Obvious & Hidden Tragedies at Virginia Tech

Austin, Texas...Littleton, Colorado...and now Blacksburg, Virginia. While many had heard of Austin before the shooting rampage of Charles Whitman in 1966, how many people in our country had heard of Littleton, Colorado before the Columbine shootings? How about Blacksburg, Virginia? If I hadn't known someone who went to college there, I'd certainly have never heard of the quiet peaceful mountainous city. Unfortunately, the quiet and peaceful setting was viciously disturbed Monday, April 16th with the sound of gunshots and, ultimately, 33 dead including the shooter.

As with every major event, our mainline media outlets scramble to gather every tidbit of data they can, and then often immediately broadcast or release it in an effort to "scoop" the competition. Unfortunately that sometimes results in misunderstood information being distributed or bits and pieces of valid information get confused in the delivery. Nothing was different about the horror as it unfolded at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, more commonly called Virginia Tech.

And, as with every other major event, within 24 hours of occurrence some politician offers sincere condolences followed by a condemnation of anyone who tries to leverage the event for their own gain, and then they immediately try to leverage the event for their own gain. Thankfully, in this case, most of the politicians that are currently in the limelight thanks to the upcoming presidential race were smart enough to offer condolences and point out that any other comments needed to wait until more information was available. Smart people. They surprised me.

But I wasn't to be disappointed. Before the dust had settled and before any factual information about weapons used, tactics of the shooter, history of the shooter, etc. was released, there were those spouting their opinions about gun control, academic liberty, school zone safety and more. I remind these people that it's better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool rather than speak and remove all doubt. As an example, I point out the talking head I saw on television talking about the fully-automatic 9mm handgun the shooter used. Yeah. Okay. Keeping talking.

So, here I sit more than 72 hours later, pondering all of the information that has been released and thinking about the implications for our society and our schools moving forward. First we have to accept and understand that violence in our schools is nothing new. Starting in 1927 with the Bath, Michigan school attack, our schools have been targets of violence where the emotionally or mentally unstable or, more simply, the cold-hearted, release their anger and frustrations upon innocents. In our society, none are as innocent as our children, and we tend to view all people as "children" until their education is finished and they can stand independent of support. Certainly, although they might be insulted, this term includes many college students.

In the past decade we have seen an explosion of school violence that is unlike any other in documented history. In researching this article the only events I can find that surpass this school attack for sheer number of casualties--both dead and injured--are terrorist attacks committed against schools in other countries. The attack on Beslan Middle School #1 in Beslan, Russia in September of 2004 is the nightmare of all schools, but the casualties there weren't caused by a single disturbed shooter. The attack and casualties there were the result of a planned terrorist event orchestrated by 49 well conditioned, well trained and well armed terrorists.

Thankfully--yes, I said thankfully--in the case of the attack at VA Tech the shooter, one Cho Seung-Hui, all three characteristics of conditioning, training and arms were not what they could have been to further enable Seung-Hui to take more lives. Still, the mental and emotional conditioning he'd received and the training he'd enjoyed through the near-constant use of interactive video games has been one of the items brought to the forefront as a possible cause for this event. Let's be perfectly clear: while studies show that saturation play of these games does affect an individual's inherent inhibition against violence, games don't kill people. Not one of the 32 dead at Virginia Tech died as the result of a game shooting them. As to "well armed," all reports say that Seung-Hui was armed with two handguns, although the reports debate the calibers involved. Some say there were two 9mm handguns, while others say one 9mm handgun and one .22 handgun. From the terminal ballistics and victim perspective, it doesn't matter: shot is shot.

At 7:15 a.m. on the morning of Monday, April 16th, Seung-Hui committed his first murder in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory building on campus. When the resident student advisor went to investigate this first murder, he was also shot and killed by Seung-Hui.

What actually occurred between the time of those two shootings and when Seung-Hui started shooting people in Norris Hall on the other side of the campus at approximately 9:15--about two hours after his first murders--is the subject of much question and potential criticism. The fact that the actual pinpoint time the second murders started in Norris Hall hasn't yet been released in any news I can find, leaves the "approximately two hours later" as the best standard. One source of aggravation for the college is that the release time for a warning e-mail about the FIRST murders is both easy to pinpoint and already released to the media: 9:26 a.m. While much can be explained about a delayed warning about what was apparently originally perceived as a domestic violence situation, very little can explain why the college was releasing an e-mail about murders in West Ambler Johnston Hall ten minutes after the murders had started at Norris Hall. I can't grasp that any administration is that incompetent, but until the actual start time of the second shootings is documented and released only assumptions can be made.

