The illusion of safety

The first telephone call came around 4:30 Thursday afternoon as I was about to turn on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” The second came a few minutes later. Within 30 minutes, I had received eight calls about Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where a lone gunman had killed five students.

Each caller had been one of my colleagues or students at NIU when I was a writing professor there from 1974 to 1976. They called to commiserate. None of us had words or the imagination to make sense of the tragedy that had occurred on a campus where we had so much fun and so many rich intellectual encounters.

By now, the world has heard about the bloody event. On Thursday afternoon, a young man wearing dark clothes and a black ski hat walked into a lecture hall carrying two handguns, one a Glock, and a shotgun. Without warning, he opened fire, first wounding the teacher and then turning on the students.

The gunman, a former NIU graduate student in sociology, finally killed himself. In addition to the teacher, a graduate assistant, 16 other students were wounded, two critically. All of the 162 students enrolled in the geology class were freshmen and sophomores.

For the survivors, innocence is a thing of the past. Most of the victims had not been in military combat, where death is a constant companion. But Thursday, they experienced the terror of being under fire. They saw the blood and flesh of their classmates spray through the air, and they heard the cries of pain and fear, not on a battlefield but inside the ostensibly safe walls of a university lecture hall.

One of my former students at the University of Illinois-Chicago, a magazine editor with whom I have stayed in touch over the years, now has an 18-year-old son enrolled at NIU as a journalism major. She called to reassure me that her child was safe.

“I was up there just last week for a basketball game,” she said. “I never thought something like this would happen in DeKalb. It’s nothing but cornfields and cows out there.” Perhaps 20 years ago — before Danny Rolling and the University of Florida murders and before Virginia Tech and others — I would have shared her incredulity that such a thing could happen in tiny DeKalb. Now, she sounds naive.

When we were there, the biggest human-related news in town was that of pushing and shoving matches between drunken students at the Shamrock bar on Saturday night. The biggest animal-related news was that of an angry bull breaking out of a feedlot and roaming somewhere along Annie Glidden Road.

The NIU campus has more than 25,000 students, mostly from Illinois, and is 65 miles west of Chicago. It is surrounded by lush cornfields, pastures, feed lots and towering trees. Its duck pond area is one of the most beautiful places in the county. Each winter, before the pond freezes, duck lovers capture the birds and take them to warm sanctuaries until spring.

My former student said she was driving to DeKalb to bring her son home and thinking of not letting him return after classes resume. She did not ask for my advice, but I told her that she could not protect her child from the random acts of a mad man who walks onto a college campus.

Where would he continue his studies? New York? Boston? South Bend? Austin? Los Angeles? Where? We live in an age when mass murder can occur anytime and anywhere, I said. Although I do not know what brought us to this juncture, I suspect that we have a lot of wounded and angry people in our schools and office buildings who have easy access to guns. Sometimes we get clues as to which these people are and the source of their troubles. Sometimes we do not have any clues whatsoever.

What to do in the meantime? My final word to my former student was simple and, in my estimation, practical. I told her to take her son back to NIU when classes resume. If he transfers to another university, who can to say that the next angry person with a gun is not there? Living with random danger is the new reality in the United States. Northern Illinois University, like Virginia Tech, is potentially everywhere. Any of us can be the next victim of a mass murderer.

(Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail Maxwell(at)sptimes.com)

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