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Texas and Virginia: a bloodied window into changes in American public life.

"Texans ... hoped and prayed they never would share [their] emotion with another campus ... Now, though, there's one more institution to add to the list of places we never again can consider safe. ... No one can possibly expect the grief to subside soon; it will take a lifetime to put April 16, 2007, into perspective. ... Surely there is an extra prayer being sent from Texans who recall their grief from another dark day many years ago." (1)

The killings at Virginia Tech in April, 2007, had a deep echo at the University of Texas, where the first modern university massacre in the United States had occurred in August 1966 (first and, until 2007, largest). Recollections of the earlier killings were inevitable, prompting particularly heartfelt expressions of sympathy from Austin for those involved in the Virginia tragedy. What was additionally intriguing, however, was the sense, largely on the part of victims' families, that the Texas affair had never been properly handled emotionally; that grief still existed that had not found adequate expression. This helped prompt the deep condolences to those linked to the 2007 victims, but it also evinced a current of frustration that was surprisingly close to the surface. Forty years of separation is not too long to inhibit active connection--though as we will see, it's also plenty of time for significant change in culture and policy.

It was difficult to determine, of course, how much the sense of unrequited sorrow reflected the kinds of emotions the media were so actively trying both to encourage and convey from the killings in Blacksburg, as opposed to an ongoing lack of fulfillment that simply found a new opportunity to surface.

There was no question, however, that the two incidents, despite similarities in broad outline, had generated different symbolism. Despite some local pressure, the University of Texas long resisted pleas for a permanent memorial for victims of the 1966 shooting rampage, yielding only in 1999. In contrast, within weeks of the Virginia Tech crisis of 2007, a temporary memorial was underway, with a commitment of a three-year study to determine a suitable, and presumably rather elaborate, permanent monument. The need to memorialize innocent victims had obviously and considerably expanded. Had the need been there in 1966 as well, and if so what explains the reasons it could be ignored? Or, despite the revived laments from Austin, had need itself changed? A similar contrast applies to claims of responsibility and demands for compensation and, even more broadly, to demands for recasting university policies: tragedy, for whatever reasons, had gained far broader ramifications by the early 21st century.

Memorialization and policy pressure were only part of the comparative story. The geographic range of emotional response was also quite different, as were the demands for urgent inquiry and with this, at least in all probability, the level of fear and tolerance of risk. Changes in reaction invite assessment, offering a modest vantage point on ways elements of American society have altered emotional standards and the repercussions of misfortune, and the consequences drawn from these standards and reactions.


At slightly over a four-decade interval, mass murders on two major college campuses drew national attention and dismay. Sniper fire from the tower at the University of Texas, Austin, struck down more people than had ever before been killed at any kind of American school; the more recent horror at Virginia Tech was the first time that the Texas record had been surpassed.

The two gruesome mass murders offer a distinctive opportunity to look at changes and continuities in the ways Americans react to tragedy. The laboratory is unusual, in providing enough similarities in the nature of the actual massacres to permit the identification of differences almost certainly due not to the murders themselves but to the larger contexts around them. Policy responses and emotional outpourings both come into play, and the results, while by no means entirely unexpected, are revealing. The changes, in turn, provide a vivid opportunity for evaluation--some are positive or at the least neutral, in suggesting for example a heartening capacity for widening sympathies; some, however, raise more troubling questions about emotional excess.

The Virginia Tech incident is recent, and it roused, and still rouses, very keen emotions. Recency provides one of the key reasons to pursue the historical opportunity: we have a chance to explore aspects of ourselves and our national culture through focused historical analysis. Recency also raises warning flags, however, both because we may lack full perspective and because of a danger of seeming to disrespect the suffering and sorrow involved. The chance for self-understanding and evaluation trumps, in my view, the risks of exploitation, but others may have a different response.

I do believe that, whatever the merits of this particular effort, this kind of analysis should gain more attention from historians, using the opportunity to juxtapose a current development with relevant benchmarks from the past to provide better understanding of where contemporary society is heading and how it got from there to here. We should become in fact more insistent on historical assessments of this sort, as one of the key contributions of the discipline as a whole, and of social history within it. (2)


The basic stories are quickly told: the key point is what they reveal when compared. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine who had attended the University of Texas in the 1965-66 school year in architectural engineering, killed his mother and his wife in the pre-dawn hours. (3) He then found a gun and ammunition, and went to the University's tower. He clubbed a receptionist, who later died, killed two people and wounded two others before reaching the observation deck. He then opened fire on people crossing campus, ultimately killing ten more people and wounding 31 others (one of whom later died). Police arrived and returned fire, while other officers worked their way into the tower; students and other citizens removed some of the dead and wounded in the meantime. Finally two policemen reached the deck and shot and killed Whitman. A later autopsy revealed that the killer had a brain tumor, but there was long dispute over its effect if any. It was also revealed that, earlier, Whitman had openly talked about shooting from a tower, though the threats were not taken seriously.

On April 16, 2007, Cho Seung-Hui, a Korean-American student at Virginia Tech, killed a female student and the resident advisor in a dormitory. Then, after posting some violent ramblings to NBC News, he went to Norris Hall, having purchased and tested an elaborate arsenal previously. Locking the Hall from the inside, he proceeded to open fire on several classrooms, ultimately killing 30 more students before turning a gun on himself. Several other students were wounded or injured in jumping out of the building. Cho had a considerable history of mental illness and had expressed menacing thoughts in several literature papers over the years, but had ignored both recommendations and requirements that he seek additional therapeutic help. Police had surrounded the scene by the final denouement, but by the time they entered the engineering and classroom building their role was mainly to document the tragedy and assist survivors.

Obviously, there were differences between the two incidents. The death toll varied, in part because of different guns used (deer rifle, for the Tower sniper, versus automatic weapon); on the other hand, the number of seriously injured was higher in Texas, which helped create some lingering news stories. The Austin incident played out more publicly, with a 90 minute, highly noticeable gun battle between Whitman and the police. The Texas shooting also allowed more direct coverage, with a news film of the confrontation soon available from Metro Gold' wyn Mayer; in contrast, the much more intense media fest in Virginia (about which more shortly) had only aftermath to document, including often-repeated and (arguably) rather boring footage of policemen running about earnestly but aimlessly. These characteristics, some comparativists contended, should have made the Texas event more resonating than its later counterpart. Immigrant involvement in the Tech case--Cho was Korean-born, though raised in northern Virginia--added an interesting distinction, producing a good bit of discussion of the stresses of immigrant adjustment though, carefully, little or no generalized racism; Whitman in contrast was a standard-issue American and his background, though widely treated particularly in the Austin press, lacked Cho's spice.

