One year ago today, my hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia, came face to face with a horror few American towns have had the misfortune of witnessing. To mark this somber anniversary of Seung-Hui Choâ€™s rampage at Virginia Tech, 32 senseless deaths, and the ensuing rush of emotions and wall-to-wall media coverage, I thought Iâ€™d take a break from the whoâ€™s-right/whoâ€™s-wrong discourse of politics to focus on more personal matters. Specifically, I want to relate the events of last 4/16 as experienced by someone who played an important and heroic role in the midst of chaos and tragedy: my brother, a lieutenant on the Blacksburg police force.
I grew up in Blacksburg, and my father taught in the business school at Virginia Tech for about 15 years. Though Tech isn’t my own alma mater, I have since childhood shared in all the joys and pride that the Tech community has felt over its accomplishments, as well as the occasional disappointment over its failures and shortcomings. On April 16, 2007, and in the months afterward, I shared in the deep and tremendous hurt that was felt by everyone who has ever called Blacksburg home.
My own experience of the most significant event in my hometown’s history was detached and surreal. My wife and I were in London on vacation that week, and heard nothing about events in Blacksburg until we returned to our hotel at around 10 p.m. Wolf Blitzer was airing at that time live from the â€œSituation Roomâ€ on CNN International, and I recognized the visuals of the Tech campus and flew into a panic before Iâ€™d heard a word Wolf was saying. From there, the next two days were an adventure in international phone tag and a total immersion in cross-cultural media, as my wife and I shuffled between CNN and the BBC and passed the American, British and European newspapers back and forth.
The British press, even Rupert Murdochâ€™s conservative tabloids, had a field day with this latest and most appalling tale of U.S. gun carnage. The event fed perfectly into the well-established international disbelief at Americaâ€™s gun culture, and our refusal to limit access to weapons effectively. (The Telegraph that week also offered an object lesson in just how far Americaâ€™s reputation has fallen during this decade; a front-page news (not opinion) article in the broadsheet noted matter-of-factly that Virginia Tech’s success in attracting eager foreign students was â€œat odds with America’s image as a world pariah, hated by all.â€)
Every Tube ride presented us with a new set of horrifying banner headlines to avoid or devour, depending on how the mood struck. Even with all that coverage, Gwen and I felt somehow both isolated and shielded â€“ isolated in the way that anyone feels who is far from home when disaster strikes, and myself most particularly by my inability to get my brother on the phone (with good reason, as he was a very busy man that week). As constant as the coverage was overseas, it was, of course, far worse back home, with all the morning and evening TV anchors descending on my formerly anonymous hometown to milk this tragedy for every possible ratings point and advertiser dollar.
I finally spoke to my brother four days later, and the story he related to me was far different from the inaccuracies, absurd tangents, and unfounded speculation in which the national media trafficked that week. Of course, that’s what the media do, particularly in the age of the 24-hour TV-news beast; however, my brother and his fellow police officers were, for obvious reasons, acutely sensitive to all the speculation, second-guessing, and finger-pointing.
My brotherâ€™s shift had begun at 7 a.m. that Monday; ironically, he was preparing to lead a training discussion on how to interact with members of the community who suffer with mental health issues. When the news came of the shooting at the Ambler Johnston dorm, he abandoned those plans and headed for the scene; he became the lead officer detailed to that site, helping to coordinate the investigation. As is common knowledge now, police quickly developed a theory (based on interviews with other residents) that a friend of victim Emily Hilscher was responsible for the dorm shootings. Officers under my brother’s command tracked down the friend; it was while they were first talking to that person that the first reports of gunfire at Norris Hall came on the radio.
There was much consternation in the media, and discussion in the state commissionâ€™s report, about the decision not to order an evacuation of the Tech campus after the dorm shooting, or even to issue an announcement over the campus PA system that a gunman was on the loose. The question of how effective such an order or warning would have been, considering the sequence of events, remains unanswered â€“ though certainly the establishment of text-message and e-mail alert systems on campuses nationwide over the past year must be seen as a positive development. Regardless of those questions, however, the police investigation at the dormitory had resulted in the development of a logical theory of what had happened there â€“ a theory that hardly seemed to merit disrupting the activities of more than 20,000 people. No witnesses or evidence obtained through that initial investigation suggested the tragic mayhem that would ensue.
