America’s gun violence shifted Wednesday to San Bernardino,
Calif., where at least 14 people were killed and at least 17 wounded.
Amid the chaos were the horrifying and familiar aspects of a mass assault by the
latest “active shooter”: bodies on gurneys, innocents weeping under desks at the
rattle of gunfire, desperate emails for survival, SWAT teams massed at a war
zone of civilian casualties. All the familiar terror was back, as a father
received a text from his daughter: “People shot. In the office waiting for cops.
Pray for us.”
There will be post-mortems and an official search for a “motive” for this latest
gun atrocity, as if something explicable had happened. The ultimate question
grows with each new scene of carnage: Are these atrocities truly beyond the
power of government and its politicians to stop? That tragically has been the
case as political leaders offer little more than platitudes after each shootout,
while the nation is left to numbly anticipate the next killing spree.
The carnage in San Bernardino happened even as the nation was trying to come to
grips with last week’s massacre in Colorado Springs, where three lives were
taken and nine people wounded.
Yet, even as grief fills communities randomly victimized by mass shootings, the
sales of weapons grow ever higher. Holiday shoppers set a record for Black
Friday gun sales last week. They left the Federal Bureau of Investigation
processing 185,345 firearm background checks, the most ever in a single day,
topping the Black Friday gun buying binge after the shooting massacre of 26
people at a school in Newtown, Conn., three years ago.
Those who reject sensible gun controls will say anything to avoid implicating
the growth in the civilian arsenal. The House speaker, Paul Ryan, for one,
responded to the killings at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs
with a call for better mental health care, and is supporting a new bill that
sponsors said would expand services to provide earlier treatment so violent
people might theoretically be intercepted. “For those with mental illness, what
we ought to be doing is treating the mental illness instead of responding to the
crime,” Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican and a chief sponsor
of the bill, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview on Tuesday.
This is the familiar line trotted out by Republican politicians after every
massacre, as if unfettered access to high-powered weaponry — which they and the
gun lobby have made possible — is not a factor in this national catastrophe.
Congress’s Republican leaders are betting they can brazenly go through another
election cycle without enacting gun safety laws.
Congress has allowed the domestic gun industry to use assorted loopholes to sell
arsenals that are used against innocent Americans who cannot hide. Without firm
action, violent criminals will keep terrorizing communities and the nation,
inflicting mass death and damage across the land.
A version of this editorial appears in print
on December 3, 2015,
on page A34
of the New York edition
with the headline:
The Horror in California.
What exactly does the nightmare of the beheading of another
American, Peter Kassig, by Islamic State consist of?
There is, of course, the image itself. In Kassig’s case a severed blood-smeared
head appears between the feet of a hooded killer. We have seen, in other
executions, the knife applied to the throat, the broken pliant victims, the
left-handed sawing motion; and we have heard the dead, flat voice of the
swaggering executioner. So we scarcely need to imagine how the life of this
young and idealistic American, an aid worker, a recent convert to Islam, ended.
Yet imagination will not be stilled. It is tugged into the vortex of the
prisoners’ suffering, feeding on details of how they were waterboarded and
otherwise tortured, troubled by the mirror-image orange jump suits and the way
these Facebook-savvy medieval killers riff off (and recruit through) the
dark-side deviations of America’s great post-9/11 disorientation. The evil of
Islamic State is evident not least in its cleverness.
Just as we condensed the slaughter of September, 2001, into three digits, the
better to inure ourselves, so now we succumb to Monty-Pythonesque banality in
dubbing the Islamic State executioner “Jihadi John:” a little alliteration to
Again, we must imagine — that one minute this “Jihadi John” was struggling to
get by, and get accepted, in drizzly England, unemployed with a mortgage to pay
and a chip on his shoulder, and the next he stands in brilliant Levantine
sunlight, where everything is clear and etched, at the vanguard of some Sunni
Risorgimento intent on subjecting the world to its murderous brand of Wahhabi
Islam. He has become part of something bigger. He has a mission. He has license
to kill infidels (and even converts to Islam like Kassig) in the name of his
faith. He is a revolutionary full of the certainties of that calling.
How many more like him are out there, waiting to be lured from a Bradford pub,
or the ghettoized suburbs of some French town, or a fractured Libya?
Perhaps this question begins to get at the true nature of the nightmare.
