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by Kevin Yuill
What kind of security-on-campus measure could possibly prevent a maniac from lining people up and shooting them?
It was all too predictable, wasn’t it? How many times have we been here before? It seems to happen with sickening regularity, every few years, just like clockwork. Every time it does, though, we can only respond with a sharp intake of breath and a sad shake of the head.
I am not talking about the monumentally awful tragedy that happened at Virginia Tech on Monday. Such a sad and meaningless occurrence could hardly be predicted. The only proper response to this horrific event is revulsion for what the gunman wrought and sympathy for the victims and their families and friends.
No, what was predictable was the descent into America-bashing and mass misanthropy throughout the media and on the many blogs that covered the killings. The BBC, which never misses an opportunity to lecture Americans about the ‘insanity’ of allowing ordinary people to possess weapons, stopped just short of smugness in its incredulity about the availability of guns. Not wishing to hear the apparent unwillingness of Virginians to immediately ban all weapons, the BBC news service broadcast the views of a minority of students who support gun-control measures. Blogs around the world lectured Americans on how possession of weapons makes attacks like this a regular occurrence.
Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, immediately blamed the availability of guns for the tragedy. He and many others delivered shrill lectures to the people of Virginia, who have rejected strengthening laws on gun ownership. ‘Virginia’s gun laws are some of the weakest state laws in the country’, said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. ‘And where there have been attempts to make some changes, a backdoor always opens to get around the changes, like the easy access at gun shows.’
But what sort of law can prevent a maniac from lining people up and shooting them? How were the authorities supposed to be ready for such an occurrence? Since the killings, questions have been raised about why the university authorities did not alert students earlier about the fact that a man with a gun was on the loose, and why the campus did not have more stringent security measures in place. Yet Virginia Tech (VT) had already banned guns from its campus. Perhaps those demanding more security think a law against killing sprees with guns would have helped, and that the gunman would have thought twice faced with such a tough law. What about metal detectors? Well, the campus covers four square miles. Nothing that the authorities – state or federal – can do will prevent a determined, bright and fairly lucky maniac from carrying out a mass killing.
The hindsight demands that something more should have been done to prevent this wild and unpredictable event from unfolding reveals much about today’s precautionary mindset. We seem to believe that every unfortunate incident can and therefore should be stopped, if only we were more alert and more willing to introduce tougher security measures. However, some things, sadly, cannot be prevented. We must simply trust that individuals who carry out massacres like that at VT are few and far between.
And they are. The total American population in college in the year 2000, the time of the last census, was over 16.5million. The usual college homicide rate is lower than within the general population; in 1999, the actual number of homicides on campuses across the US was 11. The number of people killed by lightning in a typical year hovers around 88. As they occasionally still like to say over there, do the math. Colleges are safer, statistically, than remaining at home, even with this one horrific incident to spike the statistics.
And yet we are told that there have been 10 years of college shootings. How forgetful the media sometimes are! It is worth remembering the panic about people ‘going postal’, when a spate of workplace killings between 1986 and 1997 convinced many Americans that Post Office workers were time-bombs waiting to go off. Ten years later, the tenuous link between fairly random shootings in postal offices has been all but forgotten.
We are also told that Virginia Tech is the worst massacre of civilians in American history. True, it is the worse case of a single gunman going on the rampage, but the over-zealous application of gun-control laws (and concerns about child abuse – what else?) by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) resulted in the death of more than 80 men, women and children in Waco, Texas, in 1993. The murder by Timothy McVeigh of 168 federal employees and their children, which did not result in legislation banning fertiliser, was certainly a massacre carried out by one man, even if he had accomplices.
Saddest of all is the great mea culpa coming from those Americans who seem to hate their own culture. On the New York Times blog, contributors lined up to condemn their own country, their own culture. As Kevin from Oregon said: ‘Yes, those who oppose any sort of tougher guns laws do bear some responsability [sic] for these tragedies. SHAME, SHAME, SHAME on you! This is one of the reasons I am moving out of the United States in a few months…this country is out of control!’ Another lamented: ‘How can you say that this is the product of only one crazy individual? We as a culture are also responsible for all of this.’ Another noted that ‘the NRA [National Rifle Association] has more blood of children on their hands. …. The rest of the civilised world is appalled by us, as they should be.’
Contrast these responses from those far away from the tragedy with that of the Amish community of Nickel Mines, who suffered an appalling loss in October last year when their 32-year-old milkman neighbour burst into a school, tied up 10 girls and shot them, killing five and wounding the others. The gunman then took his own life. Amish leaders visited the milkman’s wife and children to extend their sympathy, forgiveness and help. About half of the mourners at the milkman’s funeral were Amish. In turn, the Amish invited the milkman’s family to attend the funeral services of the girls who had been killed. In response to this tragedy, the entire community drew together, rather than descending into alienated mistrust and pointless vituperations.
After Virginia Tech, a meaningless incident by a clearly deranged individual has resulted in equally meaningless breastbeating apologies. With such cultural self-hatred, how long will it be before appalling acts such as those at VT become lionised?
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).
Previously on spiked
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