“Texans . . . hoped and prayed they never would share [their] emotion with another campus. . . . Now, though, there’s one more institution to add to the list of places we never again can consider safe. . . .”1
The April 2007 killings at Virginia Tech resonated deeply at the University of Texas, where the first (and until last year the largest) U.S. university massacre occurred in August 1966. The tragedy in Blacksburg was bound to stir recollections of Austin, and it did: Texans’ heartfelt expressions of sympathy poured into the Virginia Tech campus and the homes of the victims and their devastated families and friends. As they did, however, something else happened: A sense arose among the victims’ families that the Texas affair had never been properly handled emotionally. It seemed that the sorrow those families expressed for the Virginia Tech victims in 2007 was in part lingering grief that had never found adequate public expression.
There is no question that the two incidents, despite broad similarities, generated different symbolism. Despite some local pressure, the University of Texas long resisted pleas for a permanent memorial for victims of the 1966 shooting rampage, yielding only in 1999. In contrast, within weeks of the Virginia Tech crisis of 2007, the erection of a temporary memorial was underway, with a commitment to a three-year study to determine a suitable permanent monument. Why the difference? Had the need to memorialize been there in 1966 but been repressed or ignored? Or, more likely, has the sense of a need to memorialize tragedy changed?
Comparing the reactions to two gruesome campus mass murders four decades apart tells us something about how Americans have altered their emotional standards in the aftermath of misfortune. The laboratory for examining this question is unusual in that it allows us to examine not just emotional outpourings but also the different policy responses. The changes revealed seem double-edged. Some suggest a capacity for widening sympathies; others raise more troubling questions about emotional excess.
The basic stories are quickly told. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former U.S. marine who studied architectural engineering at the University of Texas, killed his mother and his wife in the pre-dawn hours, then took a gun and ammunition to the University’s observation tower. He clubbed a receptionist (who later died), killed two people and wounded two others before reaching the observation deck, where he opened fire on people crossing campus. Police arrived and returned fire; other officers soon worked their way into the tower while students and other citizens removed some of the dead and wounded. Whitman ultimately killed 16 people and wounded at least 31 others before two policemen reached the deck and shot and killed him. An autopsy revealed that the killer had a brain tumor, but there has been a long-running dispute over its effects. It was also revealed that Whitman had talked earlier about shooting from a tower, though the threats were not taken seriously.
On April 16, 2007, Cho Seung-Hui, a Korean-American student at Virginia Tech, shot a female student and a resident adviser in a dormitory. Then, after mailing some violent ramblings to NBC News and assembling a small arsenal, he went to Norris Hall. After locking the Hall from the inside, he opened fire on several classrooms, ultimately killing thirty students and professors before turning a gun on himself. Several other students were wounded or injured. Police finally surrounded the scene, but by the time they entered the engineering classroom building they could do no more than document the tragedy and assist survivors. Cho had a considerable history of mental illness and had expressed menacing thoughts in several short works of literature over the years. But he had ignored both recommendations and requirements that he seek additional therapeutic help.
There were many other minor differences between the two incidents, but what interests us, first, is that both incidents produced what may be regarded as standard responses. Many of the people closely involved were in shock for at least several days. A wounded Texas senior who specifically noted that the slaughter compounded her recollections of other recent violence said that the massacre “is still very prominent in my mind and my thoughts, and I guess it will be for a long time.” Similar reactions affected those closely involved with the killings at Virginia Tech. These terrifying events left deep emotional scars on those close to the action, particularly the surviving wounded. In the days immediately following each incident, campus life seemed distorted and oddly quiet, save for intrusions from the media. Expressions of condolence and offers of assistance also poured in quickly as news spread. Letters of sympathy reached the universities from various parts of the country and even abroad. Outreach in Austin included a sixfold increase in blood donations, as well as some monetary donations, a pattern repeated after the Virginia Tech tragedy. Mass murders, now as then, clearly generate local trauma and wider emotional involvement and concern.