Horrific as the images of five executions have been, they cannot in themselves
explain the extent of the reaction in the West. Our societies are, after all,
inured through movies and video games to brutal violence. It is unremarkable.
What is unbearable, in fact, is the feeling, 13 years after 9/11, that America
has been chasing its tail; that, in some whack-a-mole horror show, the quashing
of a jihadi enclave here only spurs the sprouting of another there; that the
ideology of Al Qaeda is still reverberating through a blocked Arab world whose
Sunni-Shia balance (insofar as that went) was upended by the American invasion
And more: that the loss of 4,500 American combat troops in Iraq and more than
100,000 Iraqi lives produced no victory or clarity, but only a broken society
and country; that the Arab Spring, which promised a way out of the mutually
reinforcing confrontation of quasi-military dictatorship and political Islam,
ended (outside Tunisia) in frustration and a revenge of the extremists; that
“Jihadi John,” for now, has the upper hand on “moderate Mohammed.”
The nightmare, in short, has less to do with the barbaric image itself than with
the feeling of humiliation and powerlessness and déjà vu and exhaustion that it
President Obama has vowed to “destroy” Islamic State. But even if that were
achieved, and for now the means deployed do not seem commensurate with the
objective, in what metastasized configuration would Islamic State’s ideas
There is no reason, in the light of the aborted attempts to define a new sort of
post-sectarian citizenship in societies across the region, to think that the
Arab incubator of violent Islamist extremism will diminish in fertility. Youth
allied to frustration allied to a decade of conflict do a powerful death wish
Daniel Bolger, an American general in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, has
written a book called “Why We Lost.” In it he says, without equivocation, “I am
a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.” And so
all that American blood and treasure end not with a whimper but with a
But what was the aim of this war? If it was to keep America safe, it cannot be
deemed a failure. If it was to remake the societies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and
remove the terrorist threat to the United States, it fell far short. Islamic
State’s executions summon from the American subconscious a desperate sense of
having been lured into the trap of overreach.
The nightmare is many-layered. Kurtz’s dying words — “The Horror! The Horror!” —
in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” may be interpreted in several ways, but
none of them can deny his 11th-hour perception of the immense forces beyond his
control and, in the end, his comprehension.
A version of this op-ed appears in print
on November 18, 2014,
The International New York Times.
Calif. — Before going to war, Susan Max loved tooling around Northern California
in her maroon Mustang. A combat tour in Iraq changed all that.
Back in the States, Ms. Max, an Army reservist, found herself avoiding cramped
parking lots without obvious escape routes. She straddled the middle line, as if
bombs might be buried in the curbs. Gray sport-utility vehicles came to remind
her of the unarmored vehicles she rode nervously through Baghdad in 2007, a
record year for American fatalities in Iraq.
“I used to like driving,” Ms. Max, 63, said. “Now my family doesn’t feel safe
driving with me.”
For thousands of combat veterans, driving has become an ordeal. Once their
problems were viewed mainly as a form of road rage or thrill seeking. But
increasingly, erratic driving by returning troops is being identified as a
symptom of traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D.
— and coming under greater scrutiny amid concerns about higher accident rates
The insurance industry has taken notice. In a review of driving records for tens
of thousands of troops before and after deployments, USAA, a leading insurer of
active-duty troops, discovered that auto accidents in which the service members
were at fault went up by 13 percent after deployments. Accidents were
particularly common in the six months after an overseas tour, according to the
review, which covered the years 2007-2010.
The company is now working with researchers, the armed services and insurance
industry groups to expand research and education on the issue. The Army says
that fatal accidents — which rose early in the wars — have declined in recent
years, in part from improved education. Still, 48 soldiers died in vehicle
accidents while off duty last year, the highest total in three years, Army
The Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs are also supporting several new
studies into potential links between deployment and dangerously aggressive or
overly defensive driving. The Veterans Affairs health center in Albany last year
started a seven-session program to help veterans identify how war experiences
might trigger negative reactions during driving. And researchers in Palo Alto
are developing therapies — which they hope to translate into iPhone apps — for
people with P.T.S.D. who are frequently angry or anxious behind the wheel.