On the other hand, the similarities were striking as well. Here were two mass slaughters, completely unexpected on tranquil days on largely tranquil campuses, by berserk individuals. Cho's mental health problems were possibly more intense, certainly of longer standing, than Whitman's, but derangement and some prior threat, ignored in both instances, played a key role in both dramas. Probably coincidentally, both campuses had experienced murders, on more modest scale, just a few months before the mass shootings. Both incidents also directly involved many innocent bystanders trapped for some time while the shootings played out. In Tech's case, students in classes, trying with varying degrees of success to barricade themselves in, added greatly to the emotional reverberations. The strain was less widely covered in the Texas instance, but many people were trapped in the Tower for 90 minutes, including the University President--here too adding greatly to potential emotional aftermath.

Reactions to the two incidents varied far more than did the incidents themselves, and that's where the real interest lies--and the real food for thought. Of course there were additional similarities, as reverberations echoed in ensuing days and months, and these can be identified; but the distinctions arc more striking, and we can turn to them quickly.

* * * * *

Both incidents produced what may be regarded as standard responses (and were studied as such, in the Austin case, by several social scientists in later years). Not surprisingly, given the broad similarity of the incidents, overlaps were greatest in terms of immediate reactions, particularly but not exclusively local, and amid a few institutional and political responses in the short term.

Many of the people closely involved were stunned for at least several days. A Texas senior, who specifically noted that the slaughter, which left her wounded, compounded her recollections of other recent violence ("all the brutal things that are happening") noted that the massacre "is still very prominent in my mind and my thoughts, and 1 guess it will be for a long time." A reporter, a former marine, admitted, "I still get shook when 1 see the tower. You feel sort of naked standing there." Reactions of this sort can easily be interchanged with those from people closely involved with the later killings at Virginia Tech. These were scary events, leaving deep emotional marks on those close to the action, including of course the surviving wounded. In the days immediately after each incident, campus life seemed distorted, oddly quiet save for intrusions from the media. (4)

Expressions of sympathy and offers of assistance also poured in quickly, as news spread. The volume was, admittedly, far greater in the Virginia Tech affair, if only because of the much more substantial media coverage to which we will shortly turn. But in both instances, letters of sympathy reached the universities from various parts of the country and even abroad. Offers of help included, in Austin, a 6-fold escalation of normal efforts to give blood, as well as some monetary donations--a pattern repeated, though also greatly magnified, after the Virginia Tech tragedy.

Mass murders, regardless of time period, seem to generate local trauma and wider emotional involvement and sympathy.

Both incidents also produced quick University responses, to demonstrate official sympathy and to provide greater assurances of safely. The University of Texas president cancelled classes for the following day; Tech did more, canceling for a longer period of time and actually excusing students who wanted to go home from further work in the semester, but there were some similar impulses at work. Flags, of course, were flown at half mast (though only for a week, in the Texas case). The offending sites--the Tower and Norris Hall--were closed while officials tried to decide what to do next. (5)

State governors also responded quickly. The Virginia governor cancelled a planned trip abroad, while his earlier Texas counterpart--in tragic irony John Connolly, who had earlier been wounded in the Kennedy assassination--cut short a Latin American visit. Both governors immediately called for inquiries (though as we will see, they did so in very different fashions). Both of course expressed deep sympathy and a concern that safety measures be considered that would prevent any copycat activity.

Both incidents inevitably called forth considerable discussion of the mental state of the assassins. While a few commentators referred to "evil", the greatest focus rested on evidence of mental illness, including of course the autopsy results in the Whitman case. Mental imbalance could alone explain acts of this sort, though discussions became more elaborate after Virginia Tech than they had been after the sniper tragedy. Speculation included the probes of immigrant experience for Cho, and a variety of factors adduced for Whitman including frequent spankings by an overbearing, surly father. (6)

* * * * *

Important similarities inevitably make significant differences all the more striking. Two points predominate: the far greater media frenzy that greeted Virginia Tech and the far wider emotional fervor also attached to the more recent incident.

The Texas slaughter generated extensive interest from the press. Within 24 hours the University had offered 75 press passes to reporters and photographers, and interest continued for several days thereafter. Calls from as far away as London kept the media relations office (News and Information Service) swamped, though staff expressed relief at being kept so busy at such a tough time. (7) Distant, respectable newspapers like the New York Times offered articles for several days as well, and there were a few letters received, though mainly on some of the more recondite aspects of the affair such as whether the University psychiatrist should have released his presumably confidential findings of his earlier interview with Whitman and what damage this might do to patients' confidence in therapists. In Texas proper, newspapers returned to coverage every so often in ensuing weeks and months, with particular interest in following up on the experiences of some of the wounded victims.

But this experience paled in comparison with what happened at Virginia Tech. Media representatives descended like wolves, including TV anchorper-sons for two of the three leading networks. Finding relatively little to report about directly, given the fact that the incident was over and the scene sealed off, commentary focused on often replayed shots of exterior scenes and peripheral police activity, spiced above all by constant efforts to solicit emotional reactions from students and others near the scene. If this weren't enough, and many commentators later argued that the actual substance was quite limited and quickly tiresome, the visual media, but also the press, sought to stir things up by shock headlines, provocative music, and efforts to imply that someone must be called to account for such a tragedy. Small wonder that many at the University itself scrawled messages such as, "Media Stay Away" on nearby buildings and walls. British reporters offered students money to try to get them into University spaces. Video cameras were everywhere, seeking willing students. Totally artificial scenes were organized, such as a solitary girl slumped in front of a targe wooden mockup of the Tech logo, dressed in dark, totally posed as photogin pliers circled about seeking the best angles. Business operations from the Times, the Washington Post, CNN and leading magazines bought Google and Yahoo ads featuring links to their sites, if anyone searched phrases like "Virginia shooting"--CNN boasted, "Get information on the gunman and other breaking news." Tragedy became a major marketing device for newscasts, at a time of mounting competition for audience. And indeed, audiences did expand, in several cases more than doubling normal traffic. (8)