Both incidents also produced quick responses from university officials and politicians. The University of Texas president cancelled classes for the following day. Virginia Tech canceled classes for a longer period of time and excused students who wanted to leave for the remainder of the semester. The Virginia Governor aborted a planned trip abroad, while the Texas Governor in 1966 cut short a visit to Latin America.
These similarities make the significant differences between the events all the more striking. Two initial points predominate: the far greater media frenzy at Virginia Tech and the greater emotional fervor there as well.
Of course, the Texas slaughter generated extensive media focus. Within 24 hours the university had offered 75 press passes to reporters and photographers. Phone calls from as far away as London swamped the university’s News and Information Service. The New York Times ran articles for several days, as did other major papers. In Texas, newspapers episodically resumed coverage over several weeks, with a particular focus on following up the experiences of some of the victims and their families.
Nevertheless, the media response in Austin in 1966 pales in comparison with what happened at Virginia Tech last year. Journalists of all stripes, including anchors for two of the three major networks, descended like wolves. Finding little to report about directly, commentators focused on replayed shots of exterior scenes and peripheral police activity, spiced by constant efforts to solicit emotional reactions from students and others near the scene. Media extended the “you’re in the story” power of the killings by sending reporters to talk to students and faculty at other universities, asking the inevitable question, “What if it had happened here?” Shock headlines and provocative music seemed to imply that someone must be called to account for such a tragedy. British reporters offered students money to gain access to university spaces. The New York Times kept the story on its front page for more than a week, with recurrent coverage thereafter. Outlets like CNN developed animated logos for “Massacre at Virginia Tech”, throbbing and twirling with all the subtlety of an American Idol promo, with gun crosshairs floating across the screen in slow motion. Fox News rotated the university’s logo with “Campus Massacre.” Except for ABC, all the major networks used similar devices, turning the tragedy into a branding opportunity.
In part because of changes in the general format and tone of media coverage, a second major shift occurred between 1966 and 2007—a shift in the level and range of emotional responses themselves. Levels of grief and probably fear extended far more widely in 2007 than they had in 1966, and the effects on people close to the event but not directly involved were also measurably more severe.
Expressions of grief after the Austin shootings came from far and wide, but after Blacksburg, levels of sorrow and group involvement were far more extensive. Universities far from Blacksburg felt compelled to offer counseling or elaborate mourning services. Nationwide, parents worried that something equally dire might be imminent on their own children’s campuses—a fear of contagion not evident after the Austin shootings. Students on many campuses not directly involved with Blacksburg spoke of their own sense of insecurity, their immediate concern about “what if this happened to me”, as well as their deep grief, suggesting a degree of emotional sharing that had not existed forty years before.
At Texas, public reaction quickly focused on genuine sorrow, but it was accompanied by a nearly palpable desire to “get on” with things. The community put pressure on the administration to reopen the Tower; as one writer pointed out, the Dallas School Book Depository had not been closed after the Kennedy killing and “battlefields are not roped off because many men died there.”2 The Virginia Tech incident produced almost no such counsel of rationality, cool calculation or the virtues of stoicism. Grief, and in some cases fear, were abundantly indulged. Commentary featured students reeling from their own, albeit indirect, involvement. They had an acquaintance who was involved; they lived in a dorm next to the building where the shooting took place; they knew the friend of a friend who was shot. To be sure, as in Texas, many probably shrugged off the tragedy quickly, but the crucial difference is that they neither sought nor could have found a significant public venue to express that sentiment in April 2007.
From Media to Memorialization
Not surprisingly, the changes in media coverage and emotional reaction combined to generate another set of differences, namely in mourning and memorialization. University of Texas officials did little to memorialize the victims. They held a memorial service and flew flags at half-mast for a week, but no plaque or marker was put in place for more than thirty years. No spontaneous symbols of grief appeared in or around Austin. The administration’s insistence on getting on with things doubtless played a role in this delay, but public reactions did, too. Even when the dedication finally occurred in 1999, the university noted that plans to add more landscaping to the garden had been thwarted by a lack of donations. And in the weeks and months after the Austin shootings, financial contributions to the victims themselves were limited.
