On Cam­pus, A Wary Sad­ness

David S. Broder

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

MEM­PHIS — On the cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Mem­phis, where I was visit­ing for part of last week, the news of the Vir­ginia Tech mass killings struck with spe­cial force. Not only were th­ese stu­dents, like those in Blacks­burg, Va., at­tend­ing a large pub­lic univer­sity with a big com­muter pop­u­la­tion, but they still re­call the scars of the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was gunned down in this city 39 years ago this month.

Meet­ing with stu­dents at the jour­nal­ism school, I was re­minded that no cam­pus th­ese days is free from vi­o­lence. Just two weeks ago, the stu­dent news­pa­per re­porters said, a fe­male grad­u­ate stu­dent was stabbed in the leg by a man who was try­ing to steal her purse. Sev­eral of the women in the class de­scribed the pre­cau­tions they take, for ex­am­ple, al­ways try­ing to find com­pan­ions when they are walk­ing on cam­pus at night.

“You al­ways want to be look­ing around, stay­ing alert,” one older fe­male stu­dent said. “Don’t be look­ing down. Don’t be talk­ing on your cell­phone. If you seem to be dis­tracted, you’re more likely to be a tar­get.”

I see the crime re­ports posted reg­u­larly on the Web site of the Univer­sity of Mary­land, where I teach a once-a-week sem­i­nar, and I know that Col­lege Park, a seem­ingly placid sub­urb, is no more tran­quil than Mem­phis. Any cam­pus is a tar­get be­cause parked cars are not al­ways locked and be­cause the banks, restau­rants and bars that crowd the neigh­bor­hoods close to cam­puses are places where peo­ple come and go with purses and wal­lets con­tain­ing cash.

Col­lege cam­puses place no triple-strand barbed-wire fences on their perime­ters. They are, in­stead, open to thou­sands of peo­ple com­ing and go­ing freely ev­ery day. The cam­pus po­lice forces, of­ten or­phans in bud­get­mak­ing, do their best with lim­ited re­sources but fre­quently are lack­ing in num­bers and in train­ing. The build­ings, side­walks and grassy ar­eas on cam­pus are as open to in­ter­lop­ers as their class­rooms are to freely ex­pressed ideas. The no­tion of clos­ing down ei­ther the cam­pus or the ex­pres­sion of ideas goes against the grain. It vi­o­lates the whole spirit of the place.

And yet, lis­ten­ing to the stu­dents here, there was a def­i­nite, per­sis­tent sense of un­ease about the sit­u­a­tion. One stu­dent, a mother of four, said that on hear­ing the first re­ports from Vir­ginia Tech, she thought about what would hap­pen to her chil­dren if she hap­pened to be in a class­room when a killer burst in fir­ing his weapon.

The tall, young male ath­lete seated next to her said, “I know mar­tial arts. I won­dered what I would do. I know the right moves to make to dis­arm a man, but I don’t know if I could have re­acted quick enough in those cir­cum­stances.”

The con­ver­sa­tion moved on to the topic of the missed sig­nals about the strange per­son­al­ity of Se­ung Hui Cho, the 23-year-old Vir­ginia Tech stu­dent who killed 32 stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers. Fel­low stu­dents and some teach­ers had rec­og­nized clear signs of iso­la­tion, de­pres­sion, anger and worse in his be­hav­ior and in his writ­ing. He had had mi­nor run-ins with the law. But no one rec­og­nized the po­ten­tial dan­ger in his pres­ence, and no one tried se­ri­ously to in­ter­vene.

The Mem­phis stu­dents could come to no agree­ment on when or how such sit­u­a­tions should be dealt with by cam­pus of­fi­cials, and most of them said that they felt that lit­tle would change. One young man ar­gued for tighter gun laws but agreed that nei­ther Ten­nessee nor Vir­ginia is likely to en­act them.

In the end, th­ese stu­dents said they felt they would sim­ply have to ad­just their own lives to deal with this risk, along with all the other un­cer­tain­ties of the ex­ter­nal world. “I just made up my mind,” one young wo­man said, “never to go to sleep an­gry with some­one im­por­tant to me. You never know what day will be your last. Those Vir­ginia Tech stu­dents, when they got up Mon­day morn­ing to go to class, didn’t know it was the day they would die. You don’t want to leave bad feel­ings be­hind you.”

That was about as pos­i­tive a thought as could be mus­tered on a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can cam­pus in the sad spring of 2007.

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