bad things happen to good people.

People who have to make decisions aren't omniscient. There isn't a "best practices" manual on how to identify and deal with a crazed killer on a major university campus. All who call for a "lockdown" with every incident that might presage some act of violence should recognize the potential that such a policy has for enticing people to act simply to induce a dramatic, expensive, disruptive lockdown on a campus bigger than many towns.

The world is unsafe. More college students will die this year from alcohol abuse than in this incident. College administrators can only do so much about either problem.

Update: St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas seems to be the first to experience the impact of a hoax threat in the wake of Virginia Tech. There will be others as administrators rightly exercise concern about copycats and sadly accede to the pressure to act as if they are omniscient of all threats and omnipotent against them.


Dustin said...

However, when the previous shooting occurred at VTU in the early Fall, all buildings were locked down for fear the gunman was still on the loose. Why is this not an appropriate response in this situation? Even if police thought the individual had left, the campus is huge and there was no way to ensure that was so.

While I don't believe these individuals should be fired (as they are human just like the rest of us), I do believe the hard questions need to be asked. That's part of how people and institutions learn from the past.

Erin said...

Where is the compassion?! It is so sad to me that our society wants nothing more than to blame, criticize, point the finger at and condemn someone rather than offering support and love. I would like to see a bit more Colossians 3:12ff rather than John 8. This was a horrible and difficult crisis for everyone involved. Yes, there is a time for evaluation and assessment, but good grief, allow people some time to mourn!

Jim Shoes said...

And in the first instance, Dustin, the decision to lock down was wrong, too. People will not live with a security routine that regularly shuts down an institution every time something bad happens, all in the name of "safety."

Dustin said...

I am not acting as if compassion shouldn't be given, but rather that it is appropriate, once there has been adequate time for mourning, to ask the tough questions of those who made the decisions. Isn't that how the country itself operates, and how we, as human beings, should operate? If we don't, we fail to learn from our actions.

jim shoes

Regardless of whether or not people will "live with" a security policy that shuts things down when something happens, at times it is still required. We may have different opinions on whether or not they should have shut down the campus. But it is obvious that in the first instance, academic buildings were locked. Two hours should be enough time to do such things while the perpetrator goes back to his dorm room. Perhaps locked doors would have provided a little more time for police authorities to intervene. Deaths may still have occurred, but possibly they would have been less.

Again, this is all conjecture and I don't believe, as you assume, that there is one definitive and true answer to this question.

Bryan D said...

I'm doubting that when the board interviewed Va. Tech's President before his reign began that "previous combat experience" was a topic of discussion. For that, truly, was the situation which authorities found themselves in yesterday. I'm sure the University was more than capable and aware of how to thwart cheating or underage drinking, but how should any administrator be prepared for his campus becoming a war zone?

To put more bluntly what SWNID has already mentioned, are new pastime of passing the buck has become ludicrous and embarassing. It's the shooter's fault, dummies. Our ability to respond to "ubiquitous" evil will always be lacking because humans cannot respond in a way that is truly adequate, only God does that.

Unfortunately his response also seems to be pending. We feel sometimes like we are being ignored when we plead to our maker for justice. It's like we keep getting the out of office auto reply to our emails.

Our response, then, is to treat someone else as if they should have been doing God's job and then blame them when they can't. I can't think of a more ridiculous or sacreligious occupation.

JB in CA said...

How, exactly, did we get from the call for a lockdown after "the first shootings ... when two people were killed" (Washington Post) to a "call for a 'lockdown' with every incident that might presage some act of violence" (SWNID) to "a security routine that regularly shuts down an institution every time something bad happens" (Jim Shoes) to "a security policy that shuts things down when something happens" (Jim Shoes)?

Jim Shoes said...

How exactly does one lock down a 2600 acre campus with 25,000 students, not to mention faculty and staff? Do we lock down cities when someone shoots someone?

Let's get real here: this was an unprecedented act of violence. How would anyone administer a policy to "lock down" a campus whenever there's a potential threat know where to draw the line? That's how we got down that road from one to the other.

And note that SWNID was responding not just to the Washington Post editorial but to the over-the-top, blame-the-boss remarks of the parent quoted by "fair and balanced" Fox News. That guy should take a pill.

We've already seen the chaos that results whenever administrators feel compelled always to err on the side of caution, especially caution that they'll be second guessed. If aberrent behavior can close a campus, then every student who wants attention the attention of closing campus will behave aberrently.

Reviews of procedures are fine, but there comes a point where everyone has to accept that we live in a dangerous world.

Anonymous said...

dustin, if they did lock down, what would stop the shooter from shooting those he was around? who said it would be locking the shooter out rather than in with other people.

if there was a lock down and he was locked in with the others. we would be sitting here talking about how stupid it was to do a lock down.

But I don't know that as SWNID said humans are horrible at predicting the future.

I don't know what I would have done if I was in control, and luckily I was not the one who they came to.

I just think its easier to pt off the blame on others to make ourselves feel better.

JB in CA said...

I seem to have been misunderstood. Maybe I should clarify what I meant. The Washington Post was calling for a lockdown after two people were shot to death, with the killer still on the loose. It was not calling for a lockdown after "every incident that might presage some act of violence," or (even less plausibly) "every time something bad happens," or (laughably) "when something happens." How we got to these watered-down interpretations of what the WaPo was originally suggesting is what I was asking. Mine was a question concerning the (mis)characterization of the other side's view. I wasn't even addressing the issue of whether a lockdown would have been advisable or even feasible.

P.S. I'm trying to get real, but it's not that easy out here.