editorial (2007-16)

Don't Exacerbate This Tragedy

Blame the killer, not the custodians of the university

Don't Exacerbate This Tragedy

By the time people read this, they're going to know a lot more about what transpired on that awful Monday morning in Blacksburg, Va., than we know now as we go to press. We hope that they will have come to the realization, if they hadn't much earlier, that the administration of Virginia Tech was not responsible for the bloody, deadly events that took place there.

Shootings in two campus buildings left 32 people and the gunman who killed them dead. The emotional round of blame casting that emerged in the aftermath was reprehensible. No plausible amount of campus security could have prevented the killings.

One berserk student with two guns and a lot of ammunition committed the acts of murder, and the administration and the law enforcement officers who were at the scene were not the villains in the massacre.

To assert, as has been the case, that the campus should have been locked down, classes cancelled and every member of the student body, faculty and staff notified of a threat to their lives, once the first two slayings were discovered, is an irrational position to take.

When Virginia Tech President Charles Steger and his chief of campus police, Wendell Flinchum, said they had no reason to believe the first two shootings in a dormitory were other than an isolated incident arising from a fight, they were sincere in that belief. The dorm area was secured, a "person of interest" was being tracked down off campus, and they had begun the laborious process of notifying the university community of the first tragedy. They acted properly on, as they said, the best information they had at the time. There was no evidence, nothing to indicate that the tragedy was about to spread to an unprecedented scene of carnage in classrooms of an engineering and science building a half-mile from the first crimes. To suggest otherwise is a vain exercise in "would-have-should-have-could-have" second-guessing that seems wildly inappropriate under the circumstances.

Yet such suggestions, made in the panicky heat of the moment, fed a media frenzy that has resulted in the persecution of the university officials who reacted the way they did to the initial investigation and brought forth headlines, such as the one bannered across the top of the News Sentinel 's Tuesday Page 1: "Blood on their hands."

That was part of a quote elicited from an 18-year-old freshman resident of the dormitory where the first two shootings occurred. It was the statement of a kid under duress, but it led the coverage of the most deadly shooting attacks on a college campus in U.S. history.

The massacre was a terrible blow to the university and to the families and friends of the victims, and it was a huge story of great interest to the public. By late afternoon, the media presence on the campus seemed nearly as great as the law enforcement presence. And there was little in the way of detailed information available to the press, radio and television representatives who had descended there.

The law enforcement officials had an investigation underway, but they did not have a positive identification of the perpetrator, and they did not even have idents of all the victims, they said. They were waiting for ballistic evidence to show conclusively whether the early- and mid-morning shootings were related. They were doing the best they could.

The media members at an early evening news conference were clearly agitated, asking the same questions, over and over, for which no answers could be supplied at the time. The atmosphere wasn't as chaotic as that in the campus buildings at the time of the shootings, but it was exasperating to watch. It was an embarrassment to some of us journalists, as was the continued haranguing of the university officials over their decisions of the day.

It was clear, or should have been clear to reasonable minds, that there was nothing short of an immediate and complete shutdown of the university that could have been done to prevent the attacks. It takes hours to accomplish such a shutdown on a campus with several hundred buildings on 2,600 acres with 36,000 students and faculty and staff members. There wasn't sufficient reason at the time to commit to such a process, and even an attempt at a shutdown may not have had much effect on a crazed, well-armed young man on a single-minded mission to kill and to die in the process.

What happened could hardly seem worse, but it wasn't an instance where an inadequate commitment of the university or its security procedures failed to protect the victims. It was the nature of an open campus, which every public university maintains, that allowed for the result. It was the purposefulness of a deranged mind that caused the catastrophic outcome.

It could happen here at UT. It could happen anywhere in a public place in a free society. It doesn't happen often, but it will happen again somewhere in this country. It's one of the prices to pay for the freedoms we've fought and argued so hard as a nation to establish and to keep. For the sake of what's right and what's righteous, don't cast the blame on the system or its guardians, in this case the university's able and conscientious administrators.