Saturday, February 16


2008 could be a bumper year: five school shootings in less than the first 2 weeks of February is an unsettling record. We see this tragedy as a fairly recent domestic riddle. However, we forget about #1 in what is now a long and bloody tally of U.S. school shootings - the University of Texas at Austin Massacre in August 1966. The bizarre, meticulously executed killing spree (14 dead, 31 wounded) by 25 year old Charles Whitman from the 32 story observation tower is considered the impetus for the formation of SWAT teams and other tactical support beyond ordinary police response.

We all remember Columbine; but that was only shooting #21 on the list. The Amish School shooting was #38 in October 2006. The terrible Valentine’s Day killings this week at Northern Illinois University mark the 46th school shooting in the United States.

It is the fact that these horrific scenes are perpetrated in places we send our children to be safe that evokes the horror and fear changing our culture. After each headlining incident, school boards scramble to instigate new security and discipline policies. Parents swarm to hitherto sparsely attended PTO meetings and issue demands. Psychological counseling efforts are reexamined and invasive searches of students and their belongings and metal detectors (especially after Columbine) at some schools reflect the panic swirling in the aftermath of such senseless crimes.

Some experts describe these resultant fears in society as something called moral panic. Society reacts to “a perceived threat to a moral value or norm held by a society normally stimulated by glorification within the mass media or 'folk legend' within societies.” - (Stanley Cohen). Bingo. What could be more hallowed in American society than public education? What is more revered in the American psyche than our love of freedom and treasured individual rights? Both are integral to the pursuit of the American Dream – which is not dead, but still beckons alluringly to the world. Then what is making our kids so damn angry? Correction: what is making an infinitesimally tiny percentage of our kids so angry they seek a big exit among their mostly random peers on sacred ground?

U.S. Secret Service profilers have dedicated earnest study to what the rest of us can only guess at – what makes a school shooter? They caution against too-broad profiling that could paint any student a potential perpetrator, or profiles that are too narrow. Not every “loner” in a big coat is an imminent threat. Not every killer was socially rejected, abused as a child or in and out of an incompetent mental health system.

Neither is accessibility to a gun a sure-fire path to violence. I grew up with a well-oiled mini arsenal locked in an attractive gun cabinet in the den where we gathered as a family to pop corn in the fireplace and watch t.v. So did countless other kids for generations. And statistically speaking, the young die in car accidents with shocking regularity, usually taking a number of their friends and other motorists with them. These tragedies disturb us and cause localized mourning, but they do not horrify us as a people.

Interestingly, researchers have discovered that school killers do not “snap”; they plan. While their backgrounds are diverse, they do exhibit similar traits in their often long-term and oft-expressed but unrecognized path to mayhem. Most unexplored publicly anyway, is the gender bias of school shooters. They are almost exclusively young males.

This week was the first time I thought about one of my own children being targeted at school by some deviant fulfilling his twisted dream of social validation. I could feel a kind of panic in my chest as I pictured my 22 year old son Leiland sitting in one of his one door in and out windows painted shut classrooms at Phoenix College 12 minutes away from our home. A returned missionary approaching his one year wedding anniversary, anxious to start a family, ambitiously on track towards enrolling in ASU this fall and then pursuing his passion for Law would be too tragic for such a young, brilliant life to be robbed of its future. And his little sister Asia at the same campus – double jeopardy in her case would be unbearable, wouldn’t it? Finally, there is 13 year old spunky, belly-laughing, singing loudly to the radio and dancing crazy and breathless with her sisters or friends Rachel...why, a school shooting with all its gut-wrenching randomness would be totally senseless. But this is precisely what is so horrifying about it.

We naturally ask “why” something so unspeakable keeps happening. Yet there are many things in life that impact us without warning, without invitation, and without good reason. Sitting at a city bus stop should not evoke trepidation. But for me (and other members of my family), I never pass one casually...not anymore. I always notice who is at one as we approach. I note if there are children waiting there, how many, and what is immediately around the bus stop. I am looking for escape routes. It has become a split-second assessment I do and cannot stop myself from doing ever since April 6, 2004. Thankfully, I have NEVER wondered what might have been had I picked Asia up from school that day, if the bus had arrived a couple minutes early, or if a career criminal gangster had decided to just stay home that day. What happened to my little girl was entirely random. It was unsolicited and unfair. She is maimed for life – but she is not destroyed.

I am like millions of other mothers who send her children to school five days out of the week with confidence that they are in the right place. I have been sending my children to school every Monday morning since 1983. Besides teaching them what they must know to be safe and independent, as parents we have tried to keep our children morally safe as well. But life is full of variables. We have also crossed the street or gone to the store or flown across time zones in a plane or have simply been at home with our family safely day in and day out year after year. I have personally waited at many bus stops without incident. Yet many others have not been safe doing the very same things. We never know when our life path may be interrupted by someone else’s actions, or by some natural disaster beyond our control.

This week I am thinking about the unanswerable puzzle of random crisis that violate our safe places. I am thinking about it, but I have decided I am not afraid of it. Americans are not accustomed to fear. I hope we never are. There is no “reason” why Asia was hit at a bus stop and our whole family has been changed because of it, just as none of us can tell – not for all the studies and expert analysis in the world – why some precious few of our beautiful young people with their whole future in front of them have succumbed to he who declares defiantly that he will “reign with blood and horror on this earth”. Horror is also revulsion, shock, awfulness and terror. The antonym eerily enough is ‘delight’.

If we are afraid, we are virtually giving power to Evil. We can choose to be unafraid and nullify just a little bit that great Satan, who, as only Ozzie can put it, “...laughing, spreads his wings...” over our dilemma. Our rejection of fear is not to be unaware, surely not careless, but diligently and ever so gratefully, unafraid in wherever we find our safe places as much as we can make it so.


Bandanamom said...

Of course I had to run home and see what your blog was about!


I really agree with everything you said. I have always felt that fear and worry are tools that satan uses to distract us.

Yaj said...

Your post was EXCELLENT! The bad around us is only defined, and counter-balanced, by the good. The one does not exist without the other. We have many safe places offered us. They are described in scriptures with such words as refuge and covert. Three such safe places are urged in 2 Nephi 14: 5-6. Read carefully...