The contrast with the aftermath of the Virginia Tech disaster could hardly be starker. Within hours, ribbons, letters, stuffed animals and money began pouring in. Mourning ribbons were worn far and wide, even at campuses hundreds of miles away. Bumper stickers adorned cars, and many other spontaneous expressions of solidarity appeared. School officials quickly established a makeshift shrine and awarded posthumous degrees to the slain students. Within months, a simple memorial with a stone for each victim had been constructed. Virginia Tech resisted pleas to tear down Norris Hall or convert it into a shrine, but it committed to never again use the facility for general classes. With some administration encouragement, massive funds were raised—more than $1 million within six months. Virginia Tech itself offered $180,000 per family at one point and $40,000 to $90,000 to the wounded, with no strings attached—a gesture never even discussed in the Austin case.
There were also significant differences in the discussions about responsibility and liability. The University of Texas’s official response averred that the killings were the unpredictable act of a madman and argued against any elaborate discussions of fault. There seems to have been no legal aftermath whatsoever. Texas Governor John Connally insisted that “in no case” would any report be released to the public, a decision that seemed to fit the public mood.
The Virginia Tech event, however, generated immediate and ultimately widespread calls to assign blame—even though police responses were far quicker and better organized than they had been in Austin. Official inquiries concluded (and were prodded from many quarters to conclude) that the administration was at fault for not notifying all students immediately that a gunman was at large on campus.
The differences in the responses of policymakers were subtler than those among university officials. After Austin, national figures, including President Lyndon Johnson, argued for tighter restrictions on access to guns, and studies recommended the expansion, professionalization and arming of campus police forces. The Virginia Tech incident also renewed calls for further gun control, but the political atmosphere largely confined the policy changes to preventing individuals with a record of mental health problems from acquiring guns. Indeed, the most widely agreed upon policy change recommended after Virginia Tech was the need for swift and extensive improvements in campus warning systems.
There were two other distinctions in the policy realm. First, there were different beliefs about the efficacy of policy. In 2007, Senator Sam Brownback (R–KS) hoped that policy changes would “see that it never again happens in America”, whereas in 1966 Governor Connally and others noted how impossible it was to “account for the actions of a crazy, deranged individual.” Second, the intensity of emotions in 2007 meant that policy responses had to be quick, widespread and fairly uniform, in contrast to the more gradual rate of change after Austin. Several states formally opened new security inquiries, and universities installed new equipment and procedures for emergency mass-notifications of university students and personnel. The University of Toronto closed its gun range, just in case.
Different Years, Different Fears
With these crucial distinctions established, two questions emerge: What caused the changes between 1966 and 2007, and how should the changes be assessed?
The first step involves acknowledging, but not overstating, the huge alterations in context between the 1960s and the early 2000s. The most facile explanation for the more intense reactions in the Tech tragedy would invoke the huge wounds that the American public has endured in the past two decades, from terrorist attacks, both domestic (Oklahoma City) and foreign (9/11 and others), to the spate of high school shootings that followed the Texas event, notably the Columbine shooting. Americans possibly get more upset about events like these because they have come to feel so beleaguered, or so the argument goes.
The prior-innocence argument seems porous or at least inadequate in this instance, however. The 1960s, after all, were a period of tumult and insecurity—the Cold War, the JFK assassination, the drama and violence of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. People recalled the murder of eight Chicago nurses by Richard Speck just a few days before the massacre in Austin, and the murder of two coeds the previous summer. The Texas shootings occurred in a nation, and in a city, that was far from placid or self-assured.
