I have long since lost count of how many shooting scenes I have been summoned to over the course of my police career, but the figure must be well over 1,000. Having accumulated this grim experience, I feel qualified to answer some of the criticisms being heaped upon the Virginia Tech administrators and campus police in the wake of Monday’s horrors. There persists on the news channels and on the Internet the belief, a false one in my opinion, that “locking down” the Virginia Tech campus after the first two murders were discovered at 7:15 A.M. would have prevented the deadly rampage that followed at 9:45. In their failure to do so, critics argue, the school’s president and police chief share some measure of responsibility for the carnage and deserve to lose their jobs.
This is preposterous. If, for example, the University of Southern California here in Los Angeles were shut down every time there was a shooting in the neighborhood, the place would be out of business in less than a month. If Virginia Tech officials are to be faulted for anything, it is in their belated release of information on the first shooting. Faculty and students should have been told as soon as possible that a double murder had occurred on campus and that the suspect was on the loose. This would have given them the chance to make an informed decision on how best to proceed with the day. After all, the difference between what happened on Flight 93 and on the other doomed flights of 9/11 was that the passengers on Flight 93 had been warned of what awaited them. Had students and faculty at Virginia Tech been told that a murderer may be stalking the campus, some of them might have been alert to the danger and steeled themselves to fend off the killer.
When police officers are called to the scene of a shooting, their duties and priorities are clearly defined and are practiced uniformly across the country, from the smallest campus police force to the largest urban department. The first arriving officers must determine if the victim is alive, and if so, ensure that medical help is on the way. If the victim is dead, the officers must act to preserve the crime scene and any evidence it might contain, and they must begin the process of identifying the suspect so that he might be located and arrested before bringing harm to someone else. The officers must interview witnesses, often very hurriedly and perfunctorily, so that a description of the suspect can be relayed to officers involved in the search.
Ideally, officers will have responded quickly enough to contain the suspect within a perimeter that can be searched systematically, often with police dogs. Once such a perimeter is established, people who live or work in the area are not allowed to enter, and those seeking to leave are asked to provide identification and submit to a search of their cars. It is not uncommon for suspects hiding within a perimeter to telephone acquaintances and ask for assistance in escaping. But if there is no location, identification, or even a physical description of a suspect to go on, it is left for detectives to sift through the available evidence in the hope of making an arrest.
On Monday morning, campus police at Virginia Tech were faced with the discovery of two people shot to death in a residence hall. There apparently were no witnesses to this crime who could supply officers with the killer’s identity or even his description, so detectives began, as indeed they should, by investigating the victims’ known associates. When they learned that Emily Hilscher, the female victim, had a boyfriend who had taken her to a shooting range, it was only logical for the officers to try to locate and question him. It was during that questioning that the second, more deadly attack occurred.
Up to the moment the killer opened fire in Norris Hall, the police had absolutely no reason to believe they were dealing with anything more than a horrific but isolated murder case, one in which the suspect’s identity, whereabouts, and even description were unknown. (I refer to “the killer” only with that term as I choose not to participate in his postmortem self-aggrandizement. More on that subject below.) With this in mind, what would the police hope to achieve by locking down the campus? Assuming the school could be sealed off at all, the police wouldn’t have known if they were preventing the suspect from entering the campus or from leaving it. Securing even the perimeter of such an expansive and largely unfenced campus would have required an impractically large effort, but to secure all the school buildings and indeed every room within them would have been beyond impossible. And, as I said in my previous column, if the killer had been contained on the campus, what would have prevented him from slaughtering people in whichever building he found himself confined?
But today of course we know the killer was not on campus for at least part of the time between 7:15 and 9:45 A.M. We know this because at 9:01 he was in the Blacksburg post office mailing off his twisted little manifesto to NBC.
None of them will ever admit this publicly, of course, but in the safety of their corner offices at Rockefeller Center sit men and women who are privately gleeful at the ratings boost they were given in the form of the box that landed in their mail room Wednesday morning. That the box was sent by a man who had just killed two people and would within the hour kill 30 more, well, that’s unfortunate, but business is business so let’s get this stuff on television. Proof of this is in the way the NBC News logo is displayed on the tape and in the still photos that accompanied it. Rather than appearing unobtrusively in a lower corner of the frame as is customary, the logo appears in bold letters very near the center of the screen. This was done ostensibly for copyright protection, but it also informs viewers who chance to see the images on other networks that the real scoop is over on NBC, so why not pick up the remote and join us?
Yes, Brian Williams assured us, they informed the FBI and the Virginia state police about what they had received, and they dutifully turned over the materials to FBI agents, but not before they made the copies they’ve been running in an almost continuous loop since they first put it on the air Wednesday night. “We’re allowing him to be heard in a limited way,” Williams told viewers, “because it advances, maybe, our understanding of why 32 people were killed along the way during one day, the last day of his life.”
Thus in nobility is cloaked NBC’s mercenary decision to air the killer’s tape, providing him in death that which was denied him in life: attention, power, and even sympathy. I haven’t bothered to search for them, but in America today one need not read them to know there are websites where even now can be found expressions of sympathy for a man whose 32 victims have yet to be buried. Sad to say, but had the killer not committed suicide and instead been captured and imprisoned, he would have received fan mail and even marriage proposals in tomorrow’s mail and in every day’s thereafter for years to come.
I don’t blame people for watching the killer’s tape, but they should acknowledge that in doing so they are not being “informed” or “educated” or otherwise advancing some lofty intellectual pursuit, but are instead satisfying their lurid curiosity. The killer’s tape is pornography; it’s okay to watch it, just don’t tell me you’re interested in the plot.