Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tragedy at Virginia Tech

The news from Virginia Tech is devastating. There are no words for such a senseless, evil act. My shock and sorrow are mixed with some anger, however. Watching University President Charles Steger and Police Chief Wendell Flinchum answer reporters' questions, I could not help but feel aggrieved at their failure to accept unequivocal responsibility for their role in this admittedly awful crisis. If the same murderer in fact perpetrated both the earlier shooting in which two people were killed and the second incident (more than two hours later) in which so many were lost both the President and Police Chief should resign, and it would have been gratifying to hear at least one of these men acknowledge that fact. I do not pretend to judge whether either man was grossly negligent in making the decision not to cancel classes for the day, perhaps this was an error that others in their position might have made. Some mistakes, however, no matter how explicable, have such terrible consequences that they demand accountability.

In any case, I extend my deepest sympathies to the students, staff, and faculty of Virginia Tech and all their families. May the concern and prayers of all of America give you some solace in this terrible time.


Blogger Kate Marie said...

Amen. And thanks, Madman, for posting this. I kept wanting to post something, but I just didn't know what to say . . .

My heart and my prayers go out to the victims and their families.

April 16, 2007 4:13 PM  
Blogger Wonderdog said...

I'm obviously late on this one, Madman, but lets just blame that guy with the gun first...

Yes, you MC'd my wedding but I'm entitled to my opinion here.

April 23, 2007 3:13 AM  
Blogger Madman of Chu said...


My intention wasn't to deflect blame away from the murderer. My thought was for the families of the victims, who had to endure hearing Charles Steger talk about how he had made the "best decision given the information" he had. If something like this had happened to someone I love and anyone used the word *best* with respect to any aspect of what had occurred, I would have wanted to throttle them with whatever was handy. It would have been refreshing to hear someone abjure that kind of mealy-mouthed equivocating and say, "for the sake of the families of the dead, I am not going to even begin making excuses for my role in this tragedy." In fact, this is what I would expect from any leader who had a modicum of shame, decency, and self-respect.

That is my opinion, I am entitled to it.

April 23, 2007 7:24 AM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

I think this Niall Ferguson editorial is interesting.

Madman, I have a couple of problems with singling out Steger for his "role" in this, or with requiring him publicly -- a very short time after the tragedy occurred -- to take responsibility.

1) I assume going in that he's a human being who has been as devastated by the tragedy as any other member of the Virginia Tech community who was not related to one of the victims. It seems only human -- and not necessarily mealy-mouthed -- for him to have said he made the "best" decision he could given the information he had. It's a horrible thing to think that altering one's decision in the past *may* have prevented some horrible event from occuring, and I'm not inclined to judge him for the words he used or the response he gave at the time.

2) I'm really not sure what his "role" in this tragedy was, or that he deserves to be assigned any greater a role than any of the other people who might conceivably (in perfect hindsight) have prevented the terrible loss of life.

April 23, 2007 8:45 AM  
Blogger Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

I am not taking Mr. Steger to task for what he did, but for what he said. I watched the news conference in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in which he and Police Chief Winchum said it repeatedly. It did not strike me as a pained or spontaneous response to a terrible event, in fact it seemed quite calculated.

As to what Mr. Steger's role in the day's terrible events was, there can be no doubt that if he had cancelled classes for the day as soon as the first shooting occurred many lives would have been saved. I conceded in my original post that other people in Mr. Steger's position might have made the same decision, and I can empathize with the terrible sense of regret that he no doubt feels. It is simply not right or proper, however, to entertain an argument about what could or should have been done during this kind of period of grief. Mr. Steger can find another job, the parents of the slain students should not have to endure hearing about how what happened could not have been prevented. I would just like to see someone in this world take a decision that is based on a sensitivity to human feeling rather than financial liability. So sue me.

April 23, 2007 1:13 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Dear Madman,

I didn't see the press conference, so I suppose I really can't comment on Steger's demeanor. I'll take your word for it. Was he responding to questions or making a statement?