Media frenzy added up to some measurable changes from the prior situation in Austin. Visual coverage was virtually constant for several days, particularly of course on cable news outlets but to an extent more generally. Geographical range increased. Instead of a few articles in the days following the tragedy, as in 1966, the New York Times kept the story front-page visible for over a week, with recurrent coverage thereafter. (The actual article count was 39 in the ten days after the Texas shootings and one brief mention later compared to 127 in the first 15 days after Tech with recurrent coverage into late May.) The sober Chronicle of Higher Education (which came into being only in November, 1966, and never touched the recent Texas tragedy) had 86 articles and columns on the Tech killings. Duration extended as well, with frequent ensuing treatments not only of later reports and policy responses, but human interest follow-ups as well; the Chronicle as well as the daily press recurrently took up accounts of victims'families or survivors' pain, with headlines like "Life After Death at Virginia Tech." Coverage widened in another respect as well: quickly, local reporters in other regions began interviewing officials at universities distant from the tragedy, trying to prompt comment about how safety measures must be tightened up in light of the events at Tech--here was another way to extend the geographical involvement in the emotions of the day.

Most obviously, the emotional lure and intensity themselves increased. Newspapers had used words like massacre in 1966, but mainly in the body of accounts. Now, outlets like CNN developed animated logos about MASSACRE AT VIRGINIA TECH, throbbing and twirling with all the subtlety of an American Idol promo--with a gun sight's crosshairs additionally floating across the screen in slow motion. If this failed to catch attention, the lower right hand screen, again on CNN, had an additional graphic headline, DEADLIEST SHOOTING. Fox News, never to be outdone, rotated the University's logo with CAMPUS MASSACRE, and, except for ABC, the major networks used similar devices--making the tragedy a branding opportunity. The gunman himself, fully aware of the media's expanding appetites, had stroked the fires by sending NBC a grotesque tape filled with his rantings (something Whitman never seems to have considered), which after brief debate the network decided to air. All this occurred amid media-ethics remonstrations from a number of quarters, and visible strain from Virginia Tech bystanders and interviewees (though a few participants said they found some relief in venting to reporters)--but there was no real let-up for several days. (9)

It was small wonder that the few observers who directly compared Austin and Blacksburg claimed that people were equally upset by both mass murders, with the only difference in the more recent case being that they saw the incident live on TV and the Internet instead of reading about it in newspapers and magazines.

However, undeniably in part because of the changes in media format and tone, but independently as well, there was the second major shift: the level and range of emotional responses themselves. There are two basic claims here. First, levels of grief and, probably, fear extended far more widely in 2007 than they had in 1966; and second, ramifications among people close to the event but not directly involved were also measurably more severe.

Prompted of course by the constant media drumbeat, but both in the immediate aftermath and for some time thereafter, many people distant from Blacksburg seem to have been drawn into significant emotional involvement. As noted, expressions of grief after the Austin shootings came from many places, and there is no reason to question their sincerity. After Blacksburg, however, levels of sorrow and group involvement were far more extensive. A number of universities quite apart from Tech felt compelled to offer counseling services, to deal with student fears, concerns about acquaintances at Tech, and contagious grief. Parents of students, again at a range of universities, expressed immediate concern, suggesting a communicated fear that something equally dire might be imminent on other campuses--a contagion that had not at all been evident after the Austin shootings. Elaborate mourning services occurred on many campuses, sometimes repeated in ensuing days--showing unquestionably the wide range of emotional involvement. As of August, 2007, there were 296 global groups on in honor of the victims. Acceptances of admissions offers by out-of-state applicants at a number of Virginia universities, apart from Tech itself, dipped below expected levels in the weeks after the shootings--again an effect not seen outside Austin in 1966, granting that differences in incident dates complicate this particular comparison. Most tellingly, students on many campuses, again not directly involved with Blacksburg, spoke of their own fears and sense of insecurity, their immediate concern about "what if this happened to me", as well as their deep grief--suggesting a level and range of emotional sharing that had simply not been present forty years before.

Closer to the events, but among people not traumatized by direct involvement, an equally interesting emotional bifurcation emerged. Quickly, at Texas, a public reaction emerged bent on emphasizing genuine grief for victims but a simultaneous desire to get on with things (with the implicit corollary that worrying about personal involvement with any wider threat should be bypassed altogether). A letter in the Summer Texan put it this way: "Certainly, the whole community and state is [sic] grief stricken and saddened by this act of a very sick person, but we all recognize this as a rare and unprecedented occurrence." Following up, a batch of letters from locals and alumni, to the student paper and other Austin media, urged that emotional generalizations must be avoided: Texas had enough reputational problems, after the Kennedy assassination, and the random act of a madman must not be allowed to add to them. There was great concern about irrationality in other parts of the country, which might lead to adverse judgments of the University. Quickly, also, pressure developed to reopen the Tower from which the sniper had operated. As one writer pointed out, the Dallas School Book Depository had not been closed after the Kennedy killing and "battlefields are not roped off because many men died there," so why pick on the Tower which "still affords one of the best vantage points from which one can view the city of Austin and the hills beyond, and the actions of a few should not restrict the advantages of others." Or as yet another observer noted, "Why rob people of this [view] because of an emotional moment." (10)

Blacksburg produced almost no counsels about rationality or cool calculation. Grief, and in some cases fear, had to he abundantly indulged. There were simply no counterparts to the quick impulses in Texas to get things back to normal and not be overwhelmed by the huge emotional tide. A few professors who sought to belittle reactions or question university responses were at least to some degree chastised by academic officials--though the extent of administration reaction was debated. Commentary on the spot featured students reeling from their own involvement, albeit indirect: they had an acquaintance who was involved; they lived in a dorm next to the one where the shooting took place. A number displayed their own depth of feeling by noting at once a desire to stop dwelling on the incident and a sense that they wanted to hang out with others "because everybody is going through the same thing." To be sure, many people must have shrugged off the tragedy more quickly, bur the point is that they did not seek or find a significant public voice. (Even nationwide, aside from some comment on media manipulation, there were few dissenting notes concerning the overriding emotions.) A biology student perhaps best captured the dominant sense of de spair (he lived off campus and his only direct involvement seems to have been seeing three police cats speed by): "This is really shocking. This is just too many things. That one thing like this could happen here is amazing. But 33 people. You can't help feeling nervous, shaky, anxious. You just can't sit still, and you sure can't study. I have a brother who's in Iraq, and even he didn't have a day like I did." Virginia Tech produced a different emotional experience from that of Austin forty years before. (11)

* * * * *

Not surprisingly, changes in media and in emotion combined to generate a different set of ripple effects, which on the whole confirm the gap between the two experiences. Mourning and memorialization offer contrasts that are fascinatingly stark.