“I can’t talk with somebody who is a returned service member without them
telling me about driving issues,” said Erica Stern , an associate professor of
occupational therapy at the University of Minnesota, who is conducting a
national study of driving problems in people with brain injuries or P.T.S.D. for
Though bad driving among combat veterans is not new — research has found that
Vietnam and Persian Gulf war veterans were more likely to die in motor vehicle
accidents than nondeployed veterans — experts say Iraq and Afghanistan veterans
are unique, for one major reason: their combat experiences were frequently
defined by dangers on the road, particularly from roadside bombs.
“There is no accepted treatment for this,” said Dr. Steven H. Woodward , a
clinical psychologist with the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System who
is leading a study of potential therapies for veterans with P.T.S.D.-related
driving problems. “It’s a new phenomenon.”
Though there has been some research into road rage among veterans, therapists
and psychologists have only recently begun to view traumatic brain injuries and
P.T.S.D. as factors in prolonging driving problems, probably by causing people
to perceive threats where none exist — such as in tunnels, overpasses,
construction crews or roadside debris.
“In an ambiguous situation, they are more likely to see hostile intent,” said
Eric Kuhn , a psychologist with the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care
System, who has studied driving problems. He said his research found that
veterans who report more severe P.T.S.D. symptoms also tend to report being more
Experts note that driving problems are not always the result of the disorder. In
some cases, returning troops may be reflexively applying driving techniques
taught in Iraq during the height of the insurgency — for example, speeding up at
intersections to avoid gunfire or scanning the roadside for danger instead of
watching the road ahead.
In a study of Minnesota National Guard soldiers who returned from Iraq in 2007,
Dr. Stern and fellow researchers found that a quarter reported driving through a
stop sign and nearly a third said they had been told they drove dangerously in
the months immediately after their tours. Both results were higher than the
answers reported by National Guard cadets who had not been deployed.
Though driving problems seemed to decrease the longer the troops were home, they
did not always vanish. Dr. Stern found that many Guard members remained anxious
about certain roadway situations, including night driving or passing unexpected
“Those are things they associated with threats they saw in combat,” she said.
Ms. Max, a grandmother of four, was deployed at the age of 60 to Iraq, where one
of her jobs was to carry large sums of cash to Iraqi reconstruction projects
outside fortified American bases. She said she learned to be hypervigilant on
Upon returning to California, she struggled with P.T.S.D. and took time off from
her nursing job. She also noticed feeling nervous for the first time in her life
about driving — a major problem because she had to drive to visit patients.
“My whole driving behavior changed,” she said. “I live in a state of anxiety
when I’m driving.”
Ms. Max recently participated in a clinical trial to develop and test therapies,
such as deep breathing, that might overcome such anxieties. In a Pontiac
Bonneville sedan outfitted with equipment to track the driver’s visual focus,
heart rate and breathing, as well as to measure changes in the speed and
direction of the car, the researchers take patients onto highways and observe
their reactions to traffic hazards, real and imagined.
On a recent spin through the hills of Palo Alto, Ms. Max drove while Dr.
Woodward monitored her heart rate and breathing on a laptop in the back seat. In
front, Marc Samuels, a driving rehabilitation specialist who offers one of the
only programs for P.T.S.D.-related driving problems in the nation, directed her
along a preplanned route, prepared to grab the wheel if anything went awry.
Ms. Max mostly drove fine, but was startled slightly when passing a construction
site and then again when two cars momentarily boxed her in. Finally, when her
stress level spiked in a small parking lot, Mr. Samuels told her to stop the car
and regain her composure.
Ms. Max said that the clinics had made her more aware of the things that made
her nervous, a first step to conquering them. But she says she does not expect
to ever feel truly comfortable driving again and has no plans to replace her
beloved Mustang, which she sold just before her deployment.
“Why get a hot car?” she said. “I’m not going to enjoy it.”
January 11, 2011
The New York Times
By ROBERT WRIGHT
People on the left and right have been wrestling over the
legacy of Jared Loughner, arguing about whether his shooting spree proves that
the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the world are fomenting violence. But it’s
not as if this is the only data point we have. Here’s another one:
Six months ago, police in California pulled over a truck that turned out to
contain a rifle, a handgun, a shotgun and body armor. Police learned from the
driver — sometime after he opened fire on them — that he was heading for San
Francisco, where he planned to kill people at the Tides Foundation. You’ve
probably never heard of the Tides Foundation — unless you watch Glenn Beck, who
had mentioned it more than two dozen times in the preceding six months,
depicting it as part of a communist plot to “infiltrate” our society and seize
control of big business.
