Another campus shooting

Another opportunity for reflection. The shooting on Northern Illinois University's campus hits particularly close to home for me -- it's just 30 miles from where I went to high school. I would see the towers of the residential buildings from I-88 as I crossed the state to get from the Chicago suburbs to my own college in Rock Island, Illinois. Many of my friends went to NIU; a number of my high school teachers live in DeKalb; and I certainly have been on the campus a number of times.

What you may not realize about yesterday's NIU shooting is that it's the second shooting on a college campus in one week. From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

On February 8, Latina Williams could have carried almost anything into one of several buildings at Louisiana Technical College. That morning, she brought a .357-caliber pistol into a nursing class.

Like most institutions, Louisiana Technical College at Baton Rouge has security guards and alarms. But perhaps nothing — short of a metal detector at the entrance — could have stopped Ms. Williams from doing what she did.

Around 8:30 a.m., Ms. Williams walked into a classroom, spoke with the instructor, and left, according to the police. A moment later, she entered the room through another door and fired six rounds, killing two students, Karsheika Graves and Taneshia Butler. Then Ms. Williams put the gun to her head and killed herself.

In the days after the shooting, investigators found no evidence linking Ms. Williams to either victim. The apparent randomness of the incident was a harsh reminder: Open campuses are as susceptible to violence as any other public place.

I know that people will be -- and have been -- speculating about what the officials at NIU could have done differently. I know that people will try to connect the incident with the graffiti back in December. I know that people will look for answers and look for ways to hold someone -- anyone -- accountable. That's something that happens in tragedy. We look for the reasons, we look to hold someone up as the villain.

This will probably also -- at least for the next week or so -- once again renew certain segments of the conservative population's interest in the idea of arming faculty (um, no. Have you met me? Do you know how often I bump into things? I apologize to the television stand in one of my classrooms when I bump into it. My students think this is hysterical, but probably wouldn't be inspired to think that I could physically protect them from anyone.)

As the Chronicle article reminds us, the randomness of some of these acts of violence is what's most frightening and most challenging. College and university campuses are open places. Public places.

And they're teeming with activity at all times. People come and go. Many great things happen: ideally they're places where students, faculty, staff and the community can come together and engage with knowledge of all sorts. Often less wondrous things happen too: people scrawl graffiti of all kinds in bathroom; crimes occur; administrations make mistakes; faculty get burnt out.

Tragedies happen.

Of course, people will be looking for reasons here -- and I want to know, too, what would encourage a graduate student to drive 175 miles from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to shoot other people.*

But the reasons that these tragedies occur -- at NIU, Louisiana Technical College and the other schools where shootings have occurred recently -- will not be simple. Nor will we be able to solve all of the problems. Certainly, schools should continue to think about their safety procedures and campus security. As I've written before, however, campuses are open spaces where faculty and staff can only do so much. We cannot lock down college campuses the way that grade schools are locked down -- nor should we.

Certainly we need to think about our gun culture and our tendency to promote violent response to anger and disappointment. That's going to be difficult to change, since much of that seems entrenched in the American character. We need to work for that change, but that alone will not end tragic violence on college campuses.

Certainly we need to rethink our relationship to higher education -- our current culture has little use for what colleges and universities do. If we stop treating higher education as job training, and return to the ideals of what colleges can do for people, then perhaps some of these angry young people will find the ability to cope with the bleakness of the world. But that's also going to be incredibly hard to change. And it won't completely solve the problems.

Unfortunately, we have no easy answers. Some days it's difficult not to fall into despair. It's difficult not to go out on the heath with Lear and cry out against the universe, with its eyeless rage:
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, that cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on's are sophisiticated! Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!

We want to give up some days; we want revenge other days**; we want to fix the system, but don't know where to start. It becomes difficult not to fall into the nihilism of the end of Lear when we look at these things. And I don't know how to avoid that, either.

Different people on the NIU campus will cope in different ways -- and we need to keep them in our thoughts/prayers/hearts (where ever it is that you yourself keep those things). We need to be patient in waiting to know what exactly happened. We need to remember that this is a tragedy, particularly for those families affected by it. We need to remember that this is not another call to arms against some kind of liberal-caused evil. We must remember first and foremost that colleges are places where people work together and live together. And that's valuable.

cross-posted at The Seacoast of Bohemia

*Yes, I know that the student had been at NIU until last spring, but like many of these cases, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to know what exactly caused this person to "snap."

**But don't forget, that for Hamlet, revenge doesn't work out particularly well. Everyone dies and Fortinbras gets Denmark.

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