Challenger logo by Alan White

  A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring-Summer 2007

 

SOME Disconnected Thoughts

ON A TRAGEDY

Jeffrey Copeland

Once upon a time there was a young man of 15 or maybe 17 or maybe 20 years old (or maybe it was two young men) who was unhappy because he had been

          jilted or beaten up by the football players or forced to
          
attend Bible camp by his mother
and who got

          
a revolver or a 9mm automatic or a hunting rifle
and shot up his school. He left

          
a diary or a video
detailing his complaints which was later analyzed to show his descent into narcissistic madness.

Except that it wasn't once or even twice upon a time. It's happened so often that it has become a multiple choice exercise. It's happened so often that a phoned-in threat or the diary entry of a kid at a school in New Jersey or Iowa doesn't merit more than a short item on page 12 of the newspaper, actual bullets have to fly before CNN will notice.

Last month's tragedy at Virginia Tech, as usual, had the black comedy of a well-worn script, with all the familiar elements. “He was so quiet.” “He kept to himself.” “He was angry.” The odd part this time was that the murderer, Cho, actually had been identified as a threat, and actually had been referred for counseling, but that the university had no way to enforce that. He managed to slip through the usual restrictions on buying guns because even though he was adjudged mentally unsound, he had never actually been committed, and in Virginia that is what is required for adding someone's name to the federal list of those restricted from buying guns.

(As an aside, the mental health lobby is suggesting that tightening that commitment loophole would be a bad idea because it would discourage people from getting help. I would advocate the opposite: Perhaps we should hold the mental health profession responsible for their judgments about how likely someone is to cause harm. Whoever passed on Cho not needing to be committed is partially responsible for what happened next.)

...

Since Alexandra is now a senior at Western Washington University, in the week following this tragedy we were treated to a piece of e-mail from the university administration assuring us that they had plans in place for a natural or man-made disaster, and a way of notifying all the students while one was occurring.

I'm not sure I believe that: Even the best of us make the mistake of planning for the last war. Note the second invasion of Iraq, the Maginot line, the development of Microsoft Windows Vista, and the current airport security regime, all examples of expecting the next challenge to take exactly the same form as the one we just weathered.

Nonetheless, I dread the possibility of hearing the news report from Western -- or from James' high school or from one of the schools in Colorado that the kids attended -- that some student has gone on a shooting rampage. I can only imagine the fear and panic I would feel. I would willingly throw myself in harm's way for either of my children, but to be impotent on the sidelines would be unbearable. To be informed after the fact would be unimaginable. Even if they were not directly harmed, I cannot begin to fathom the hole such an event would leave in my childrens' lives, cannot picture the bruises that would affect them forever.

...

Which brings me to my actual purpose, to speak about some of the victims.

On September 11th, 2001, the shock was so large that the horror was merely intellectual until dinnertime, when Allie asked, "what about the kids at daycare whose parents won't be coming to pick them up?" And yet, even with six degrees of separation, even counting the breadth of fandom's interests, no one from my family or my overlapping communities was directly touched by Osama bin Laden that day.

Not so this time.

At an unrelated event a few weeks ago I spoke about how often the people we hold up as heroes are not practical for everyday life: it is unlikely that you'll sit atop "a condom full of high explosives and seven miles of wire built by the lowest bidder" like Gus Grissom, or write a letter from the Birmingham County Jail on a matter of principle like Martin Luther King.

However, in this event, some of us were forced to become heroes without planning or forethought, and we need to honor them. Jamie and his colleague Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, both married to other Virginia Tech faculty members, became unlikely martyrs, cut down without warning while teaching, as were Indian hydrology professor G V Loganathan and Romanian Holocaust survivor and mechanics professor Liviu Librescu. They were all in the wrong place at the wrong time, but they were with their charges, their students, our children, when they were needed, when we couldn't be.

Some who survived are providing us with the oral history. One of Jamie's students, Erin Sheehan, was interviewed by EPR's "Morning Edition." She described how she was lucky to not be shot, how students barricaded the door, how they sought help after the first onslaught from the gunman. But declaring her intention to finish school and graduate she took up the refrain of survivors of terrorism and the Blitz: "He shouldn't have the power to change our lives."

Unfortunately, the lives of those involved are changed. Perhaps we can help them to be as normal as possible, and remember those who didn't survive.

Jeff Copeland lives in Washington.
Alexandra, or Allie is his daughter.

 

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