Note the parallel with Loughner’s case. Loughner was convinced that a conspiracy
was afoot — a conspiracy by the government to control our thoughts (via grammar,
in his bizarre worldview). So he decided to kill one of the conspirators.
It’s not clear where Loughner got his conspiracy theory. The leading contender
is a self-styled “king of Hawaii” who harbors, along with his beliefs about
government mind control, a conviction that the world will end next year. But it
doesn’t matter who Loughner got the idea from or whether you consider it left
wing or right wing. The point is that Americans who wildly depict other
Americans as dark conspirators, as the enemy, are in fact increasing the
chances, however marginally, that those Americans will be attacked.
In that sense, the emphasis the left is placing on violent rhetoric and imagery
is probably misplaced. Sure, calls to violence, explicit or implicit, can have
effect. But the more incendiary theme in current discourse is the consignment of
Americans to the category of alien, of insidious other. Once Glenn Beck had
sufficiently demonized people at the Tides Foundation, actually advocating the
violence wasn’t necessary.
By the same token, Palin’s much-discussed cross-hairs map probably isn’t as
dangerous as her claim that “socialists” are trying to create “death panels.” If
you convince enough people that an enemy of the American way is setting up a
system that could kill them, the violent hatred will take care of itself.
When left and right contend over the meaning of incidents like this, the sanity
of the perpetrator becomes a big issue. Back when Major Nidal Hasan killed 13
people at Fort Hood, the right emphasized how sane he was and the left how crazy
he was. The idea was that if Hasan was sane, then he could be viewed as a
coherent expression of the Jihadist ideology that some on the right say is
rampant in America. In the case of Loughner, the right was quick to emphasize
that he was not sane and therefore couldn’t be a coherent expression of
right-wing ideology. Then, as his ideology started looking more like a
left-right jumble, and his weirdness got better documented, a left-right
consensus on his craziness emerged.
My own view is that if you decide to go kill a bunch of innocent people, it’s a
pretty safe bet that you’re not a picture of mental health. But that doesn’t
sever the link between you and the people who inspired you, or insulate them
from responsibility. Glenn Beck knows that there are lots of unbalanced people
out there, and that his message reaches some of them.
This doesn’t make him morally culpable for the way these people react to things
he says that are true. It doesn’t even make him responsible for the things he
says that are false but that he sincerely believes are true. But it does make
him responsible for things he says that are false and concocted to mislead
I guess it’s possible that Beck actually believes his hyper-theatrically
delivered nonsense. (And I guess it’s possible that professional wrestling isn’t
fake.) But in that case the responsibility just moves to Roger Ailes, head of
Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch, its owner. Why are they giving a megaphone to
someone who believes crazy stuff?
The magic formula of Palin and Beck — fear sells — knows no ideology. When Jon
Stewart closed his Washington “rally to restore sanity” with a video montage of
fear mongers, he commendably included some on the left — notably the sometimes
over-the-top Keith Olbermann. The heads of MSNBC have just as much of an
obligation to help keep America sane as the heads of Fox News have.
To be sure, at this political moment there is — by my left-wing lights, at least
— more crazy fear-mongering and demonization on the right than on the left. But
that asymmetry is transient.
What’s not transient, unfortunately, is the technological trend that drives much
of this. It isn’t just that people can now build a cocoon of cable channels and
Web sites that insulates them from inconvenient facts. It’s also that this
cocoon insulates them from other Americans — including the groups of Americans
who, inside the cocoon, are being depicted as evil aliens. It’s easy to buy into
the demonization of people you never communicate with, and whose views you never
see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.
In this environment, any entrepreneurial fear monger can use technology to build
a following. You don’t have to be the king of Hawaii to start calling yourself
the king of Hawaii and convince a Jared Loughner that there’s a conspiracy
So I’m not sure how much good it would do if you could get a Glenn Beck to clean
up his act. With such a vast ecosystem of fear mongers, his vacated niche might
be filled before long. But I think Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch owe it to
America to at least do the experiment.
Postscript: Encouragingly, Roger Ailes said in the wake of the
Tucson shooting that “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your
argument intellectually.” So stay tuned. Also encouragingly, two journalists
from liberal and conservative magazines — the American Prospect and National
Review — had an extremely civil discussion about the Tucson shooting, about 24
hours after it happened, on my Web site Bloggingheads.tv.
