It was a record no one wanted to see surpassed: The death toll at a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, where a gunman killed 23 innocent people in 1991. At last body count, the death toll at Virginia Tech stood at 33.
There have been other massacres on campus: Columbine has become a byword for this kind of madness. And the shootings from the clock tower at the University of Texas in 1966, which took 16 lives, became the stuff of legend and, of course, a movie about Charles Whitman, the shooter and body No. 17. Nobody ever made a movie about any of the victims.
Now once again it is time to bury the dead, treat the wounded, comfort the mourners, and begin the analyses and criticisms and polemics, and in general offer words when no words will do.
This time the bad news comes from Blacksburg, Va., and a school whose motto is "Invent the Future." The slaughter there has cost 33 people their future, and when one thinks of the effects on the living-their families and friends, their community and school the impact grows exponentially.
Consider what might have been the future of just one promising student-a senior and RA, or resident adviser, in a dorm. Ryan Clark was studying biology and English-it's about time those disciplines met each other-and he hoped to pursue a career in the neurosciences. Apparently he was rushing over to investigate when he encountered the gunman. The heart sinks to think of what has been lost. Then multiply by 33.
For some of us, the most striking aspect of the massacre is that it should have taken place in an era that prides itself on its instant communication through a wide variety of electronic gizmos, yet it took hours to shut the school down after the first shooting.
Students were still blithely going to class while the killing continued, many surely listening to music on their iPods. This at a school whose electronic village was billed as The Most Wired Town in America (Reader's Digest, 1996).
While the massacre continued, the administration was sending out e-mails. What ever happened to sirens, alarms and shutdowns? Does every new technology make us forget the old, and how useful it can be?
All the instant messaging, Web logs, and electronic networks helped spread the word, but no technology can prove an adequate substitute for common sense, or the old and now sadly forgotten rule that those in charge of schools are acting in loco parentis- in place of loving, even hovering, parents-and should be exercising much the same care. Now we're much too liberated for that old-school stuff, more's the pity.
How advanced we are now, and stupid-to discard the prudence acquired so painfully by past generations.
What were the authorities at Virginia Tech thinking-that they were dealing with one isolated incident instead of a killer on a rampage? Why not think the worst, and do what one can to prevent it?
Administrators not only at Blacksburg but also on campuses throughout the country will doubtless ponder such questions and many others. And maybe they will even look inward and re-evaluate how deep their responsibility for students should go.
Surely even those defending the handling of these events at Virginia Tech must now wish things had been done differently-many things.
Perhaps the only clear lesson to be drawn at this early point is that the risks of over-reacting to a danger on campus are much to be preferred to the results of under-reacting. There is a time when starting a panic, and sending students fleeing, can be a darned good thing. A little embarrassment and general commotion is nothing to worry about compared to what happened Monday at Blacksburg, Va.
There will be time enough, an eternity, to discuss the pros and cons and, inevitably, the politics of how to prevent any repeat. The gun control and gun rights people were already going at each other on the Web while the bodies were still warm. That kind of politics is unavoidable, and not all bad. Politics is one way a community responds to hurt, and should.
But for now let us allow the living to bury their dead in peace while, as the funeral cortege passes, those of us who still remember the old ways pull off to the side of the road and say a prayer.