Senseless. Random. Tragic. How do we begin to make sense of the horrific scenes that played out on the Virginia Tech campus this week as a result of one student’s actions?
There’s a basic human desire, in the face of this carnage, to look for motives or reasons… some way to understand the demons that drove the shooter to take the lives of so many innocent young people and faculty.
Those demons may become apparent during the next many days as every aspect of his life is researched and investigated. This is oddly part of the healing process… we need to hope for a story, a clear explanation for the shattering of our sense of normalcy and security.
And there’s an instinctive drive to place blame… a desire to say that if only certain actions had been taken then we could have prevented the loss of so many lives. No sooner did the magnitude of the incidents at Virginia Tech become apparent late Monday morning than the questions started to surface.
Were all reasonable actions taken following the first of the two attacks? Should the campus have been shut down and classes been canceled after the first bodies were discovered in the residence hall? During the past year were there opportunities to remove the killer from the student body as a result of past infractions or improper behavior?
In the brief time since the tragedy, there has been a steady drumbeat of speculation, second-guessing and hyperbole. Even before the evidence has been fully gathered, investigated and analyzed there has been no shortage of “experts” willing to venture into the media to offer up opinions of what went wrong.
How about this for an idea: How about we honor the grieving families, survivors and student body through our thoughts and prayers and otherwise respectfully keep quiet while allowing the FBI, state and local authorities to finish the investigation without throwing speculative spitballs at everyone from the campus police to the university president.
There will be time enough to examine the events of the day; this tragedy will sit under the microscope for weeks and months to come. It’s human nature to ask “who’s to blame?” No one wants to believe that something like this can just happen.
Surely, we can dissect the attack, identify what or who, besides the killer, was at fault and, therefore, ensure that something like this won’t happen again.
That is also part of the healing process in the face of tragedy, to somehow place blame on something other than the damned awfulness and randomness of pure violence. Dig through the rubble left behind and find some sense in it all.
Somewhere in the events of the day there will be lessons to be learned. And in the process, we can feel more in control by apportioning blame and reaffirming our belief that we can prevent such random violence from happening in the future.
Acts such as this, attacks on school grounds, are somehow more vicious and soul-shaking than other violent incidents. We send our children off to school, no matter their age, with the belief that they are safely tucked away.
We hold on to that belief despite proof over the past years to the contrary. If you can stomach the read, take a few minutes to search on the Internet using “school attack” and “weapons” and “students.” Virginia Tech is the most horrific and fatal, but we have been witness over the past several years to numerous such shootings. And each time we hope it’s the last.
But unfortunately, evil exists. I’m not talking about some biblical conception of evil. I’m talking the evil of random, hateful, sometimes driven by psychosis violence that can reach out and upend your life in the time it takes to blink.
I cannot imagine the grief of the victims' parents at this time. Over 30 years ago my own parents lost their only daughter, my only sister, when she went off to college and died in a senseless accident. It created a hole that’s covered over often, but never really filled. I miss her, but not like my parents miss her.
I think about this now when I walk my own child to the bus stop in the morning. I hold her hand tighter and I want to get on the bus with her and spend the day as her bodyguard against whatever lurks out there.
She looks at me like I’m slightly neurotic, with that condescending air that teenagers seem to develop overnight. She’s barely a teen and her confidence is reassuring and disconcerting in equal portions. She’s off to school, where’s the harm in that?
We hurt for the victims, for their families and friends and for the students of Virginia Tech. We’ll look for clues in the life of the killer, we’ll examine how the tragedy unfolded from start to finish and, perhaps, we’ll find fault in policies or procedures that were followed.
If we’re lucky, lessons will be learned that can be implemented at Virginia Tech as well as other schools and campuses around the country. That methodical process, rather than hasty speculation about what could have or should have been done, will be a more positive step toward healing.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.