Monday, April 23, 2007

The grace of God

I haven't posted on the Virginia Tech shootings; not only have I been busy with more personal matters, but I've been sorting out my feelings about the terrible crime and tragedy of that day a week ago. Here's what I've concluded.

My son has a little (all right, not so little) problem with negativity. I keep hoping it's just a phase - but he may in fact be one of those poor souls who goes through life under a cloud, all my husband's and my best efforts to change this pattern notwithstanding. When he starts in with the "I can't do it," "It's too hard," "I'll never be able to's," what do we tell him most often? We tell him that thoughts like these, negative thoughts, are first of all not the only way to look at whatever situation he's in, and second not helpful in changing the situation he's in. Try this, we say. Instead of saying, "I'll never be a good pitcher! I've been practicing all afternoon and I still throw more balls than strikes," try saying, instead, "Wow, this pitching thing is a real challenge. I've been spending a lot of time practicing, and look how much I've improved since I started!"

Sappy, right? But positive self-talk is a way to shape your attitude, to predispose you to positive outcomes.

I'm a sometime Weight Watchers member (the only program I've ever found that, if you choose to learn it this way, teaches you how to eat normal foods wisely). One of their tools is positive self-talk. Like this: "I can't believe I ate all those chips. What was I thinking? I have no willpower. I might as well give up now." Versus, "Those chips were really good; I really enjoyed them. I'll just make some really good choices at the next meal and be right back on track to meet my goal this week." Acknowledge your action, put it in the most positive light you can, and get back on the horse: it's the next thing you do that counts.

Columbine. Not the first school shooting, but the most notorious. A terrible waste that day was that police policy was to secure the perimeter but not to engage while shooting was going on. And after Columbine, police policy changed, and lives have been saved elsewhere on that account.

I remember after 9/11, I used to think a lot about Flight 93. My dad and I talked about it on one occasion I remember well. I told him, "I just hope that if I were ever in a situation like that (God forbid), I could be brave enough to try something. But I don't know... after all, my kids would probably be with me..."

He glanced up at me from whatever computer he was tinkering with. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I think when something like that happens, people just... do what they have to do."

That's a fairly unambitious and undemanding statement. But consider the source: while sitting on a flak jacket, he flew helicopters into combat zones in Vietnam, as a newly married 23-year-old with a pregnant wife. Perhaps because he found himself in terrifying straits so soon after both intensive training and (let's face it) the onset of adulthood, my father's own personal pattern was set: "what he had to do" would forever include the possibility of barricading a door with his body while his charges escaped, as Prof. Librescu did last week (I find myself wondering whether one reason God brought this man through the Holocaust was to save the lives he saved last Monday, may he live forever in the loving presence of his Creator). It would include facing a crazy man with a shotgun in a playground, as my mother had to do one afternoon at the Catholic school in East St. Louis where she taught when I was fourteen. It would include - it did include - dropping into a clearing in a jungle where the gunfire could come from any direction. I feel sure that it would have included rushing the cockpit with a drinks tray.

And after that conversation with my dad, I started scoping out airplane cabins. I'd been counting seat backs between my seat and the exit for quite a while; I'd been mentally lining up the friendly-looking people between my row and the exit row to whom I'd physically pass my kids if the need should arise. But now I started also assessing what I had that could either distract or disable, and how I'd go about using it if I had to. A positive response, an internal dry run to help shape my reaction if the real world ever presented a scenario where such planning was necessary.

I'm just now getting to this point about the VA Tech shootings. I don't know what the classrooms looked like (I've avoided all television coverage, and apparently I should be very happy that I have), so I don't know, for instance, whether the desks were fixed to the floor. But I'm thinking about books, laptops, calculators - what could be thrown? If the desks were free-standing, wow, what a great tool they could be for someone in the front row. Could I have been the one - even if from under my desk - to chuck something from my purse at the door and try to get the shooter to turn? Would that have been enough to get someone on his blind side moving, to clock him with a textbook? Enough to start a rush for his knees?

My first reaction to these thoughts is guilt: I feel as if I'm judging the students facing a stone killer in a Keanu-Reeves stance with two very scary guns and obviously no compunctions about using them. Shouldn't I be saying to myself, "I don't know what I would have done. I can't possibly tell what I would have done"?