True to what seems to have been a widespread mood, University of Texas officials did little to memorialize the victims beyond brief immediate gestures such as the week of flags at half-staff and a memorial service. To be sure, there was criticism about insensitivity, particularly by victims' families; but more than official calculation was involved. No plaque or marker was put in place for over thirty-years, lest an important venue in the University be tainted by its association with tragedy. When, finally, a Tower Garden was dedicated as a place to honor the victims, with a plaque noting the University's remembrance with "profound sorrow" not only the dead and wounded but also the "countless other victims who were Immeasurably affected by the tragedy," over thirty years had passed. Administrative insistence on getting on with things doubtless played a role in this delay--and the undercurrent of unrequited grief showed some of the costs of this stance--but public reactions played a role as well. Intriguingly, even when the dedication finally occurred, in 1999, the University has to note that plans to add mote landscaping to the garden had been thwarted by an inability to entice donations. Revealingly, contributions toward the victims themselves, in the weeks and months immediately after the Austin shootings, had also produced limited results. A local fund raiser, trying to help one victim's family, noted rue fully: "So far, there has been little response." (12) An alumni group managed to raise almost $ 11,000 for medical payments and scholarship funds for the wounded--nothing, apparently, for the families of those who were killed outright. Even the closing of the Tower proved temporary, as the University quickly responded to those who felt that access took precedence over either grief or safety concerns; only later, in response to several suicides, was the facility blocked for a longer period.

The Tech alternative is striking. Within hours of the shootings in 2007, ribbons, letters, stuffed animals and money donations began pouring in. A make shift shrine was quickly established; posthumous degrees were awarded to the dead students. Within months, a simple memorial had been constructed, with a stone for each victim. To be sure, the University did resist pleas to tear down Norris Hall altogether or convert it into a shrine--the laboratory space was too valuable to yield entirely to sentiment--but there was a commitment never again to use the facility for general classes. With some encouragement from the administration, massive funds were raised--over $ 1 million within six months--that, even discounting inflation, put the Texas response to shame. Monetary awards directly to the victims' families--again, a topic never evoked in the Austin case--burgeoned, with the University offering $180,000 per family at one point with no strings attached, with $40,000-$90,000 to the wounded as well. And of course there was the solemn commitment to build a major memorial within three years--and every reason to believe that this commitment would be, indeed in terms of public expectations had to be, fully honored.

Another behavior was impressively new: the wide sporting of mourning ribbons in the days after the Tech tragedy, by alumni, sympathizers at many other universities, and beyond; this was amplified by the later adhesion of bumper-sticker ribbons on some alumni cars. Needless to say, these symbols had not emerged in the Texas aftermath at all. They contrasted as well, intriguingly, with dominant private behaviors in response to death in the family, which had moved steadily and explicitly away from symbolic displays of grief (black arm bands and the like) over several decades. Again, something meaningful was now involved in public commemorations.

Contrast also dominated discussions about responsibility and liability. Official response in Texas, but also the quick public interest in making it clear that the killing was the unpredictable act of a madman, argued against any elaborate discussions of fault. There seems to have been no legal aftermath, no efforts of any kind to assign blame for the risks the victims unwittingly encountered. Responsibility was the name of the game in the furor surrounding the Tech event--even though, objectively, police responses were far quicker and better organized in this instance than in Austin 40 years before, where not only the traffic-oriented campus police but also the city force were completely unprepared. In Texas, the Governor's panel of inquiry was not encouraged to find fault, and Connolly insisted that "in no case" would any report be released to the public--a restriction that responded to what seemed to be the public mood and certainly reinforced this mood in turn. (13) The intensity of emotion and a new public climate that found randomness unacceptable and risk nearly intolerable called for a much different set of inquiries and public discussions in the wake of the Tech tragedy. Not surprisingly, the mood emerged from the emotional first hours, with TV pundits and ordinary citizens both wondering loudly if something different should not have been done to limit the rampage. Official inquiries were increasingly prodded to deal with questions of responsibility, and did indeed conclude that the university administration was at fault for not notifying all students immediately that a gunman was at large. Even before this, victims' families hired a lawyer who ultimately raised the possibility of civil suits. Rancor developed as well about subsequent University actions, as in setting up solicitations that utilized victims' names without authorization. Whereas Texas clamor, far more limited in any event, had focused on inadequate grief responses, the atmosphere in 2007 encouraged far wider explorations of fault.


Somewhat surprisingly, given the gulf between the emotional environments of the two incidents, contrasts in actual policy responses were more subtle--though they did exist. The sense after Austin that emotions should be kept low and that the isolated nature of the madman's act should be emphasized did not prevent a desire to learn what might be done better in future--and this was obviously the approach taken quickly after the tragedy at Tech. Two conclusions were drawn after the Whitman murders. Quite quickly, national figures, including President Lyndon Johnson, used the incident to argue for tighter restrictions on access to guns; the incident accelerated a broader campaign for gun control, though there were few concrete results. More quietly, initially within Texas and then more widely, studies of the incident began to generate significant alterations in campus policing, toward expansion, professionalization and arming of campus units--as well as the formation of better organized emergency response teams in urban forces. There was every desire to use the incident to highlight what could be done better in future.

Policy responses to Tech are of course ongoing, but there is an even more fervent desire to learn from mistakes or omissions. The tragedy prompted some renewed discussion of gun control, though this was muted by widespread recognition that significant measures were futile in the American political climate and by a strident minority that argued that more arming, not less, was the appropriate response. But there were concrete steps launched to tighten restrictions on access by individuals with records of mental imbalance--with moves contemplated at both state and federal levels. Massive discussion occurred about better coordination of identification and treatment of students with psychiatric problems, given abundant evidence that far more was known about Mr. Cho's difficulties than had received appropriate attention. Above all, Tech seemed to teach the need for swift and extensive improvements in campus warning systems, so that the entire community could be alerted and buildings closed whenever an instance of violence erupted.