There’s an undeniable conundrum here. Despite growing campus turmoil in the mid-1960s, the prior absence of school shootings must explain part of the softer reaction in 1966 compared to 2007. College students in 2007 had grown up amid a regular series of reports about collective violence. On the other hand, the ease with which the Texas shootings could have been associated with wider fears in what was arguably a more tumultuous and troubling decade makes it unlikely that changing context alone accounts for the differences between the two responses. Campus insecurity was more pervasive when the earlier tragedy struck, but it did not generate concerns that spilled over so readily into widespread grief or fear. So additional factors must explain the increased intensity of emotion in 2007.
Some of the symptoms that suggest change from 1966 to 2007, particularly the growth in magnitude of expressions of public grief, actually began in the 1990s—a much earlier point in the history of school shootings and entirely before the trauma of 9/11. It first cropped up after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Grief after that tragedy helped spur widespread, often deeply emotional memorial services, as well as the construction of an unprecedented memorial that took up the entire prime urban space previously occupied by the building. Pressures to memorialize victims in other notorious school shootings or mark the sites of car accidents with crosses and flowers, or the outpouring of grief in America over the death of Princess Diana in 1997, or even the renewed effort to construct a memorial in Austin all showed similar impulses. Something was intensifying public emotion even before September 11. But what?
Two broader factors leap out when probing what that “something” might be, one of them definite but complex, the other harder to pin down. The first focuses on the role of the media, the second on expectations of emotional displacement in the contemporary American social environment.
The growing involvement of the media in incidents like the Texas and Virginia shootings stands out as the most conspicuous difference between 1966 and 2007. In 2007, 24-hour newscasts hinged minute-by-minute on single, discrete developments, providing a highlighting opportunity essentially unavailable in 1966. Even in 2007, of course, the media could pick and choose: Situations that were less amenable to emotional exploitation because privacy and access to information were guarded more closely (such as the Amish school slayings in Pennsylvania a few months before the Tech incident) didn’t attract the same levels of media saturation, and hence didn’t produce comparable public reactions. But incidents that were amenable to media saturation quickly became orgies of aggressive reporting, with microphones and cameras thrust in front of people still gripped by fear and grief.
The existence of blogs and social networking sites added to the coverage, too. As of August 2007, there were 296 global groups on Facebook honoring the Virginia Tech victims. People everywhere, seeing firsthand on television or the Internet the raw emotions of those who lived in faraway Blacksburg, could feel that they had in some sense directly participated in the turmoil. We are witnessing the “media-ization” of global emotion.
The media’s hand alone, however, should not be overplayed. They unquestionably help designate and define crises. They play on and play up emotion. They convey a set of almost obligatory emotional standards, and they certainly expand the geographical scope of emotional impact. They even manage to make themselves part of the story, running features on the role of the media in the disaster. But they do not, by themselves, manufacture emotion. The public itself has played a role in shaping responses to tragedies from 1966 to 2007.
There is today a growing public sense of the inappropriateness of certain kinds of death and the need for a public and expiatory emotional response when these intolerable deaths occur. A weariness of coping with threat, as well as society’s growing fear of immigration and increased protectiveness of children in this low-birth-rate society, have granted new urgency to security concerns.
What do we mean by “inappropriateness”? Simply that many Americans increasingly believe that in a well-ordered society, the vast majority of people should not die before old age, and certainly not by violence. If they do, this violation should be greeted by high emotion (both grief and fear) and by strong efforts to identify culprits and prevent it from happening again. Growing parental involvement in their children’s lives, continuing even into early adulthood, appears to be closely tied to this heightened sensitivity to risk. The resultant personalization of certain kinds of disasters accounts both for strong emotions and for insistence on rigorous inquiry, providing a fertile audience for media efforts to promote emotional involvements, as well.
Should we care about the deep alteration in American life suggested by the differences between the reactions to these two tragic incidents? Our new approach to public tragedies has a clear benefit and a clear drawback. It also raises two compelling questions that probably cannot yet be answered.
The benefit is that in a society often and perhaps justly accused of excessive individualism and “bowling alone”, the opportunity to coalesce around a brief but vivid sense of emotional community might be welcome. It might even be taken as a sign of humane sophistication in a materialist age. The manipulative tendencies of the media can certainly be troubling (when they are not positively distasteful), but the notion that people truly grieve for strangers and need to express their grief while offering support to them ought to be regarded as a good thing.
