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Questions about a tragedy

April 20, 2007 | Page 2

ANYONE WHO watched the horror unfold at Virginia Tech this week had two questions in mind: Who could do such a terrible thing--and why?

Those details were slow in coming as Socialist Worker went to press--though that didn't stop the cable television news from its nonstop speculation. But some obvious questions had already come to the fore.

Why did university officials, who closed the campus for a day last August when an escaped prisoner came into the area, decide to keep classes going despite the killing of a woman and man in a dormitory?

Why did it take two hours for administrators to inform the campus of these first shootings via e-mail--which students received only after a second attack was already underway?

Why did a university with its own police force, complete with guns and squad cars, fail to take the most elementary steps to secure the campus--especially after bomb threats had closed university buildings in the previous two weeks?

How can this negligence toward the security of students, staff and faculty take place in a country that spends many millions of dollars on equipment to inspect shoes in airports?

Who decided--in an era when we're told to be on constant alert because of alleged terrorist threats--that a double homicide in a college dorm wasn't worthy of an alert to those in the immediate area?

Perhaps the campus police really did believe that the shooter in the initial two killings had fled. But this would be unbelievably incompetent in light of the pattern of school and campus shootings in the U.S., most notoriously the killings of 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

The alternative explanation is even more troubling: that university police and administrators weighed the impact of informing the campus community of the two killings, but decided not to do so because it would be too disruptive...and, perhaps, bad PR.

"Security experts" of various types crowded onto news programs to propose various solutions. More secure IDs, more checkpoints, more searches, more cops--and of course, more guns.

Yet the heavily armed SWAT units that surrounded Virginia Tech's Norris Hall proved to be useless. Video footage showed the cops hiding behind trees and cars while the killer proceeded with his massacre unimpeded, before taking his own life. Sophisticated police weaponry didn't compensate for the failure of university authorities to protect their students and employees.

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AS OF this writing, we know nothing about the perpetrator of the massacre. He has been described as Asian--a few accounts reported that he was a student and an immigrant to the U.S.

Perhaps, as in the case with Columbine, the days of analysis to come will focus on the shooter's personal history. Or maybe the killer will become a focus for anti-immigrant forces that will try to manipulate the tragedy to further their racist agenda.

What won't be discussed in the mainstream media is the social and political context of mass killings in schools and workplaces.

It's worth recalling former President Bill Clinton's speech at a Columbine memorial soon after the killings, which took place eight years almost to the day before the Virginia Tech massacre. "We must replace a culture of violence and mayhem with one of values and meaning," Clinton declared. As he uttered these words, Clinton was ordering U.S. and NATO warplanes to drop bombs on Serbia in the war over Kosovo.

Today, the U.S. government is orchestrating violence on an even greater scale in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 650,000 Iraqis and more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers are dead as a result of this war.

After the massacre of Iraqis by U.S. Marines in Haditha or the torture and murder of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, should we really be so surprised when an individual's breakdown in a school or workplace leads to mass shootings--as at Columbine, or last October's murder of five Amish girls in a Pennsylvania school, or the killing of nine students at the Red Lake Native American reservation high school in Minnesota in 2005?

The fact that the shooter at Virginia Tech was, according to reports, an immigrant shouldn't distract from the fact that there have been a series of killings in U.S. schools and workplaces, and those who pulled the trigger in each previous case were as "American" as anyone.

State-sponsored killing by U.S. troops abroad will always find an echo at home, whatever the particular motives of the individuals involved. That's why George Bush's statement of sympathy to the Virginia Tech victims sounded so hollow.

"Schools should be places of safety, sanctuary and learning," Bush said. Tell that to the Iraqi Kurdish schoolgirls who were injured a couple of weeks ago when a bomb exploded outside a police facility next to the school--a location that virtually ensured that children would be injured or killed in any insurgent attack.

The safety and security of Americans--in schools, college and anywhere else--really aren't the priorities of the U.S. government. The U.S. national security state, devoted to ferreting out terrorist threats at home with the USA PATRIOT Act and waging endless war abroad, completely fails to address the causes of most domestic violence--whether it is the illnesses of deranged individuals, or social violence rooted in poverty, inequality, exploitation and oppression.

The Virginia Tech tragedy should be an occasion to address these deeper questions. But if matters are left to politicians and the media, sadly, it won't be.

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