I will take exception to this statement, though:

"As to what Mr. Steger's role in the day's terrible events was, there can be no doubt that if he had cancelled classes for the day as soon as the first shooting occurred many lives would have been saved."

Of course, than *can* be a doubt about this. Why could the killer not simply have committed his slaughter in a dorm -- or somewhere else where lots of people were gathered -- rather than in a classroom building?

Perhaps if Steger was calculated and defensive, it was because he was one of the few who was going to have to publicly answer for his "role" in the tragedy while others who may have made different decisions that *might* have prevented the slaughter were not.

Anyway, you assume Steger was worried about legal ramifications and financial responsibility, and you take him to task for it, but his fiduciary responsibility to Virginia Tech doesn't end because he may feel an overwhelming personal inclination to take responsibility for the tragedy.

And yes, it would be nice to see someone in this world take a decision that is based on human sensitivity rather than financial liability, but it would also be nice to see someone in this world respond to tragedy or calamity without looking around for someone with the deepest pockets to blame.

I'm not in any way suggesting that the families of the V-Tech victims are doing that or will do that, simply that the two impulses are connected. If we want to lament the one, we should lament the other, since the "calculated and defensive" stance is arguably the result of the litigious "blame the one with the money" society.

April 23, 2007 1:48 PM  
Blogger Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

There can be no doubt that cancelling classes would have saved lives. The murderer could not have committed his crime in a dorm or practically anywhere else on campus. When I heard the shocking number of people killed I wondered at how one person could have done so without bombs or an automatic weapon. Norris Hall was configured in such a way that by standing in one hallway the murderer could trap six classrooms full of people. Such was the calculated nature of this crime. If classes had been cancelled the murderer might have committed some kind of mayhem elsewhere, for sure, but he could not have slain so many people.

I can't share your contempt for anyone who might bring legal action against Virginia Tech. You speak of Steger's fiduciary responsibility to his institution. I wouldn't blame the family members of the victims if they felt a similar fiduciary responsibility to the families of other college students. Large institutions systemically diffuse responsibility for negligence among many operatives, the only way to incentivize them to take precautions is to create a credible threat of fiscal sanction. Frankly, one of the most responsible things Mr. Steger could have done in this instance would be to acknowledge his share of responsibility. Feeling that someone had had the courage and decency to hold themselves personally accountable for their loss might have blunted some of the families' eagerness to punish the institution as a whole.

April 23, 2007 5:17 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Stegner isn't personally accountable for their loss.

I won't hold the Virginia Tech family members in contempt should they decide to bring legal action. That doesn't change the fact that frivolous lawsuits happen all the time, and that in such a climate people who have a fiduciary responsibility toward a particular institution have learned to be "calculating" in their speech.

Beyond praying for the families and the victims, I wish I'd followed my original inclination with regard to this issue:

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

April 23, 2007 5:37 PM  
Blogger Madman of Chu said...

I didn't write that Steger was personally accountable for anyone's loss, I wrote that holding himself accountable might have given some solace to the family members of those killed and persuaded them that they did not need to seek redress in the courts. By voluntarily imposing consequences on himself he could have broadcast the need for vigilance to other college administrators as well as or better than any law suit even as he spared the victims' families a great deal of hurtful discourse.

College is a service industry and students are customers, but I would still like to believe that there is a sense in which the university is an "alma mater" and the students are entitled to a caring and concern from their educators that is not market driven and cannot be weighed in the scales of commerce.
In trying to persuade the families of the victims not to litigate I am sure that school administrators will appeal to their sense of civic duty and the affection the departed students had for Virginia Tech. They will point out that the students would not want the legacy of their deaths to be an injury to the school they loved. These sentiments are all fair, but if they are to truly be valid the officers of the school must hold themselves to a moral standard that makes the institution they serve worthy of such loyalty.

April 23, 2007 8:51 PM  

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