Friday, February 15, 2008

Shootings at Northern Illinois University: If you think you know, you don't....

The details that are still way too sketchy as I write this will have been fleshed out soon enough: at least six are known dead in the shooting at Northern Illinois University.

We have all become somewhat jaded as news junkies these days, but in awhile even this will fade into a passing reference, as did Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Delaware State. Politicians from both parties, either in the state or nationally, will be unable to resist the urge to cash in on the violence in order to support one or another causes--from stricter gun control to more pro-active counseling services--and there will be the usual media circus at a time when the people affected most need the solace of some simple privacy.

I can predict, with absolute certainty, that tonight a reporter from some Philadelphia or Baltimore station will be trying to dig up someone local at DSU to comment on this tragedy, creating the ultimate granfalloon [if you never read early Kurt Vonnegut, that's your problem] out of similar institutional victims.

An event like this can tear the guts out of any community, but a university is more fragile than a similarly sized small town. The ties that bind us together as a community are more tenuous, and more temporary than those of real communities. Professors know and treasure their students, but only for a few years, and these days we rarely get to know their families in the bargain. Some students, some teachers, some staff members, can never--for whatever reason--face returning to the scene. They drift away and the pieces of their lives are never quite put back in place.

In many cases, after the initial emotional family-like rallies and coming-together events, there is a backlash, almost a whiplash back toward pointing fingers and suddenly being suspicious of people you once welcomed with open arms.

Ironically--and terribly--the tragedy at Northern Illinois University will improve the ability of places like Virginia Tech and DSU to get past, in an institutional sense, the stigma attached to having nationally reported fatal shootings happen on their campuses. Because the more places it happens, the more strangely and horridly normal it seems to calculate in the risk that your son or daughter might be gunned down in pursuit of a college education.

At DSU we have genuinely attempted to learn the lessons that can be gleaned from such tragedy: we have better reporting systems, better emergency protocols, and talk about fostering more mentoring relationships, building a campus climate that will make violence intolerable....

But we all know--like all women who have ever been sexually assaulted know (in much greater depth and detail)--that it can happen again, at any time, and that it can come from strangers or people we thought were our friends.

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