Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sorrow for Virginia Tech; questions and anger

The Virginia Tech shooting brought Columbine to mind for many of us. When that tragedy happened 8 years ago, I was working a high school teacher in San Francisco so the issue hit very close to home. Ironically, on that exact day I was arriving in Philadelphia for a teachers' conference, and no one at the conference spoke about the shootings. I still don't know how that happened. We felt like we were in a cocoon away from work, but it is really strange that the conference organizers did not find a way for us to address it. The conference was a regenerative bonding experience and maybe it would have detracted from their purpose to bring up the tragedy, but I have never respected that strange decision.

The Virginia Tech shootings are a different story at least when it comes to communication. With our hyper-connected world we were given nearly live updates via not only television featuring cell phone video, but instant messaging, email, and web sites. This disturbed me this morning when I saw the full-on coverage on The Today Show. It felt too soon--no one really knew yet what had happened. The gunman's name had not even been released. The confusion came through when Virginia Tech's President Charles Steger was interviewed by Matt Lauer. I had to feel sympathy for the President, who must be in utter shock, but I have been angered throughout the day by his comments and some I've heard from campus police saying they made the best decisions they could at the time given the information they had.

This defensive posture is unacceptable to me. When your campus suffers the worst civilian shooting in U. S. history, and two separate incidets happened hours apart, there is no room for defending your decision with any sentence that includes the word "best."

They purused a strategy and it didn't work. I know there were competing factors as thousands of people arrived on campus, but clearly the strategy failed. It will take weeks and months to untangle the whole scenario and officials should remain humble rather than defensive until they figure out what happened. Anger is definitely one of the mixed emotions emerging from the Virginia Tech community itself.

One theme that has bothered me greatly has recurred in many news reports such as this one from 49abcnews.com:

"At 7:15 a.m. the first shots were fired at the Ambler Johnston dorm. The victims were reportedly a man and a woman. A 911 call was made to the Virginia Tech Police Department. But, they thought it was a domestic dispute, an isolated incident.

More than two hours later, at about 9:40 a.m., as classes began at the engineering department, so did the shooting spree."

This sense of complacency over domestic violence adds to the tragedy, and possibly the outcome. Someone shoots two people in cold blood and leaves the scene. In what universe is it okay to minimize the seriousness of the scenario because it began as a domestic dispute? I feel that we've become numbed to the danger of domestic violence as reported in this news story from the Akron Beacon Journal:

"At first, the shootings seemed like the sort of thing police around the country are called to every day. A domestic dispute in a dorm room, something that could happen on a big college campus without every student feeling touched by it. Certainly not the beginning of the worst shooting rampage in modern U.S. history."

I feel ashamed that we habitually believe that we can distance ourselves from domestic violence in this way. It's something that happens to other people and doesn't touch the rest of us. This incident will force us to grapple with the issue on a deeper level.


Blogger PFG said...

I found your post through a Salon.com article which referenced it. It's hard to consider "comfort" in criticism, but your analysis of the attitudes about "domestic" violence is so close to my own, so wonderfully articulate and sincere, and is so necessary that I feel better for having read it. Thank you for writing.

1:20 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Thanks for your comment, PFG. I felt ambivalent about writing that post but I wanted to be honest about my first reaction to the story the way it was being reported. As the details come out the story line shifts, and the tragedy seems to be magnified by the numerous warning flags that were not followed up on.

College can be a scary time--teens and twentysomethings on their own for the first time with a fuzzy "parental" role for the university. How do we walk the line between privacy and autonomy versus safety? I was a college resident advisor and I would never want my child to take on that role. We saw serious mental illnesses emerging, including suicidal students, depression and eating disorders, yet we were peers with only minimal referral power. The campus "Psych Services" had little pull to bring students in for counseling if they did not want to come. One of my first-year students did commit suicide her sophomore year and her friends and family felt so powerless to help her. It was terrible to be 20 years old and be in a position where I felt I should have been able to help her, but couldn't.

4:35 PM  

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