Horror is the natural first reaction. It is hard to get beyond tumultuous emotions given the stories, scenes, and sheer numbers coming out of the massacre today at Virginia Tech. The facebook has emerged from a period as a nascent form of disaster-response, as seen often enough with individual students deaths, to a full-blown mechanism for channeling overwhelming public grief.
But moving rapidly beyond initial reaction is of paramount importance. Thinking clearly about the response to the incident is essential. Even as President Bush encouraged prayer today, he should have done something even more important - encouraged preparation.
The grim prospect of copy-cat actions should be a very real concern for colleges and students nationwide, especially given the magnitude of the massacre and its proximity to the anniversary of the Columbine shooting and Hitler's birthday, among other things. As with Columbine, the unavoidable deluge of media and informal attention paid to the perpetrator will no doubt serve as a regrettable temptation to some.
How can individual students possibly prepare? How will university administrations respond and prepare? These are questions that need to be moved swiftly to the front burner of public discussion.
As someone who recently departed campus and may soon be returning to that environment, I think students should demand a proactive response from administrators even as they insist on retaining the personal liberties critical to a meaningful academic environment. The report that Virginia Tech students and staff did not receive e-mail notification of the incident until 2 hours after the first shots were fired is absolutely chilling.
Eerily, it seems nearly impossible to fully prevent events like the one at Virginia Tech from happening without repressing student life beyond recognition. But some measures, at least in the areas of communication, can be taken.
For starters, here are some possible proactive measures I can think of:
1. A sort of mobile phone-based Amber-type general Alert - Students could voluntarily sign up for a robocall (ironic, yes) alert to their cell phones that emergency services or the administration could send out upon receiving word of a campus shooting situation. The list would be used for no other purpose than such an alert. The same could be done with AIM addresses for a similar alert. Such a scheme would admittedly have the potential of having copycat problems of its own.
2. A specific pattern on tornado sirens or the lighthouse horn - As suggested in part by Erik Opsal on his blog, this would stand to get a general message across quickly. A specific distinct pattern of sounds (if possible) for a shooting situation could be conveyed to the student populace beforehand.
3. Chancellor's Blog - The chancellor should have a simple blog as a central resource wall for students and staff to turn to to get the most comprehensive and official news in the event of a crisis.
Really, I am deeply saddened. The heinous actions of one domestic terrorist have ended the lives of 33 people - and stand to irreversibly alter the American higher educational experience for the worse. The lack of clear ways to prevent similar situations makes me almost physically ill. But forcing ourselves beyond the shock in short order is key.
Moving forward, students on campus need to walk the unenviable tightrope of being wary of both unhealthy paranoia and potential copy-cat actors.
I am thinking about a lot of friends out there on campuses. Sleeping in the dorms tonight will be tough. Going to class tomorrow will no doubt be difficult. So as you join facebook groups to grieve, join one - or start one - dedicated to putting forward pragmatic suggestions for dealing with the Virginia Tech incident in a concrete way on the UW campus and other campuses out there.
It's a crucial next step.
UPDATE: Liveblog of the days events from Bryce, a Virginia Tech student. Via Technorati.