Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On Virginia Tech

A veterinarian. A neurosurgeon.

The first two victims of the massacre at Virginia Tech reportedly planned to become a veterinarian and a neurosurgeon. That information hardly sums up their lives or circumscribes the grief of those who loved them, but it does help describe the stunning loss of human potential of two young people who were strangers to most of us.

The facts about Cho Seung-Hui's killing rampage don't yet include a clear motive (as if clarity could ever accompany this sort of sudden violence) but we do know that the deaths of Emily Jane Hilscher and Ryan Clark, which occurred at the dormitory over two hours before the second rampage across campus, were quickly ruled an isolated incident by local police. The police chief, speaking at an early press conference, said:
“We assumed this was a domestic violence case, we assumed that the shooter left the campus and maybe the state, and we assumed we were going to have a quiet day from here on in”.
Thus far, there is no evidence of any connection between Cho and Hilscher, his first victim. Clark was a resident assistant who reportedly came to Hilscher's aid. In an interview with the LA Times, Hilscher's roommate Heather Haugh discusses the initial inquiries by the police, immediately after the first shootings:
They were roommates and best friends and they were planning to meet in their dorm room Monday morning to go to chemistry class together. Emily Hilscher got there first and was killed. Heather Haugh arrived minutes later and became a key figure in the chaos unfolding on the Virginia Tech campus.

Even before she entered the building, Haugh said today, she was pulled aside by police desperate for clues. The information she gave was accurate, but it inadvertently led police to pursue Hilscher's boyfriend while the real shooter was setting up for another attack.

In an interview with The Times, Haugh said she knew of no connection between the killer and her roommate, or any reason why Cho Seung-Hui would have launched his deadly rampage on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall.

"I've never seen him," she said. "I don't know his name. Emily didn't know him, as far as I know."

Haugh said that speculation that the killing spree was triggered by a domestic dispute likely stemmed from the fact that Hilscher's boyfriend was an avid gun user. She said that when she was first questioned by police, "they asked if her boyfriend had a gun or something."

She said she told the authorities that the boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, did have guns and that she and Hilscher had gone to a shooting range with him just a few weeks earlier. But she said she also told police that Hilscher and Thornhill got along well.
As so many have noted, hindsight is 20/20, but there are some very troubling aspects to the early police investigation. Domestic violence was apparently assumed on the basis of a young female victim with a boyfriend who likes guns. I'd like to see more gun control of automatic weapons and handguns, but I don't see that gun ownership or interest in guns provides evidence that two murders in a college dormitory are caused by a dispute between lovers. This is particularly true since Hilscher's best friend and roommate, arriving on the scene, claimed the dead woman's relationship with her boyfriend seemed loving and happy.

Did the police also have a description of the shooter from that first incident? Perhaps not, but if they did, Cho's race and appearance should have ruled out the boyfriend theory after talking to Haugh. In the absence of either a physical description or news of any relationship trouble from Hilscher's best friend, why assume it would be "a quiet day from here on in"?

Because it was easy, I think. An easy explanation relying on conventional wisdom about domestic violence. It's a private matter. When the woman is dead the danger is over.

Does that seem extreme? It's what the police decided, though the police chief certainly didn't say it as graphically. There was no immediate campus warning of some guy on the loose with a gun. The killer was assumed to not be a further danger to anyone on campus despite there being no evidence this was true. If he hadn't left a dead woman behind, I bet that would not have been the assumption.

When I was an undergraduate at Arizona State University, I worked the front desk at an all-women's dorm. It was the late '80s and my dorm (I both worked and lived there) had a looser security policy than the Virginia Tech dorm apparently has now with key cards used to enter the building. We had one main entrance for a building housing over 800 women, and the basic rules were that all men in the building must be accompanied at all times by a female resident, and the two emergency exits were never to be propped open.

The premise of this policy was that simply excluding men from freely wandering the building provided a measure of safety to the female residents. This proves to be statistically and logically true, of course. The presence of men means women are subject to various forms of violence. The absence of them dramatically reduces that threat. But the difficulties of enforcing this policy and getting even my fellow women residents to take it seriously proved to be a continuing source of frustration. The exit doors were propped open often, apparently for male visitors to arrive at their leisure. (With the wheelchair accessible dorm rooms all on that first floor directly adjacent to these exits, I easily saw how the convenience of others was a direct invasion of my safety and privacy. I was living in the only available on-campus housing open to me. Literally the only room since there was a shortage of accessible rooms.)

Many men on campus found it a challenging game to try and sneak by the front desk alone. I remember one young man who repeatedly tried to crawl past me, hidden from view behind the front desk's long counter. I also recall being aware, as an employee, of a sexual assault having occurred in the building and being explicitly told that privacy laws barred us from mentioning that specific incident as a reason for the residents to take the escort policy more seriously.

And then there was the night I was working midnight to 8 a.m. and somewhere around 2 a.m. a guy working campus security ran in and asked me if I'd seen a man with a gun. I hadn't, and even now I cannot conceive of how different that night and my whole life might have been if I had seen the man with the gun. There's no plausible scenario where I would have been sitting at that front desk and seen him and his gun without his intending to get past me or make me a victim.

To my knowledge, that man with the gun never materialized to cause any trouble at ASU, and my fear that night bears little resemblance to the fear, pain and grief that Cho and his guns have caused at Virginia Tech. But the idea that a man might storm into a college dorm, shoot two people dead, disappear, and be considered no further threat to the surrounding community is astonishing to me for its incredible, willful misunderstanding of "domestic violence". Domestic violence is not about some private anger and resentment in an intimate relationship. If there's violence in an intimate relationship it is about control and the desire to intimidate and terrorize. Just like Cho, who it seems had no personal connection to his first victims, Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark.

A veterinarian. A neurosurgeon.


This is my first post here at Avast! and I'm thrilled to join the women of this blog. I normally write about disability issues on my own blog The Gimp Parade, and I've guest blogged at Alas, A Blog and Echidne of the Snakes occasionally.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at Virginia Tech in the mid to late 90's. Most dorms had the policy you described where men visitors needed to be accompanied by a woman at all times. However, more dorms, such as West AJ are now co-ed. The majority of the student body did not want single sex dorms so the university complied.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Blue / Kay Olson said...

That was the clear trend emerging in the late '80s at ASU too, but when I came in 1987, I don't think any of the co-ed dorms had wheelchair accessible rooms yet. I don't recall having any options for accessible rooms. They did within a few years, but I already had my community of friends. Where there's only one or two accessible rooms, it limits disability cameraderie too. I hung out in the co-ed dorms with friends, and as I recall, the security policy basically just attempted to have any non-residents enter with residents.

When the Pope visited Phoenix and trolled through Tempe in his Popemobile in '87 or '88 security was quite something in my dorm, which had sharpshooters up on the roof. That was a whole different level of security.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody ever takes the keycard issue seriously. I went to college on a mid Ohio Campus in the late 90s (oh my god it has been that long), and everyone propped open the doors to my female only dorm.

10:09 PM  
Blogger The Virginia Tech Conspiracy said...

There are certainly a lot of disturbing facts about the Virginia Tech Massacre.

The police inaction during the massacre is my main concern.

I'm trying to come to some understanding in my blog:

Please, pay it a visit.

5:44 AM  
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10:30 AM  

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