January 10, 2011
The New York Times
By JENNIFER MEDINA
TUCSON — For the children at Mesa Verde Elementary School, the questions are
endless. First, they asked, again and again, why would a stranger kill Christina
Green, who had attended school here since kindergarten? Then, some asked
quietly, would that man come back to try to shoot them, too? And is it still
safe to go to the supermarket?
As classes at Mesa Verde resumed for the first time since the shooting on
Saturday that killed six people, including 9-year-old Christina, the school
grappled with how to talk about the tragedy with the young students here. Many
of them have never known anyone who has died. Now, one of their own had been
killed — a loss that was difficult for many adults to deal with.
In the two nights since the shooting, nightmares had already interrupted sleep
for many of the children — images of puppies suddenly dying, mothers crossing
invisible lines and abruptly disappearing, or somebody coming to kidnap their
friends in the middle of the day. The impact was raw and deep. Some children
screamed and sobbed inconsolably, while others were stoic, promising their
mothers that, yes, they understood, and, no, they did not need to talk.
They brought their stuffed owls and friendship bracelets and flowerpots as
offerings for the growing memorial to Christina that lined the fence at the
school. And her third-grade classmates hugged one another tightly in the yard
before classes began.
“Are you sure you’re O.K.?” one asked a group of friends. “My mom said it’s O.K.
to be sad.”
Kayley Clark, a classmate who had been friends with Christina for years, said,
“I just feel shocked and very, very sad. She was very, very smart and very, very
nice. She was such a fun person, and I really wish she could come back.”
Many students were already chattering about ways they could honor Christina.
Could they name a local park in her memory? Or perhaps a baseball field, a
tribute to the game she loved? Could they try to be more helpful to other
students, as they had seen her do?
As parents escorted their children to class just after dawn, a few said they
were worried about what their children would hear about the attacks, but many
more said they felt a sense of relief that somebody else could help their
And parents were mourning not only the death of a bright and popular young
student, but also a sense of innocence for their children.
Tamara Clark, Kayley’s mother, said that when she told her daughter that
Christina was the young girl killed on Saturday, she immediately burst into
tears. Then, there was silence. Hours later came the anger “in a way I have
never seen,” Ms. Clark said.
“She would say over and over that she hated the guy who did it,” Ms. Clark said.
“ ‘Hate’ is a word I never really heard her use before.”
With fewer than 400 students at the school, nearly every child had at least seen
Christina on the playground or at student council or with a tutoring program
where she volunteered.
A team of psychologists arrived at the school early Monday, preparing to stay
all week. Teachers began the day by telling students that the school was “like
one big family, and we are all here to support each other in this time.” With
that, students were encouraged to share memories of Christina in class.
“They told them it’s fine to be happy when you think about Christina and it’s
fine to feel sad,” said Christine Parrish, whose 8- and 9-year-old daughters had
known Christina for most of their lives.
School officials were trying to make the day stick to a normal schedule,
although the circumstances were anything but.
“This is a multifaceted tragedy for this community,” said Vicki Balentine, the
superintendent of the Amphitheater Public Schools district. “We want to give
them space to do whatever we need to be supportive. And at the same time, we
have to move forward.”
One class gathered in the schoolyard and held hands in a circle for the national
moment of silence, as a car stereo blasted the sound of a single bell. The
scheduled Family Library Night on Monday was replaced with a support gathering
For many parents and more than a few students, there are the persistent thoughts
of “what if?”
“There’s no reason we couldn’t have been there at that time, too,” said Betty
Ordonez, whose granddaughter, Jordan Zepeda, is also in third grade at Mesa
Verde. “That was the first thing I thought when I heard about it — where are my
Jordan said, “Now, I feel scared, just very scared.”
Ms. Balentine said the students seemed to be doing as well as could be expected,
adding, “Children are remarkably resilient.”
Indeed, one of the most cogent messages (complete with misspellings) on the
growing memorial came in a letter from Rachel Cooper-Blackmore, a fifth grader.
“Christina you will be missed by everyone,” it began, each “i” dotted with a
heart. “I am so sorry for your family and I hope in their hearts you can guide
them on the right pathway of live because yours was taken short.”