The drawback is that the new emotionalism costs the resources and time that endless questions and forced policy reviews push on administrators, politicians and law enforcement officials. These are people who have better things to do than pretend that vigorous action can ward off highly unlikely accidents and tragedies in the future. The new levels of grief and fear have coercive qualities that make skeptical response or outright criticism dangerous, and anything that inhibits open debate is suspect.
This pressure applies not only to the ambient demand for mandatory grief but also to the implementation of new security measures. Institutions far removed from Virginia Tech in circumstance and geography have been compelled to review old policies and invent new ones, investing massive amounts of time and money despite overstretched college budgets—all in the service of reassuring emotionally wrought constituents, frequently without significantly enhancing protection.
Now to the questions. First, does the new level of emotional response actually help the people most affected by tragedy? The temptation is to say yes, of course, it does; one can only find solace from outpourings of grief and sympathy; look at the unrequited grief of victims’ families in Austin for a contrast. Yet public support can encourage those affected to want even more support and turn to schemes of compensation and endless debates over blame and memorialization into barbs that risk exacerbating emotional wounds to no good purpose. There’s not much doubt that the Virginia Tech survivors seem more perturbed, over a wider range of issues, than their Texas counterparts forty years ago. Whether this is a good result can usefully be discussed.
Second, does the frenzied effort to beef up security procedures to defend against the next tragedy really reduce risk? Or does it, even apart from the resources expended, simply fortify the belief that risk should be controllable, thus making the next unexpected tragedy all the more painful? Are we, however unwittingly, needlessly increasing our emotional vulnerability?
It is possible. Many of the proposals made in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy lack any real clarity on how they would be put to use in an actual emergency. Worse, it also seems that some of these high profile and increasingly elaborate responses to tragedy actually invite new attacks by mentally ill individuals, who are now aware of how much furor they can cause as part of their final earthly act. Emotionally driven responses at the very least inhibit a calmer discussion of how much risk we can realistically expect to reduce.
It’s almost an axiom that overpowering emotional responses seem appropriate, even inevitable, after a tragedy. But one of the uses of history is that it enables us to evaluate alternatives and to trace changes that are not necessarily inevitable, durable or desirable. Austin and Blacksburg, forty years apart, show the extent to which current reactions are actually products of fairly recent change, the distillation of some significant if still poorly understood contemporary history. While we all hope that tragedies will not occur, we also hope that the predictable reactions to them can be shifted toward greater dispassion (though not insensitivity) and a willingness to keep risk in perspective, even amid many promptings toward high emotion.
There is a lesson about understanding history in all of this: Call it the Maginot Line lesson, in which the French learned that preparing for the future with the battle plans of past wars is a costly and foolish error. History is not simple, so the lessons drawn from it cannot be simple, either.
On September 21, 2007, the first post-Tech campus shootings occurred at Delaware State. Acting in accordance with the common wisdom about Virginia Tech’s mistakes, officials locked down the university for a day, canceling all classes and keeping most students in their dorms. Authorities congratulated themselves on this quick and assertive response. Yet the shootings turned out to have resulted from a personal dispute; the campus-wide lockdown was thus a wasteful move that only magnified students’ anxieties. The initial response to the later shootings at Northern Illinois University, on February 14, 2008, showed a more constructive incorporation of Virginia Tech’s lessons. Police response was prompt, information was delivered to students immediately, and the campus lockdown was quickly lifted when the attack had been handled. But after this promising start, Northern Illinois went on to illustrate the costs of high emotional indulgence. Not only did the administration cancel classes for a full week, it also came close to tearing down the building in which the shootings had occurred—a move even Virginia Tech resisted. The incident also reminds us that, despite all the new response plans and safety efforts under the sun, no means has yet been devised to eliminate tragic outlier events from human history, or to relieve responsible officials of the need to exercise sound judgment.