Anticipation fills the room. Following hours of preparation, revising the syllabus, choosing a textbook, outlining lectures — Here they sit! A classroom of fresh faces staring back at you. Young faces, not so young faces, diverse backgrounds, varied ethnicities, fashion statements from all over the lot. Looks of confidence, looks of nervousness, looks of dread, all wondering what lies ahead. Some of these students might be inspired by something they take away from this course – a new way of thinking about a topic, freshly honed critical thinking skills, a lifelong interest in a heretofore undiscovered topic. Who knows? And some of these students, now strangers, will likely form life-long friendships with one another, some perhaps fall in love, maybe even marry. And what resonates most as I look around this room on the first days of a new class is a feeling of optimism, hope, new beginnings, motivations to use education to try to make a better life!
These are the memories first evoked in my mind, that of a retired professor, when confronted with what happened in the classroom at Umpqua College in Oregon this past week. But these thoughts are fleeting – blasted to smithereens by the sickening image that follows, that of a classroom under siege, terrorized, invaded by senseless carnage, cowardly inflicted wounds, and death.
Thinking about these events leaves me flooded with conflicting emotions. My feelings of empathy and sorrow for the students and their professors affected by this heinous act are almost overwhelming. At the same time, some of what I see written and spoken about the event in its aftermath leaves me with a feeling of disgust, and makes me not quite know how to come to grips with how to respond.
In a piece published in The New Yorker (4/30/2007, Vol. 83 Issue 10, p27-28) following the Virginia Tech shootings, Adam Gopnik discussed the emotional stress experienced by the medical response teams as they heard the sounds of cell phones going off repeatedly in the pockets and purses of dead student bodies being carried from the scene. I feel a similar distress thinking that some of the cell phones of massacred students at Umpqua Community College are still ringing and vibrating as updated tweets and postings about the event continue to bombard social media sites on the internet.
Reading some of these posts makes me wonder how many of the posters appreciate the irony of the intellectual vapidity of their remarks about an event that happened at the start of a college class intended to teach students how to construct well-reasoned and intelligent arguments about issues.
Some appear to be having a jolly good time posting supposedly witty comments demonstrating the folly of arguments that these kinds of mass shootings at schools have anything to do with guns or gun control. Others parrot the stale talking points put out by various manifestations of the gun lobby to the effect that the only relevant issue is mental health and that it is unpatriotic to even bring up any issues related to gun control in the context of this, or any other, massacre.
The problem of how to eliminate incidences of mass shootings at schools is complex, and I do not pretend to have the answers for how to solve it. But I do know that continuing to get it wrong is leading to tragic consequences, both for individuals directly affected and also for our society as a whole. What we need is more thoughtful, rational discussion of the ALL of the potential causes and possible solutions to this problem – Not shrill barrages of non sequitur arguments, irrational denials of facts, or mindless parroting of ideological talking points.
Even a quick perusal of statistics involving gun deaths in the USA, as evidenced in articles such as this link, should be plenty to convince any reasonable person that something unusual is happening with respect to killings by guns in our country. Exactly what implications one should draw from these kinds of statistics might be arguable, but the argument that facts regarding gun ownership and gun-control regulations should not even be part of the discussion is ludicrous.
For anyone who feels compelled to post something on social media that is appropriate to this occasion, my suggestion is to start out by echoing Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror.” Then why don’t we all move on and begin, out of respect for the dead and wounded students of the past, and out of concern for students in the future, to engage in serious, thoughtful consideration of what we might do together, keeping in mind the Santayana assertion that those who cannot learn from mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.