When John F. Kennedy visited Dallas in November of 1963, Texas was awash in
right-wing anger — over perceived cold-war betrayals, over desegregation, over
the perfidies of liberalism in general. Adlai Stevenson, then ambassador to the
U.N., had been spit on during his visit to the city earlier that fall. The week
of Kennedy’s arrival, leaflets circulated in Dallas bearing the president’s
photograph and the words “Wanted For Treason.”
But Lee Harvey Oswald was not a right-winger, not a John Bircher, not a
segregationist. Instead, he was a Marxist of sorts (albeit one disillusioned by
his experiences in Soviet Russia), an activist on behalf of Castro’s Cuba, and a
man whose previous plot had been aimed at a far-right ex-general named Edwin
Walker. The anti-Kennedy excesses of Texas conservatives were real enough, but
the president’s assassin acted on a far more obscure set of motivations.
Nine years after Kennedy was killed, George Wallace embarked on his second
campaign for the presidency. This was the early 1970s, the high tide of far-left
violence — the era of the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, the Symbionese
Liberation Army — and Wallace’s race-baiting politics made him an obvious target
for protests. On his final, fateful day of campaigning, he faced a barrage of
coins, oranges, rocks and tomatoes, amid shouts of “remember Selma!” and “Hitler
for vice president!”
But Arthur Bremer, who shot Wallace that afternoon, paralyzing him from the
waist down, had only a tenuous connection to left-wing politics. He didn’t care
much about Wallace’s views on race: he just wanted to assassinate somebody
(Richard Nixon had been his original target), as “a statement of my manhood for
the world to see.”
It’s possible that Jared Lee Loughner, the young man behind Saturday’s rampage
in Tucson, will have a more direct connection to partisan politics than an
earlier generation’s gunmen did. Indeed, many observers seem to be taking a kind
of comfort from that possibility: there’s been a rush to declare this tragedy a
teachable moment — an opportunity for people to cool their rhetoric, abandon
their anger, and renounce the kind of martial imagery that inspired Sarah
Palin’s PAC to place a target over Gabrielle Giffords’s district just months
before Loughner gunned down the Arizona congresswoman.
But chances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as
those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American
politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck
monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host
of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism
and mental illness gets blurry fast.
This is the world that gave us Oswald and Bremer. More recently, it’s given us
figures like James W. von Brunn, the neo-Nazi who opened fire at the Holocaust
Museum in 2009, and James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last
summer to express his displeasure over population growth. These are figures
better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday,
they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not
secular political actors in extremis.”
This won’t stop partisans from making hay out of Saturday’s tragedy, of course.
The Democratic operative who was quoted in Politico saying that his party needs
“to deftly pin this on the Tea Partiers” was just stating the obvious: after a
political season rife with overheated rhetoric from conservative
“revolutionaries,” the attempted murder of a Democratic congresswoman is a
potential gift to liberalism.
But if overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder,
then both parties would belong in the dock. (It took conservative bloggers about
five minutes to come up with Democratic campaign materials that employed targets
and crosshairs against Republican politicians.) When our politicians and media
loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being
fools and zealots. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that
always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.
We should remember, too, that there are places where mainstream political
movements really are responsible for violence against their rivals. (Last week’s
assassination of a Pakistani politician who dared to defend a Christian is a
stark reminder of what that sort of world can look like.) Not so in America:
From the Republican leadership to the Tea Party grass roots, all of Gabrielle
Giffords’s political opponents were united in horror at the weekend’s events.
There is no faction in American politics that actually wants its opponents dead.
That may seem like a small blessing, amid so much tragedy and loss. But it is a
blessing worth remembering nonetheless.
The New York Times
By JOHN M. BRODER
Va., April 16 — Thirty-two people were killed, along with a gunman, and at least
15 injured in two shooting attacks at Virginia Polytechnic Institute on Monday
during three hours of horror and chaos on this sprawling campus.
The police and witnesses said some victims were executed with handguns while
other students were hurt jumping from upper-story windows of the classroom
building where most of the killings occurred. After the second round of
killings, the gunman killed himself, the police said.
It was the deadliest shooting rampage in American history and came nearly eight
years to the day after 13 people died at Columbine High School in Colorado at
the hands of two disaffected students who then killed themselves.