Specifics varied, obviously. The new insistence on communication systems followed from the different pattern in the Tech tragedy--notification had not been an issue of similar magnitude in Austin, though it could have been argued that better warnings might have kept people away from the Tower plaza (and a siren was installed at Texas, though without wide comment and without imitation elsewhere)--but also from the tremendous new sense that individuals must be made aware of risk on the assumption that they then could arrange some appropriate personal response. But the desire to draw policy lessons from tragedy was shared, from the commission of an official inquiry panel onward.

Differences were noticeable as well, however, and they referred back to the more significant changes in climate. By 2007, not only media but a variety of commercial operators were prepared to address a crisis. Within weeks, consulting firms were offering expensive seminars on dealing with student mental health and violence issues--"when tragedy strikes, it touches not only those who are directly affected, but others who feel the consequences and try to prevent similar occurrences." Devices were widely advertised in the communications area "when it comes to campus safety ... "As recent events have shown, campus safety is top-of-mind for students, parents and administrators alike. With [our] videos, your institution can ... lead the way to a safer environment for everyone." Commercial readiness added to the divide between 2007 from 1966. (14)

And there were two other distinctions in the policy realm, granting that it will take more time to sort out all the aftermath in this regard. First, a recurrent sense emerged in 2007 that policy adjustments, done right, should really provide considerable assurance about the future. As Kansas Senator Brownbeck put it (granted, he was running for President): "It is my hope that we'll be able to develop policy proposals to address this situation to see that it never again happens in America." In contrast, Connolly and others, in 1966, while urging study, noted how impossible it was to "account for the actions of a crazy, deranged individual." Other officials made it equally clear that not all risks could be anticipated or prevented. Individuals aplenty, in 2007, privately made the same point amid the strenuous effort to develop new policies--but publicly-expressed doubts were in less abundant supply. (15)

Second, emotional intensity and range helped assure that some policy responses had to be quick, widespread and fairly uniform--in contrast to the more gradual pattern by which innovations such as more ample campus police developed between the 1960s and the 1980s. The sense of urgency, at least to indicate that something was being done, was striking. Extensive person hours were devoted, on almost every campus, to planning discussions, updates, and communications designed to reassure. Several states, far from Virginia, formally opened new security inquiries. The University of Toronto closed its gun range, just in case. The two main apparent lessons of the Blacksburg incident were quickly echoed in new or amplified policies (what to do about students with mental issues underwent active discussion as well, but responses were less clear cut and complexities more obvious): schools needed to have new means of reaching all students and they needed to plan lockdowns quickly in case of trouble. One result was a new vulnerability to possibly prankish messages: on May 2 a bomb threat prompted automated warnings and a campus shutdown at Delaware County Community College, in Pennsylvania, with direct reference to the "recent events" at Tech but with pride that the school could close and notify so quickly. (16) Other colleges, though not so immediately challenged, would move during the summer to install new warning and communication devices of vari ous sorts. Privately, officials involved might admit that they did not quite know what to do with the toys if a crisis hit--the ability to communicate did not include a clear formula on what to communicate--but a responsive public stance was the main point in the rush to demonstrate a limitation of risk. The speed, geographical range, and standardized quality of these responses, in contrast to the Texas aftermath, once again revealed the major shifts in public climate over the few-decades span.


In several vital respects, responses to the Virginia Tech tragedy form virtually a mirror image of the Texas aftermath, despite the similarity in the incidents and in some of the emotional consequences, particularly for victims' kin. Quiet and limited state response versus massive inquiries and explanations; desire to get back to normal versus pressure to memorialize; brief and geographically limited post-mortems versus months of recurrent and widely shared drama; dismissal of victims versus earnest attempts to compensate--the list of public U-turns, in a {relatively short) chronological span, is impressive. There are a few loose ends empirically, mainly of course because the much smaller range of reactions in Texas forces comparisons of evidence (Tech) with nonevidence (Texas), which inevitably raises some questions. Policy differences are, as a result, much clearer than emotional differences--more emotions may have surged around the Texas incident than were recorded, though that in itself is interesting.

Crucial distinctions established, two questions then emerge: what caused the changes between 1966 and 2007, and how should the changes be assessed? Neither question can elicit a definitive answer, but both provide food for thought--particularly when combined with other evidence about shifting national patterns.

Social changes are never easy to explain. Past participants cannot he sat down in a laboratory for the kinds of replicable experiments or repeated observations that give scientists some confidence in their analysis of causation. Nevertheless, historians do have some experience in advancing plausible clusters of causes, which in turn greatly assist in figuring out what the changes are all about and (should this be desirable) what might he done to alter course.

In the case of Texas-Virginia, the first issue, again impossible to resolve absolutely definitively, involves magnitudes and settings. Twice as many people were killed at Tech, and this alone may help explain the mote extreme responses. It is indeed interesting to speculate about what casualty levels prompt what kinds of public grief. The August, 2007, Minneapolis bridge disaster, for instance, which apparently killed about 20 people, did not lead to the kind of national mourning that Tech induced; nor did the slightly earlier killing of Amish grade school students in Pennsylvania. Is there a threshold for the more elaborate responses? (But if so, why 32? which is an awful tally but in the larger scheme of things not all that vast.) My own sense is that magnitude was not a key distinguisher between Tech and Texas--after all, in 1966, 16 was a terrible domestic figure; hut the possibility must be entertained. It seems highly probable (and understandable) that multiple deaths by human hands elicit far more grief and outrage than natural disasters or even infrastructure breakdowns--hence perhaps the more muted response to the Minnesota bridge collapse--but this of course does not distinguish Tech from UT (or from the Amish kids, who were less numerous but also not seen as mainstream).

A second issue involves setting and, possibly, timing. August, the Texas month, saw fewer students around than did April in Virginia, and therefore a less intense campus environment; but there were still plenty of people about, so the impact differential should not be overdrawn. In terms of environment, Austin provides a far more urban setting than Blacksburg Virginia. Bonding, at a school like Tech, may be mote intense than what occurs at a more variegated campus--and certainly bonding was a key element in the emotional tesponses at Tech itself, and in nationwide admiration for the resultant rallying student morale. But Texas is hardly a slouch at school spirit, and my guess is--though again, the factor cannot be definitively eliminated--that setting does not play a significant role in explaining difference. And if neither numbers nor setting is a primary factor, we return to the high probability that larger changes--and not just descriptive differences--are involved in the contrasting patterns.

