Politics & Policy

Higher Mayhem

Why schools? Why so often schools?

Horrific. Why do such killers so often strike in schools and colleges?

Sometimes it is because the demands of the academic life unhinge a fellow who has murder in his soul.

For instance, on August 15, 1996, Frederick Davidson, a 36-year-old student who had failed his first attempt to defend his master’s-degree thesis, went before his examining committee at San Diego State University a second time. A few minutes into the defense, he opened a laboratory first-aid kit, took out a 9-millimeter handgun, and fired more than 20 rounds of ammunition into the three engineering professors who comprised the committee. Davidson later explained to police that his thesis adviser had bogged him down with extraneous assignments.

Davidson is currently serving three consecutive life terms. His thesis, “Characteristics of Torsional Shape Memory Alloy Actuators,” was not approved.

In early November 1991, Gang Lu, a postdoctoral student at the University of Iowa who had received his Ph.D. in physics from the university earlier that year, killed five others and himself. His victims included a fellow post-doc, Linhua Shan, three of his professors, Christoph Goertz, Robert Smith, and Dwight Nicholson, and an administrator, Anne Cleary. Lu was “reportedly upset over not receiving an award for his dissertation.”

In other cases, the would-be killer has no connection with the university. Jillian Robbins lived in an apartment complex near Penn State. One day in September 1996, Robbins hid under a tree near the student center and opened fire with a high-powered rifle on passersby, killing one student and wounding another. At Indiana University at Bloomington in June 1995, Kenneth Howell, a visiting professor in history and philosophy of science, was assaulted by an armed stranger as he left his campus office. The stranger fired five shots, wounding Professor Howell through the neck, and then walked off. On the last day of classes at the University of Montreal in December 1989, Marc Lepine wandered through the six-story engineering school with a semiautomatic rifle, shooting 27 people before killing himself. Fourteen of his victims — all of them female — died. In a handwritten note found on his body, he explained that he had planned the killings because feminists had “spoiled his life.”

Faculty members sometimes kill too, but it is less common. In December 1989, the debate coach at Samford University in Alabama, William Slagle, reproached Rex Copeland, one of his students, for being unprepared for a debate tournament. An argument ensued in which Professor Slagle stabbed Copeland to death. Professor Slagle disappeared for six months but wrote letters of confession to the police and eventually turned himself in. In 1991, he was sentenced to life in prison.

August 24, 1992, Valery Fabrikant, a faculty member at Concordia University in Montreal who had recently been denied a sabbatical leave and promotion in the mechanical engineering department, went to the engineering school and tracked down several of his colleagues. He shot and killed four faculty members, and wounded the department secretary. At trial, Professor Fabrikant conducted his own defense. He argued that he was “provoked into the killings” because of the way university officials had handled his tenure application. Although he was found guilty and sentenced to a life term, Professor Fabricant when last heard from was still provoked over issues of procedure and offered his opinion that trial judge Justice Fraser Martin was malicious, vengeful, and a “little low crook.”

In 1992, Professor John Linner, the former director of the University of Texas Cryobiology Research Center, was tried and acquitted of charges that he attempted to murder his colleague, W. Barry Van Winkle. Linner acknowledged that he had purchased how-to-kill books and quantities of the carcinogenic chemical beta propiolactone, but he denied that he was the one who put the substance in Van Winkle’s nasal spray.

As I write, I have not yet heard the identity of the gunman who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech. I won’t be surprised if it is a young man who had had some romantic connection to one of the first two people he killed in the dormitory room and then descended still deeper into the carnality of evil by witless mass murder. But I’ll await the facts.

The question remains, why schools and colleges? Last October, a milk-truck driver named Charles Carl Roberts IV barricaded himself in an Amish schoolhouse in Paradise, Pennsylvania and murdered five little girls. Roberts followed the usual pattern of these pathetic monsters by killing himself as well. He left behind an incoherent note that suggested he was seeking revenge for something that happened to him in school when he was twelve.

I spent some time Monday evening talking to a faculty colleague about this profound evil that can erupt anywhere in our lives – fast-food restaurants, suburban office parks, church services — but seem so very frequent in schools and colleges. My colleague — father of three young children and someone with a theological turn of mind — quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins’s lines:

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now…

Which I suppose was my colleague’s gentle way of telling me that radical evil has always been loose in the world, and while it is not wrong to be shocked by its sudden intrusion as blood and mayhem, we ought to see it as an old woe.

He didn’t quioe the next, more consoling, lines of Hopkins’s poem:

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

But first we have to give grief its due. All too soon we will be about the business of consoling. The therapists and counselors will be battening on the grief of Virginia Tech students by tomorrow. We cannot seem to let people actually feel their sorrow before they get to the task of dramatizing it, classifying it, and boxing it up as a finished narrative. I have anticipatory revulsion at that aspect of how higher education digests these catastrophes.

As it happened, when my colleague was reciting Hopkins, I caught out of the corner of my eye a red devil flitting by. Actually it came by several. We were in a waiting room in Penn Station for New Jersey Transit, and next to an exhibit titled “New Jersey on Parade,” which includes a model of the Jersey Devil mounted on a railroad. Round and round it goes, wings stretched, clutching in its left hand a little man with a briefcase labeled “Ace Insurance.” The devil himself is labeled “Leeds Point 1736.” That’s the year Mowas Leeds supposedly cursed her newborn 13th child and set him out to die in the Jersey Pine Barrens.

It is comforting in a way to think of devils as bat-winged haunters of the back woods. When radical evil really manifests itself, it is more often in the midst of everyday life. This week it was in a college dormitory and a lecture hall. In my book on anger, I declared that I would set aside one subject — the link between anger and violence — because that is the only aspect of anger that usually gets serious attention. I wanted to examine anger in its own right to see if it has other qualities that had been overlooked. What I found was “new anger,” a self-justifying, narcissistic rage that our society once regarded as akin to madness, but now extols as self-empowerment and authenticity.

What happens when the new anger goes beyond snarling epithets in the blogosphere or the tennis court? Perhaps a gunman seeks his authenticity with a couple of handguns and extra clips of ammunition. Schools and colleges offer innocent and defenseless victims to the killer to maximize what the trendy theorists in the humanities like to call the sense of “transgression.” And the college campus is also the place of hidden hierarchies and exclusions that can be banished in an instant with a spray of bullets. Mass murder is about nothing if not self-empowerment, and what better venue for the ultimate exercise in self-empowerment than the institution that preaches it night and day?

I grant that this is all speculation, but I’ll offer it and take my hits if it proves far from the mark. I guess we will find out in the next few days.


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