As of Monday evening, only one of the Virginia Tech victims had been officially
identified. Police officials said they were not yet ready to identify the gunman
or even say whether one person was behind both attacks, which wreaked
devastation on this campus of 36,000 students, faculty members and staff.
Federal law enforcement officials in Washington said the gunman might have been
a young Asian man who recently arrived in the United States. A university
spokeswoman, Jenn Lazenby, could not confirm that report but said the university
was looking into whether two bomb threats at the campus, — one last Friday, the
other earlier this month — might be related to the shootings.
The university’s president, Charles W. Steger, expressed his “horror and
disbelief and sorrow” at what he described as a tragedy of monumental
proportions. But questions were immediately raised about whether university
officials had responded adequately to the shootings.
There was a two-hour gap between the first shootings, when two people were
killed, and the second, when a gunman stalked through the halls of an
engineering building across campus, shooting at professors and students in
classrooms and hallways, firing dozens of rounds and killing 30. Officials said
he then shot himself so badly in the face that he could not be identified.
The university did not send a campuswide alert until the second attack had
begun, even though the gunman in the first had not been apprehended.
Mr. Steger defended the decision not to shut down or evacuate the campus after
the first shootings, saying officials had believed the first attack was a
self-contained event, which the campus police believed was a “domestic” dispute.
“We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur,” he said.
President Bush sent his condolences to the families of the victims and the
university community. “Schools should be places of sanctuary and safety and
learning,” Mr. Bush said. “When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt
in every American classroom and every American community.”
The Virginia Tech attacks started early in the morning, with a call to the
police at 7:15 from West Ambler Johnston Hall, a 900-student freshman dormitory,
as students were getting ready for classes or were on their way there.
Students said a gunman had gone room to room looking for his ex-girlfriend. He
killed two people, a senior identified as Ryan Clark, from Augusta, Ga., and a
freshman identified by other students on her floor as Emily Hilscher.
The shootings at the engineering building, Norris Hall, began about 9:45.
[Prof. Liviu Librescu and Prof. Kevin Granata were among the victims there,
Ishwar K. Puri, the head of the engineering science and mechanics department,
wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.]
One student described barricading himself in a classroom there with other
students and hearing dozens of gunshots nearby. Someone tried to force his way
into the classroom and fired two shots through the door that did not hit anyone,
the student said.
Scott L. Hendricks, an associate professor of engineering, was in his office on
the third floor when he heard 40 to 50 shots from what sounded like the second
floor. Mr. Hendricks said he had called 911, but the police were already on the
The police surrounded the building and he barricaded the door to his office.
After about an hour, the police broke down his door and ordered him to flee.
“When I left, I was one of the last to leave,” Mr. Hendricks said. “I had no
idea of the magnitude of the event.”
According to the college newspaper, The Collegiate Times, many of the deaths
took place in a German class in Norris Hall.
“He was just a normal looking kid, Asian, but he had on a Boy Scout type
outfit,” one student in the class, Erin Sheehan, told the newspaper. “He wore a
tan button-up vest and this black vest — maybe it was for ammo or something.”
Ms. Sheehan added: “I saw bullets hit people’s bodies. There was blood
everywhere. People in the class were passed out, I don’t know maybe from shock
from the pain. But I was one of only four that made it out of that classroom.
The rest were dead or injured.”
Heavily armed local and state police officers swarmed onto campus. Video clips
shown on local stations showed them with rifles at the ready as students ran or
sought cover and a freakish snow swirled in heavy winds. The police evacuated
students and faculty members, taking many of them to local hotels. A Montgomery
County school official said all schools throughout the county were being shut
Many parents and students questioned the university’s response to the two fatal
shootings in Ambler Johnston Hall, suggesting that more aggressive action could
have prevented the later and deadlier attack.
“As a parent, I am totally outraged,” said Fran Bernhards of Sterling, Va.,
whose daughter Kirsten attends Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State
University, as it is formally known. “I would like to know why the university
did not immediately shut down.”
Kirsten Bernhards, 18, said she and countless other students had no idea that a
shooting had occurred when she left her dorm room in O’Shaughnessy Hall shortly
before 10 a.m., more than two hours after the first shootings.
“I was leaving for my 10:10 film class,” she said. “I had just locked the door
and my neighbor said, ‘Did you check your e-mail?’ ”
The university had, a few minutes earlier, sent out a bulletin warning students
about an apparent gunman. But few students seemed to have any sense of urgency.