The next step--and for some, it might he the final one--involves acknowledging the huge alterations in context between the 1960s and the early 2000s: acknowledging but, I would hope, not overdoing. The most facile explanation for the more intense reactions in the Tech tragedy would invoke the huge wounds that the American public has endured in the past two decades, from terrorist attacks, both domestic (Oklahoma City) and foreign (9/11 and other) to the spate of school shootings themselves that postdated the Texas event, notably Columbine high school but other instances as well. Surely, the explanation would run, Americans get more upset about events like that at Virginia Tech because they have come to feel so beleaguered, in contrast to the greater innocence and wishful thinking that could greet the slaughter in Austin.

Then, of course, add in the wounds of 9/11 specifically, and the notion that "everything changed" thereafter. Unquestionably, security concerns and a conjoined sense of vulnerability increased hugely, and this has to figure into any explanation.

The prior innocence argument is interesting--it came up frequently in explaining the intensity of responses to the 9/11 terrorist attack, as if the United States had never before felt threatened--but it seems porous or at least inadequate in this instance. The challenge of comparing insecurities historically is admittedly considerable, and there's always a temptation to bias toward the more recent, where memories are rawer, but the mid-1960s, and 1966 specifically, were deeply troubled times. To be sure, growing experience with school shootings (though as other fear experts have pointed out, these however dreadful have remained rare) provides an element missing in 1966, and there was no preTexas equivalent to 9/11. (17) But the 1960s were a decade of fierce insecurity, as many Austin participants noted. The cold war, and the active war in Vietnam, provided a setting which challenged notions of security (with the still-recent assassination of John F. Kennedy hovering in the background); combined with mounting civil rights unrest and growing levels of campus protest--the Berkeley free speech movement had begun in 1964--and it would have been relatively easy to link yet another symptom of American violence with a broader set of social threats. Memories easily recalled the assassination of eight Chicago nurses by Richard Speck just a few days before, or in Austin itself the killing of two coeds the previous summer. It was easy to link to broader patterns of violence and menace. To he sure, the worst rioting, and the renewed spate of assassinations of political leaders awaited 1968. It is clear, however, that the University of Texas shootings did not occur in a nation that was either placid or assured. Indeed, two policy reactions that did result from the Austin tragedy, the presidentially approved effort to curb guns and the creation of more formal campus police forces, reflected a sense that levels of violence were mounting unacceptably.

There's an undeniable conundrum here. The fact that, despite growing campus turmoil, a specific record of school shootings was absent in 1966 must explain part of the softer reaction, compared to 2007. College students by 2007 (born for the most part after 1985) had grown up amid a regular series of reports about collective violence, and while this generational experience applies less readily to their still-more-edgy parents, it is surely relevant, On the other hand, the ease with which the Texas shootings could have been associated with wider fears, in what was in fact a far more tumultuous and in many ways far more troubling decade than that surrounding the Virginia Tech killings, makes it unlikely that changing context alone accounts for the differences between the two responses. Campus insecurity was, again, far more pervasive around the earlier tragedy, but it did not generate concerns that spilled over so readily into grief or fear reactions to a specific incident. Granting an undeniable role for specific shifts in social experience, we still need to look for additional factors to explain the increased intensities of 2007.

There's another spur to further inquiry. Some of the symptoms that most dramatically suggest change, from 1966 to 2007, particularly around heightened expressions of public grief, actually began to crop up from the 1990s onward, much earlier in the history of school shootings and entirely before the trauma of 9/11. Not just assassinated leaders--one harks back to the prolonged emotions that greeted Abraham Lincoln's funeral train, or the national mourning around JFK's ceremonies--but more ordinary people began to command an unprecedented level, and geographic range, of emotional response. The contemporary phenomenon first cropped up, in the United States, concerning the victims of the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist bombing in 1995. Here, a national grief helped spur not only widespread, often deeply emotional memorial services, but also the construction of a massive memorial--unprecedented for disaster victims--that took up the entire prime urban space that the destroyed building had previously occupied. Outpourings--these on a more international basis--after the death of Princess Diana had some similar overtones, though here prompted by celebrity more narrowly construed. Pressures to memorialize other victims, as in some of the more notorious school shootings, and even the renewed 1990s effort to win more formal commemoration in Austin itself, showed similar impulses. Something was going on, in other words, to intensify public emotion, and the need for elaborate expression, even before the challenges of the early 21st century. The altered reactions to Tech, compared to Austin, illustrated, though possibly further amplified, this preexisting trend. Which means, once more, a need to look for deeper causes in addition to the trail of school violence and terrorism. (18)

Two broader factors leap out when probing the larger factors involved in the patterns of change over the 40-year span, one of them definite but complex, the other harder to pin down but equally important. The first focuses on media role, the second on the intermixture of emotion and social environment.

The growing involvement of the media in selecting and magnifying spurs to public emotionality stands out in the Texas-Virginia Tech comparison. Newscasts that played around the clock, riveting attention on a single development, provided opportunities for highlighting that were essentially unavailable in 1966. Even in 2007, of course, media picked and chose: situations less amenable to emotional exploitation because of more guarded privacy, like the Amish killings a few months earlier, could not win the same media identification and so did not produce comparable public reactions. But this merely heightened the importance of media selection when opportunities were rich and scenes and interviewees more abundantly available. Major networks, eager to match competition from outlets like CNN and less rewarded by ratings-challenged general programming in any event, added to the sense of omnipresence of tragedy. More aggressive reporting, thrusting microphones and cameras in front of people gripped by the fears of recent threat or the grief of recent loss, helped translate personal emotions to a much wider audience. People around the country, and obviously beyond, could now feel that they had in some sense directly participated in the turmoil; their emotions either flowed spontaneously, developed from contagion with actual sentiments voiced on the spot, or were guided by the cues media reporters themselves provided. Media involvement was surely critical in the new sense that tragedies in one American locale could prompt deeply emotional involvements literally across the country, as if the incident had occurred in almost everyone's back yard. Small wonder that experts increasingly referred, however awkwardly, to the "mediaization" of American, and to some extent global, emotion. Add in the effect of new methods of contact among college students themselves, generating a further component of the capacity for emotional contagion as victims could urgently text-message peers throughout the nation and as Internet blogs kept reactions alive months after the event, and the media/communications role deepens further. The Tech website alone had 150,000 visits pet hour after the shootings, with 35,000 condolence messages posted within three days--all this involving technologies simply not present in 1966 and an immediacy that was absent as well.

