Yesterday marked one of the darkest days in United States history, as the campus of Virginia Tech collapsed to the tune of gunshots, cries and panic. The morning’s horrific aftermath was broadcast on every major news network: students sprinting across campus; SWAT teams taking cover next to their vehicles; an exasperated and exhausted police chief and university president, trying to explain how a bastion for safety and growth — a college campus — could suddenly become the setting for a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.
The event bares a shocking resemblance to the 1999 Columbine massacre and comes eight years to the week of what was once our country’s worst school shooting.
Facts came in bursts; the banners of CNN.com changed right before our eyes; and the death toll seemed to double without any explanation. No one was able to affirmatively answer basic questions such as, “Who was involved?”
“What were the motives behind the shootings?” And if there was one killer, “Why was he able to roam free a second time and inflict even more harm?”
The tragedy hits home not only for Cornell students trying to reach their friends at Virginia Tech but also because of its chilling reminder that no university is immune to violence of this magnitude. At Cornell, we picture ourselves as existing in solitude and safety, removed from the harsh realities of aggression and evil that blot the world. Nearly every person that sets foot on the University has grown up in environments where such inhumane acts have never been commonplace.
But what if a lone gunman had opened fire at Kennedy Hall at 9:45 a.m. instead of Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall? What if two students were dead by breakfast time at a North Campus dorm instead of at West Ambler Johnston Hall? Can the Cornell administration rationally and smoothly handle this seemingly unfathomable situation?
Evidence pouring in from Virginia Tech points to some degree of miscommunication and flawed procedure. Why were students huddled in dorm rooms and classrooms forced to scour the Internet for information about their own precarious situations? Why didn’t the Virginia Tech administration lock the entire campus down until the violence was under control? What led the administration to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the killer had not only left campus, but also the state?
In the past, Cornell has had to grapple with acts of violence that seemed to spawn out of nowhere. In 1983, a 26-year old New York City man shot and killed two students and tried to take his own life in Low Rise 7. And last year’s stabbing of Union student Charles Holiday is still fresh in the minds of many at C.U.
As the case of Virginia Tech has shown, a more appropriate administrative response may have prevented a cataclysmic loss of life. Cornell has proven incapable of preparing for a simple snow day — even with ample warning and preparation. We hope that Virginia Tech can self-examine its reaction to yesterday’s crisis and determine if it could have improved its response. Hopefully, other universities will, in return, re-evaluate their own emergency response systems.
Our deepest thoughts, condolences and prayers go out to those affected by yesterday’s events.