The university’s first bulletin warned students to be “cautious.” Then, 20
minutes later, at 9:50, a second e-mail warning was sent, saying a gunman was
“loose on campus” and telling students to stay in buildings and away from
windows. At 10:16, a final message said classes were canceled and advised
everyone on campus to stay where they were and lock their doors.
Ms. Bernhards recalled walking toward her class, preoccupied with an upcoming
exam and listening to music on her iPod. On the way, she said, she heard loud
cracks, and only later concluded that they had been gunshots from the second
round of shootings. But even at that point, many students were walking around
the campus with little sense of alarm.
It was only when Ms. Bernhards got close to Norris Hall, the second of two
buildings where the shootings took place, that she realized something was wrong.
“I looked up and I saw at least 10 guards with assault rifles aiming at the main
entrance of Norris,” she recalled.
The Virginia Tech police chief, Wendell Flinchum, defended the university’s
decision to keep the campus open after the first shootings, saying the
information at the time indicated that it was an isolated event and that the
attacker had left campus.
At an evening news conference, Chief Flinchum would not say that the same gunman
was responsible for the shootings in the dormitory and the classrooms. He said
he was awaiting ballistics tests and other laboratory results until declaring
that the same person carried out both attacks.
He said accounts from students at the dorm had led the police to a “person of
interest” who knew one or both of the victims there. The police were
interviewing him off campus at the time of the shootings at Norris Hall. Chief
Flinchum said officers had not arrested the man.
“You can second-guess all day,” he said. “We acted on the best information we
had. We can’t have an armed guard in front of every classroom every day of the
Classroom buildings are not locked and dormitories are open throughout the day
but require a key card for entry at night, university officials said.
Chief Flinchum confirmed that police found some of the Norris Hall classroom
doors chained shut from the inside, which is not a normal practice. Some of the
people hurt there were injured leaping from windows to escape.
Virginia imposes few restrictions on the purchase of handguns and no requirement
for any kind of licensing or training. The state does limit handgun purchases to
one per month to discourage bulk buying and resale, state officials said.
Once a person had passed the required background check, state law requires that
law enforcement officers issue a concealed carry permit to anyone who applies.
However, no regulations and no background checks are required for purchase of
weapons at a Virginia gun show.
“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.”
Students are not allowed to have guns on the campus.
At Ambler Johnston Hall, where the first shootings took place, many if not most
students had left and those who remained stayed close to their rooms by late
Mr. Clark, the senior who was shot in the dorm, was a resident adviser who went
by the nickname Stack on Facebook.com, was well liked and was a member of the
university’s marching band, the Marching Virginians, students said. “He was a
cool guy,” said one fourth-floor resident.
The shootings unfolded in an age of instant messaging, cellphone cameras, blogs
and social networking sites like Facebook. As the hours passed, students who
were locked in their classrooms and dormitories passed on news and rumors.
In one cellphone video shown repeatedly on television networks, the sound of
dozens of shots can be heard and students can be seen running from Norris Hall.
The student who made the video, Jamal Albarghouti, a graduate student, said he
was already on edge because of two bomb threats on campus last week. “I knew
this was something way more serious,” he told CNN.
The shooting was the second in the past year that forced officials to issue an
alert to the campus.
In August of 2006, an escaped jail inmate shot and killed a deputy sheriff and
an unarmed security guard at a nearby hospital before the police caught him in
the woods near the university. The capture ended a manhunt that led to the
cancellation of the first day of classes at Virginia Tech and shut down most
businesses and municipal buildings in Blacksburg. The defendant, William Morva,
is facing capital murder charges.
The atmosphere on campus was desolate and preternaturally quiet by Monday
afternoon. Students gathered in small groups, some crying, some talking quietly
and others consoling each other.
Up until today, the deadliest campus shooting in United States history was in
1966 at the University of Texas, where Charles Whitman climbed to the 28th-floor
observation deck of a clock tower and opened fire, killing 16 people before he
was shot and killed by the police. In the Columbine High attack in 1999, two
teenagers killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves.
The single deadliest shooting in the United States came in October 1991, when
George Jo Hennard crashed his pickup truck through the window of a Luby’s
cafeteria in Killeen, Tex., then shot 22 people dead and wounded at least 20
others. He shot himself in the head.