The Specter of Mass Shootings on Campus

Yesterday, around the time my second class was ending, a man with a handgun entered the building. Three hours later, long after I had returned home, a vague campus-wide email arrived in my inbox, informing me of the event.

I infer from its sketchy details that this would-be gunman is disturbed. Neither a student or even a local resident, it appears that he may have been targeting a specific individual. According to the email, the campus police were able to apprehend him within 90 seconds. I am thankful that this potentially explosive situation turned out to be a non-event, but I am also left shaken and unsure how to process it.

Having grown up in a time of mass shootings, I find their naked tragedy primarily inspires empty rhetoric. In the aftermath, pundits and concerned citizens alike, across the political spectrum, repeat their stock responses. This rhetoric no longer resonates with me, if it ever did.

Rationally, I know that I am more likely to be killed driving to campus than I am by a gun. Nevertheless, the horror of mass shootings overrides my rational thoughts. An unending gallery of nightmarish scenarios all too often come unbidden into my consciousness, perhaps not unlike the compulsive, obsessive thoughts described by OCD sufferers. I have thought of campus shooters while walking from the parking garage to my office building, while walking to my classroom, while on my way to the library, and even while teaching.

Campus shootings seem particularly heinous, from Charles Whitman’s deadly rifle fire from the University of Texas tower in 1966 to Seung-Hui Cho’s murderous spree through Norris Hall at Virginia Tech a mere ten years ago. While there have been deadlier shootings, most recently in Las Vegas, the perversity of campus massacres – or even school shootings like Columbine and Newtown – stands out because of their violation of the spirit of education.

We speak often of safe spaces in higher ed, and though the term is often maligned and misused, the basic principle articulated by the concept of safe spaces converges with my idea of what the college classroom should be. Campus shootings are an existential threat to the university; they render the space that should be dedicated to free, fair, open, and compassionate inquiry into spaces of hostility and death. The specter of campus shootings haunts all of us who work and study in these environments.

Mass shootings run up against the limits of my own ability to analyze. I am at a loss – for the proper words, for a solution, for even the moral bearings to categorize these events properly. In the past, when these unbidden visions of mayhem would come, I would try to chase them away with the rationalization that it likely won’t happen to me. I am thankful that the events of yesterday bore out my feeble rationalizations. But this non-event, as I have already said, shakes me. Yesterday, the spectral possibility of gun violence on my campus became manifest. The surreality I have subsequently felt might have something to do with the lag between the event and my awareness of it: as I left the building in which I teach to return to my office, I noticed no police presence, no sign at all that something was wrong. Forty-five minutes later, as I walked past that building again on my way to the parking garage, nothing seemed amiss. How unnerving it was then to hear of the incident three hours after it happened, casting my quotidian comings and goings in a garish new light.

Perhaps what boggles is the retrospective glimpse at what could have been so long after the after the potential for sudden violence was past. I am glad beyond words that no one was hurt or killed. At the same time, this non-event forces me to wonder how many times in a day death passes closely without our knowing. Even by that existential measure, a campus shooting seems distinctly horrific. Because of the media attention given to these shootings, we perceive them as commonplace events. Nevertheless, we are statistically unlikely to experience one. This is the paradox of campus shootings: even as they are final and irreversible in their horror and violence, they are unlikely; yet they are uncomfortably close, even in the moment we are unaware of their potential.

Simply put, to be on campus now is to live with the possibility of a mass shooting.

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