Some folks who favor conspiracy theories over the factual truth have already spouted doubts about whether Seung-Hui was the shooter in both places. Let's lay that to rest real quick: information released to the general public and media outlets show that:

  1. Ballistic tests show that ONE gun was used in BOTH shootings, and
  2. Seung-Hui's fingerprints were on both guns.

In Norris Hall, Seung-Hui reportedly chained the front door shut behind him, prohibiting entry to the hasty teams formed by the responding police officers. Those same police officers would have attended response to Active Shooter training and would be forming hasty teams to make entry, move to the sound of shots and neutralize the threat. The glaring glitch was the unexpected planning and preparation of Seung-Hui in chaining the doors. Very few Active Shooter programs integrate challenges that require creative thinking under stress. When Seung-Hui finally ended his own life and rescue operations began, Mother Nature was kind enough to throw in another glitch: Med-Evac helicopters couldn’t be flown because of high winds. Some trauma cases were going to take longer than expected to get to care centers, and some of the care centers may not have been equipped as well as most serious trauma centers are.

Those are only two examples of the challenges faced by the responding officers and rescuers. Of those cited, there are two examples of heroic actions that need to be recognized.

As mentioned above, a resident student advisor in West Ambler Johnston Hall rushed to the scene of the first shooting to render aid. That young man, Ryan Clark, has to be honored for his courage. How many people today would rush toward the sounds of a violent confrontation, motivated only by the goodness in their heart? Ryan Clark was such a man and we need to remember him properly. Two hours later in Norris Hall, a professor named Liviu Librescu was shot through his classroom door as he held it shut, so that his students could escape out the windows. John 15:13 says "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Professor Librescu sacrificed his life saving the lives of the children in his classroom. His heroic actions saved all of them and he too needs to be remembered with honor.

Other heroes certainly revealed themselves that day, although they may never be specifically named. College students who slammed a classroom door shut and held it with their feet as they kept their body away from the door while the bullets came through it--they are heroes. Police officers who responded, grabbed weapons and rushed toward the sounds of shots, hoping that the killer would see them and shoot toward them rather than at innocent college students--they are heroes. Emergency medical technicians and paramedics who responded to deliver treatment to those shot and otherwise injured--they are heroes.

We need to remember and honor these heroes, but we owe it to them to also learn from this experience. Prior to 1966, there were no SWAT teams in the United States. Charles Whitman taught us the need when he shot and killed 15 people from the Texas Tower in Austin. Prior to 1999, there was no such thing as Active Shooter training, but Harris and Klebold taught us the need when they killed 12 and wounded 23 others at Columbine High School. Prior to the terrorist siege at Beslan, Russia in 2004, we never had to recognize the threat that might be presented to our youngest children by religious fanatics or zealots.

In 2007 we mourn the loss of 32 people at Virginia Tech. I refuse to mourn the loss of Seung-Hui. He lost the chance for my compassion when he took up arms and went hunting innocent people. From this event, we must learn. What must we learn?

  • We must learn that politics has no place in the decision-making process about how we protect our most precious assets: our children.
  • We must learn that our current Active Shooter response tactics and protocols are not the end-all be-all answer to every school shooting.
  • We must learn that unexpected things happen, and as we train our officers and develop our policies the unexpected has to be taken into consideration, and leeway for improvised actions built in.
  • We must learn to train our officers to be even more aggressive in their response to such situations and to reward them, rather than second-guess them, when they DO improvise in the face of adversity.
  • We must learn that rules, regulations and signs do NOT prevent criminals from breaking the law and presenting a threat. No magic ring of safety exists around educational institutions. ARMED safety is the ONLY safety everywhere in America.
  • We must learn how to move forward in a positive light while mourning the loss of 32 souls who may well have had among them future leaders, great artists, wonderful writers or terrific parents.

We cannot let the loss of these innocents become nothing more than a black mark in the book of time. We owe it to them and all who follow them into our educational institutions to use this experience to learn and develop PROactively, because if we don't, how will we ever live with ourselves when such a thing happens again?