Media alone, however, should not be overplayed. Media unquestionably help designate crises, selecting among many possibilities depending on the identifiability of those involved, the availability of other current stories and so on. They play on and play up emotion, and convey a set of expected (somewhat almost obligatory) emotional standards. They expand the geographical scope of emotional impact. But they do not, by themselves, manufacture the emotions themselves. There must be public readiness, and here too important changes have occurred in the decades since 1966.

Beyond the media, the growing sense of the inappropriateness of certain kinds of death, and the need for wide-ranging emotional response, depended on a combination of intolerance of risk and wariness about the external social environment that had simply not been present to the same degree in the 1960s. Weariness with threat, but also growing fears of immigration and the more protective stance toward children in a low-birth-rate society, generated new urgency to security concerns. This was a powerful combination, providing the final element in distinguishing 2007 reactions from those of 1966. In a well-ordered society, many Americans increasingly believed, certain kinds of people should not die by violence, and if they did the violation should be greeted by high emotion--grief, but also fear--and by strong efforts to identify culprits and prevent recurrence. Accidents and random acts of violence receded in this scenario--indeed, many American safety experts argued that accident should be eliminated from the vocabulary, so that everyone would realize there was always a responsible party, always a possibility of prevention. Growing parental involvement in active oversight of children, and elaborate participation in their activities even in early adulthood--the approach that became known, not entirely approvingly, as helicopter parenting--was closely tied to this heightened sensitivity to risk. The resultant personalization of certain kinds of disasters was striking. Along with high emotions and widespread fear after 9/11, for instance, the immediate application of concern to one's own family, the personalization of response, was truly remarkable: Americans increasingly readily transposed anxieties for their own offspring to external disasters. This accounted both for strong emotions and for insistence on rigorous inquiry. It provided a fertile audience for media efforts to promote emotional involvements as well. This was a powerful combination, providing the final element in accounting for substantial change.

This argument, that the differences between incidents suggest some deep alterations in American life, generates the final question; should we care?, beyond hopefully using the comparison toward better self-understanding. Here, I must stress, there is really no possibility of avoiding debate, no undisputed standards by which the measure the results of change. Each observer brings a different perspective. But having identified and explained the nature and significance of change, the possibility of launching a wider discussion is irresistible. There's an obvious plus to the new approach to tragedy, an obvious drawback, and two compelling questions that probably cannot yet be answered but whose unfolding should be monitored. (19)

The plus: in a society often, and perhaps justly, accused of too much individualism and "bowling alone", opportunities for a brief but vivid sense of emotional community, around shock, grief and even fear, might be welcome. It might even be taken as a sign of humane sophistication in a materialist age. Of course the media-manipulative elements can be troubling, sometimes positively distasteful. But the notion that people truly grieve for strangers, and need to express their grief while offering support to those more directly affected, can be taken as a real positive.

The downside of the new approach--though it could have redeeming features--was the cost in resources and time that endless questions and forced policy reviews pushed on administrators who (it might be argued) had better things to do than to pretend to ward off highly unlikely, if undeniably tragic, accidents. (Improving student retention rates might be a candidate for this kind of attention, where we have a real higher education problem compared to our global competition.) There is no question that the new levels of grief and fear had coercive qualities, that made skeptical response or outright criticism dangerous--and arguably, any movement that inhibits open debate is somewhat suspect. This applied not only to mandatory grief, but to the need to discuss and implement new security measures. Institutions far removed from Virginia Tech in circumstance and geography were now compelled to review policies and invent new ones, devoting not only massive amounts of time but substantial new investments, often mainly to reassure emotionally-wrought constituents (particularly parents; students worried less after a few days) rather than to effect any real change or significantly enhanced protection. Again, emotional reassurance may be fine, but its costs need to be assessed--and in the new circumstances, dispassionate evaluation is difficult against the drumbeat of insistence that something dramatic and novel must be devised. Tech itself quickly spent millions of dollars on a growing array of security and warning systems, and while these may prove to be wise investments, compared to other needs, it is fair to surmise that opportunities for critical assessment were greatly constrained. And there's always the danger of persuading ourselves that we've accomplished more than we actually have. Add to this the unattractive commercial appeals, the ghoulish effort to appeal to fear--at my university, the chief information officer received 79 sales pitches within a few days of the tragedy, until she simply stopped returning calls--and one has a situation that can easily, at least for a few weeks, possibly in some respects even over a longer term, spin out of reasonable control. Heightened emotion pushes policy makers to over-respond, and this carries risks of its own, beyond the mounting financial costs.

And then, following the more definite consequences, the two intriguing questions: First, does the new level of emotional response help the people most affected by tragedy? The temptation is to say of course, one can only be solaced by the outpourings of grief and sympathy; look at the unrequited Texas families for a contrast. And perhaps this will prove to be the correct answer. But public support also encourages those affected to want even more, to turn to schemes of compensation and endless debates over proper blame and proper memorialization that risk exacerbating emotional wounds, keeping them open longer than the more dismissive culture--the culture of the late 1960s--might do. There's potential gain in the new approach, but risk of excess as well; it will be useful to take another look at this aspect of the balance sheet in a few years.

Without doubt, the combination of new public emotional standards and interests in capitalizing on distress greatly prolong discussions over social obligations. Victims' family groups feel entitled, and raise demands about additional memorialization, compensation claims and other matters that mix genuine emotion with various interests in selling goods and services or winning votes by publicly exploiting sorrow and outrage. How much the resultant combination is in the best public interest or even in simple good taste can and should be debated. What the combination does to survivor emotions--whether it provides solace or simply rubs raw--must be assessed as well. There's not much doubt that at this juncture the Tech survivors seem more perturbed, over a wider range of issues, than their Texas counterparts forty years ago (though there was unresolved concern back then as well): whether this is a good result or not can usefully be discussed.

