The XX Factor

Premonitions of Danger

Emily B. and Emily Y. , as I was reading accounts of how alarmed Jared Loughner’s classmates were by his outbursts at Pima Community College, I could not help but think of what happened at Virginia Tech in April 2007. Just under four years ago, our nation saw a horrific killing spree in which innocent, incredibly promising people were killed en mass by a single gunman. In the Tech case, as a formal report by a review panel would reveal, the killer, Seung Hui Cho, had frightened classmates and teachers with his bizarre behavior prior to his attack, and a number had communicated this to authorities, to no real avail. Similarly, in Arizona–as Tim Noah and others point out–classmates of Loughner, the alleged gunman in the Tucson shootings, were terrified of him. According to a Washington Post account , one 52-year-old woman who was in his algebra class, Lynda Sorenson, wrote e-mails last summer saying: “He scares me a bit. … Hopefully he will be out of class very soon, and not come back with an automatic weapon.” She later wrote that he seemed “seriously disturbed” and that he “scares the living crap out of me.” The instructor in that class recounted how, whenever he turned to write on the board, he would turn back around as soon as possible, to see if Loughner “had a gun.” The instructor, Benjamin McGahee, begged college officials to remove Loughner, but they declined. “They just said, ‘Well, he hasn’t taken any action to hurt anyone.’ ” It appears they did eventually let McGahee eject him, and did eventually suspend him from Pima, whereupon he withdrew. But as Tim shows, it took five confrontations with campus police, for classroom and library disruptions, and a YouTube rant denouncing the college.

These were seriously scared students. It seemed entirely feasible to them that a deranged classmate might kill them, presumably based in part on previous episodes of school-based violence. At Virginia Tech, a traditional university community where many students live on campus, the school was criticized for not dealing more effectively with the many, many alarms raised about Cho’s behavior; teachers and administrators went to great lengths to work with him, and in contrast, it could be argued that Pima acted more speedily and with more resolve. Like Emily B., I wonder, though: What are the responsibilities of a community college, where students tend to be dispersed and not part of such an explicit academic community? Was it enough to just get rid of him? If it is not the school’s responsibility to get him treatment, who, if anybody, should have been responsible? His parents? Nobody? David Brooks asked those questions yesterday: “How can we more aggressively treat mentally ill people who are becoming increasingly disruptive? How can we prevent them from getting guns? Do we need to make involuntary treatment easier for authorities to invoke?”

These are important questions, and they need to be resolved. Meredith’s point is fascinating–that the students or anybody could have petitioned to initiate the evaluation process in Arizona. Like Meredith, I bet they had no idea they could do that. If people are better educated about the role they can play in dealing with behavior of someone so obviously troubled, this will be one good outcome. The question that also occurred to me is: Would it have been appropriate for campus police to have arrested Loughner during any of those five confrontrations, thereby getting him into the criminal justice system and maybe enabling a judge to order a formal evaluation? We don’t know what the episodes consisted of, to be sure. But if Loughner repeatedly came to a restaurant or a shopping mall, say, and created disruptions, chances are an arrest would be made, right? (According to news accounts , Loughner earlier had had a couple of mild brushes with the law–for drugs and defacing a street sign. I guess it’s possible he was arrested at some point during the campus disturbances, but it seems unlikely– the official college statement doesn’t mention any arrest.) Might this have better alerted the community at large to the problems on campus? I agree with Meredith that the community is the more responsible entity, but there has to be communication between campus and community. 

For now, what strikes me is how thoroughly the prospect of campus violence has imprinted itself in our collective consciousness, as one shooting gives way to another. The possibility of violence comes so readily to mind, even or maybe especially in the so-called groves of academe. Oh yes, we know this script. Angry, weird classmate, yelling and repeatedly shouting incoherences. What are the chances he will come to class one day and kill us? The chances are real. This is a thought now we might reasonably harbor. This is a thought that instinctively occurs to us. It explicitly occurred to students at Tech, where, according to the report, students gradually stopped showing up to a poetry class that had Cho in it, and it explicitly occurred to students at Pima. It’s a hell of a way to live, and a hell of a way to learn. When did the image of classmate-with-weapon become so familiar? When did we come to expect it? To predict it? Sorenson wrote, of Loughner: “I sit by the door with my purse handy. If you see it on the news one night, know that I got out fast.”

Photograph of Virginia Tech mourners by Mario Tama for Getty Images.