Just now, after a week, I'm giving myself permission to have these thoughts - because, after all, if I don't "know" what I would have done (and indeed, how could I know?), why must I assume that I would have done nothing? Why not let those thirty-two deaths teach me something, as the deaths of those on Flight 93 taught me something? Just as we all realized that 9/11 was separated from 9/10 by a chasm of unbelievable proportions, just as we all realized sometime in the latter half of September 2001 that we were living in a post-9/11 world, we now live in a post-VA-Tech-shooting world: it's a world where no one, armed with gun, bomb, gas can, or anything else will ever again be so damnably successful in his designs on the lives of other students. I hope we can generalize still further and no one will ever again be so damnably successful in holding anyone in any public space hostage.

But, you see, it's the attitude, not the weaponry, that makes the difference: while I wish we could turn back the clock and arm an ROTC student in one of those classrooms, I wonder whether a conventionally unarmed but determined few students could have turned the tide against that poor, deranged, and now dead man.

I'm utterly ignorant of any personal stories from the scene; there may have been an attempt, or more than one, to stop him. I'm not actually second-guessing what any person did on that day; I'm only preparing myself for an exigency I hope will never arise. The only reason I'm blogging on the subject at all is because the "vibe" I'm getting from listening to the radio and reading some other blogs is that we have no right to consider alternative responses - to judge, in a sense. There but for the grace of God sat I. I'm blogging to say that it's not only my right to consider alternatives, but my duty and a smart course of action, and indeed an homage to those who died - that their cruelly curtailed lives can make a difference even now.


Gahrie said...


I too have had similar thoughts. I'd like to believe that I would have rushed the shooter. Intellectually, I know that would have been my plan. I also know that I have risked my life to protect/save others in the past...usually without thinking about it before acting. But you can never really know until it happens...

I have come to believe that there are two distinct personality and passive. Active people attempt to control situations and outcome, passive people allow things to happen around them. I don't believe these traits are inherent, I think they are taught/socialized.

I also believe that part of the socialization we shared while growing up was an inculcation of an active personality. I don't know if this is a function of growing up around the military, or constantly moving and all that entails or what.

I further believe that one of the dangers of modern culture is that it is teaching much of our youth to be passive.

Jamie said...

My point exactly, Gahrie... We have a choice in how to respond to difficulty or danger, and - hey, "visualization" is considered a valid therapeutic method in other areas of life; why not apply it here, where it could be vitally important? Why not visualize myself acting, and acting fast, intelligently, and effectively?

It can't possibly do harm, and it could, as I said, predispose me to action where, if I hadn't thought about the scenario beforehand, I might otherwise be predisposed to passivity.

All right, I say it "can't possibly do harm"; I guess it could imbue me with a sense of invulnerability. So. I being I, that's just something to guard against, that's all.

Kirbside said...

Jamie and Gahrie -

While I agree with what you said I think we need to realize what actually happened. He was prepared for people to rush him... that is why he had two handguns... Rush him and you would be shot. Yet I too would not sit and wait to die. I wsould help others to get out while i escaped.

The real lesson is this. Gun free zones protect no one. Imagine if just one person was armed on that floor.

Imagine if he knew guns were allowed on campus.... and others would have them?

Jamie said...

Thom - yes, I know (or rather, I've heard) that he was prepared to be rushed. My point wasn't that rushing him would have been a sure bet, but that given the choice of rushing him (and possibly being injured or killed but perhaps opening an opportunity for someone else to use even if I were not effective) and not rushing him (and possibly being injured or killed, but surely not decreasing the body count), since I wasn't there and probably will never be there, I may as well visualize myself taking action.

It isn't that I actually think I'm brave, but that I want to be brave. I could give in to my first impulse, to say, "Who knows how I'd react in such a horrible situation?" But that mental surrender - true as it is! - does absolutely nothing to help me prepare for any horrible situation. On the other hand, visualizing myself taking action IF such a horrible situation were to arise MIGHT help me mentally prepare. Or, as I said, at least it wouldn't hurt, and it seems to me that it's good to think heroically in this age of anti-heroes.