And finally the second key question, directly flowing from emotional over-response: Does the frenzied effort to beef up security and guard against the latest type of incident end up doing much good, in really reducing risk? Or does it--even apart from the resources expended--simply intensify the belief that risk should be controllable, thus making the reaction to the next unexpected tragedy all the more painful? Are we, however unwittingly, needlessly increasing our emotional vulnerability? There's no question that many of the moves currently being ventured, against the Tech tragedy background, are more designed to assuage worried constituents (particularly, the more nervous hoverers among the patents of college students) than from any conviction that they will improve security. In some cases, the new measures lack any real clarity on how they would be used in an actual emergency. This in itself is a troubling or at least costly sign of the current climate. Again, we need further time fully to assess consequences to determine whether the new alarm systems and communication devices purchased in the wake of Virginia Tech really accomplish much, or whether they actually have some unintended disadvantages. Emotionally driven responses, at the least, inhibit a calmer discussion of how much risk we should expect to reduce, and how much we need to review our very expectations about risk reduction--again, a problem that had been much less acute back in the 1960s, when dealing with civil rights abuses and an unpopular war maintained mote consistent priority.


It's axiomatic that dominant emotional responses seem right, even inevitable, at the time. But one of the uses of history is to provide a sense of alternatives and to trace changes that are not necessarily inevitable, durable, or desirable. Austin and Blacksburg, 40 years apart, show the extent to which current reactions are actually products of fairly recent change, of some significant if ill-explored contemporary history. The current formulas are not eternal. Knowledge of their recency, and the factors that have helped generate them, could even be put to use in modifying some of the more disadvantageous features of current intensity. We all hope that tragedies of this sort will not recur. But some of us at least, as one editorialist put it within days of the event, also hope that the predictable reactions to such tragedies can be shifted as well, toward greater dispassion (though not insensitivity) and a greater willingness to keep risk in perspective even amid the many promptings, those that are sincere as well as those more obviously self-interested, toward high emotion. In a society that still loves to talk about how cool things are, we seem to have lost our cool in this scenario; it might help to chill a bit more, as in the not-so-old days gone by.


There are at least two types of history learning relevant to current responses: the first is the Maginot line type (when the French, in the 1920s and 1930s, built a defense perimeter designed to stop a World War I-style German attack)--assume that the next problem will be just like the last one, so prepare to have handled the last one better. This is learning of the wrong kind. The second involves recognizing the great complexity of historical trends, and considering a broader kind of readjustment on this basis (which can of course include some Maginot-like anticipations, but certainly should not be confined to them).

In September, 2007, the first post-Tech campus shootings occurred (one of the two victims ultimately died) at Delaware State. Learning from the common wisdom about Tech's mistakes, officials locked down the University for a day, canceling all classes and keeping most students in their dorms. Many authorities congratulated themselves on this response to recent history. But the shootings resulted from a personal dispute, and the lockdown was a wasteful move in this particular situation. History's lessons are rarely simple, and there are larger trends to study as we work to improve our reactions to the unpredictable. In fairness, initial response to the later shootings at Northern Illinois, in February 2008, showed a constructive incorporation of Virginia Tech's "lessons", including prompt police response, immediate messaging to students and a welcome willingness to lift the campus closing quickly when the attack had been handled. But Northern Illinois went on, after a promising start, to illustrate once again that high emotionality requires more and more elaborate expression. Not only did the institution cancel classes for a full week, it also came close to deciding to tear down the building in which the shootings had occurred (a move earlier urged on Virginia Tech but there more quickly resisted). The incident also reminded that, whatever the response, no means had yet been discovered of reducing the campus threat; it seemed possible that high emotion and media blitz actually promoted conditions in which shooters sought to extend the dramatic impact of their suicides.

Even amid some global signs of new public emotions, Americans have unquestionably become obsessively safety conscious and risk-averse. The current national standards are costly and constraining, and they can promote not only needless reactions but counterproductive ones. A history that uses two tragedies to capture change might also promote reassessment. The concerns impinge on universities, given the desire to see campuses as havens, but there are wider national issues as well.

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References: An earlier and shortened version of this article appeared in The American Interest (July 2008). I am deeply grateful to Alex Antram for her diligent assistance in research. Thanks also to Jack Censer and Donna Kidd for perceptive comments and suggestions.

(1.) Dallas News website, April 17, 2007 (

(2.) For a broader argument in this vein, though less "ripped from the headlines" than the current effort, see Peter N. Stearns, ed., American Behavioral History; an introduction (New York, 2006).

(3.) The Texas story is told in Gary Lavergne, A Sniper in the Tower (Denton, TX: 2006).

(4.) Austin American, September 4, 1066.

(5.) Austin American, August 2, 1966.

(6.) Relevant press accounts include Austin American for some days after the 1966 shootin"; New York Times for several days after both incidents.

(7.) Houston Post, August 4, 1966; Austin Statesman, August 2, 1966.

(8.) "Notes from Academia," Chronicle of Higher Education, April 27, p. 64.

(9.) Simon Dumenco, "Newsflash: Anything This Graphic Should Never Have a Logo," Advertising Age 78 (April 23, 2007), p. 34; Burt Helm and Paula Lehman, "Buying Clicks to a Tragedy," Business Week, May 7, 2007, p. 42.

(10.) Summer Texas, August 3 and 9, 1966

(11.) "Voices from Campus," Newsweek National News on, April 17, 2007.

(12.) Austin American, September 25, 1966. See also UT News Release, July 30, 1966, from the University Archives; and VT News Release, January 10, 2007. See also David Maraniss, "Traditions of Tragedy and Triumph at the Texas Tower," Washington Post, February 13, 1986.

(13.) John Connolly letter to the Austin Police Chief, August 5, 1966, from the collections of the Austin History Center.

(14.) See for example FMP Media, June 6, 2007); Student Affairs Leader (, June 11, 2007).

(15.) Austin American, August 4, 1966

(16.) Philadelphia Inquirer, May 3, 2007.

(17.) Peter N. Stearns, American Fear (New York: 2006) and Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things (New York: 1999).

(18.) Peter N. Stearns, Revolutions in Sorrow (Boulder, CO: 2007).

(19.) Julie Rowe, "How Much Can School Do?" Time, June 7, 2007, p. 59.

By Peter N. Stearns

George Mason University
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Author:Stearns, Peter N.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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