In the immediate aftermath of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, a collection of crosses was erected on a site near the school, one to honor each victim of the massacre. It would have been a fitting memorial but for one glaring defect: There were 15 crosses, which is to say that two of them were intended to honor Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who had killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. Some well-meaning but morally confused person considered it appropriate that the murderers be honored along with the murdered. I also recall seeing a hand-lettered sign posted somewhere near the campus that read, incredibly, “We forgive you Eric and Dylan.” How long will it be before we see this kind of moral confusion at Virginia Tech? I’m afraid it’s already started.
As I write this, early Tuesday morning, the authorities in Virginia have not publicly identified the gunman responsible for Monday’s carnage or any of his victims. But we do know that the killer took his own life after murdering 32 others on the Virginia Tech campus. (I am assuming, though this has not yet been confirmed, that the same man is responsible for both the earlier double-murder in a campus residence hall and the later mass killing in a classroom building.) Despite this scarcity of information, the cable news channels were positively teeming all Monday afternoon and evening with all manner of self-proclaimed experts who must have been elbowing each other all the way to the green rooms at the various television studios in New York and Atlanta. Most of them seemed to have been excavated from the lower recesses of newsroom Rolodexes as desperate producers tried to fill their air time.
On Fox News, for example, a woman named Pat Brown, who presents herself as some kind of profiler-for-hire, lambasted the police and school authorities for not closing down the campus after the first shooting was reported. Former NYPD detective Bo Dietl followed her and offered the same criticism. This theme seemed to gain currency as the day progressed, even reaching the point that the parents of one Virginia Tech student demanded that the school’s president and police chief be fired. “My God, if someone shoots somebody there should be an immediate lockdown of the campus,” said John Shourds, whose daughter Alexandra is a freshman (she was unhurt in the attack). “They totally blew it,” he said. “The president blew it, campus police blew it.”
Let us suppose that the police had indeed shut down the school at 7:30 A.M., just after the first shooting. The Virginia Tech campus has scores of buildings spread across 2,600 acres, and there are 26,000 students enrolled there. There aren’t enough police officers in the entire state of Virginia to seal the campus off completely. But even if it had been shut down, then what? How long does it stay shut down, and how do you know when it’s safe to open it up? Do you strip search every last person on campus before letting them leave? And if the suspect is contained within one of the buildings, what’s to prevent him from killing the people he’s contained with?
The rush to blame the school’s administration and police is a reflection of a society that believes any and all misfortune can be averted by the proper application of government will. At this very moment, politicians in Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., are exerting their tiny brains trying to be the first to propose legislation that will “prevent the next tragedy.” The number of laws the killer broke on Monday will probably run to more than 20, but there are those who actually believe he might have been deterred by a few more strokes of a legislative pen. I can’t put it any more simply than this: There are evil people in the world, and no amount of laws will make them any less so.
There may be a level of security that would deter a suicidal maniac from carrying out the kind of horrors seen on the Virginia Tech campus Monday morning, but I doubt anyone would want to attend the school that implemented it.
– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.