MEMPHIS – On the campus of the University of Memphis, where I was visiting for part of last week, the news of the Virginia Tech mass murders struck with special force.
Not only were these students, like those in Blacksburg, attending a large public university with a big commuter population, but they still recall the scars of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was gunned down in this city 39 years ago this spring.
Meeting with students at the journalism school, I was reminded that no campus these days is free from violence. Just two weeks ago, the student newspaper reporters said, a woman graduate student was stabbed in the leg by a man who was trying to steal her purse. Several of the women in the class described the precautions they take, for example, always trying to find companions when they are walking on campus at night.
“You always want to be looking around, staying alert,” one older woman student said. “Don’t be looking down. Don’t be talking on your cell phone. If you seem to be distracted, you’re more likely to be a target.”
Campuses are targets
I see the crime reports posted regularly on the Web site of the University of Maryland, where I teach a once-a-week seminar, and I know that College Park, a seemingly placid suburb, is no more tranquil than Memphis. Any campus is a target because parked cars are not always locked against thieves and because the banks and restaurants and bars that crowd the neighborhoods close to campuses are places where people come and go with purses and wallets containing cash.
College campuses place no triple-strand barbed wire fences on their perimeters. They are, instead, open to thousands of people coming and going freely every day. The campus police forces, often orphans in the budget-making, do their best with limited resources but frequently are lacking in numbers and in training. The buildings, sidewalks and grassy areas on campus are as open to interlopers as their classrooms are to freely expressed ideas. The notion of closing down either the campus or the expression of ideas goes against the grain. It violates the whole spirit of the place.
And yet, listening to the students here, there was a definite, persistent sense of unease about the situation. One student, a mother of four, said that on hearing the first reports from Virginia Tech, she immediately thought about what would happen to her children if she happened to be in a classroom when a killer burst in firing his weapon.
The tall young male athlete seated next to her said, “I know martial arts. I wondered what I would do. I know the right moves to make to disarm a man, but I don’t know if I could have reacted quick enough in those circumstances.”
The conversation moved on to the topic of the missed signals about the strange personality of Cho Seung Hui, the 23-year-old Virginia Tech student who killed 32 students and faculty members. Fellow students and some teachers had recognized clear signs of isolation, depression, anger and worse in his behavior and in his writing. He had had minor run-ins with the law. But no one recognized the potential danger in his presence, and no one tried seriously to intervene.
The Memphis students could come to no agreement on when or how such situations should be dealt with by campus officials, and in the end, most of them said, they felt that little would change. One young man argued for tighter gun laws, but agreed that neither Tennessee nor Virginia is likely to enact them.
Dealing with risk
In the end, these students said they felt they would simply have to adjust their own lives to deal with this risk, along with all the other uncertainties of the external world. “I just made up my mind,” one young woman said, “never to go to sleep angry with someone important to me. You never know what day will be your last. Those Virginia Tech students, when they got up Monday morning to go to class, didn’t know it was the day they would die. You don’t want to leave bad feelings behind you.”
That was about as positive a thought as could be mustered on a typical American campus, in the sad spring of 2007.
David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. David Broder’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.