My brother remained at Ambler Johnston throughout the tragedy that unfolded in Norris Hall. He believes that, in a bizarre way, it was fortuitous that the killer had struck first in that dorm room, because that incident had brought a significant police presence onto campus that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Also, he strongly believes that the police response at Norris, rather than being ineffective as it has occasionally been portrayed in the media, was as quick and as forceful as possible under the circumstances, and saved perhaps dozens of lives. Itâ€™s worth recalling that Cho fired his two semiautomatic handguns about 150 times inside Norris Hall â€“ all in a matter of four and a half minutes between the time he entered the first classroom and the instant in which he ended his own life.
Two guns, four minutes, 30 lives.
A few hours after the Norris Hall shootings my brother was dispatched to Techâ€™s Campus Inn to begin the frustrating task of helping the victimsâ€™ families through the process of death notification. He spent more than 15 hours over the next day in a large meeting room with dozens of family members, trying to make them comfortable and to keep their emotions from boiling over while they pressed him for information he was unable to officially confirm (because it wasn’t his job). He had the chance to talk at length with many of those family members, and was impressed with their courage â€“ most particularly the widow of Professor Liviu Librescu, who said that her husband’s students had already described to her the heroic way in which he had died, and that unlike so many others she was not looking for information but instead hoped to commiserate with other family members and share their stories.
On Tuesday morning the notification process finally began to wrap up, and at one point in the early afternoon some of the family members told my brother they wanted to attend the convocation that was about to happen at the basketball arena. He quickly arranged entry tickets and a bus for them, so that they wouldn’t have to pass through the media horde on their way into the building, and he won a brief skirmish with the Secret Service so that the bus could get to the arena through the street blockades set up for President Bush’s security. Thanks to my brotherâ€™s efforts, the families wound up with seats right behind Bush. Afterward, he escorted the grieving families to a room where they spent nearly an hour with the President. At one point, Bush went to my brother and shook his hand, thanking him for all the work he was doing with the families; on the way out of the meeting, Bush sought him out again for another word of thanks and encouragement.
Four days after the shootings, my brother was led through the classrooms at Norris Hall by colleagues who had been among the first responders. It was his first visit to Norris. All the bodies had been removed, of course, but he was nonetheless horrified by the sights he saw there, and even more so by the descriptions of what those first responders saw when they first entered those rooms. Those classrooms have since been completely overhauled and turned into a Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention; the building otherwise continues to house offices and laboratories, but no general classes will be held there again.
For some time after last April 16, those of us who are close to Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, either in body or in spirit, feared that the events of that day would forever define the town and campus in the eyes of the nation. We worried that Virginia Tech would become a name like Kent State or Columbine, permanently tainted by its association with an infamous event in our nationâ€™s history. However, the extraordinary response of the Tech community has put the lie to such concerns â€“ beginning with poet and Tech professor Nikki Giovanniâ€™s stirring â€œWe will prevailâ€ elegy during that convocation, and extending through a week of vigils and remembrances that showed a student body coming together in truly remarkable fashion. The outpouring of support from other universities and their students helped a great deal â€“ resulting in a mosaic of handmade signs that festooned the lobby of the student center for months afterward.
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It would be a mistake to underestimate the role of Techâ€™s athletic program, and its membership in a major conference like the ACC, in helping heal the campus and remove Choâ€™s stigma from the universityâ€™s reputation. The football team was inspirational â€“ its coaching staff had prioritized the goal of stitching the student bodyâ€™s psyche back together, even over winning â€“ and the team won anyway, taking the conference championship and ranking in the Top 10 for much of the season. Thereâ€™s a lot to be said for national television appearances that involve sports and celebration; perhaps, over time, they can even trump one weekâ€™s endlessly repeated images of violence and heartbreak.
My brother, Iâ€™m happy to say, seems to have suffered no lasting psychological effects from his experiences of 4/16/07, having undergone grief counseling and some cathartic conversations with friends and family. I visited Blacksburg last August, just as Techâ€™s students were returning to campus for the new school year, greeted by the unveiling of a permanent memorial to the 32 victimsâ€¦and a fresh round of nationwide media coverage. Some of that surely is repeating itself today, but what was remarkable even last fall â€“ and what was even more remarkable a mere week after the shootings last spring â€“ is the desire, indeed the insistence, of the Tech community to move on from this tragedy and not be defined by it. You can stop reporting on us now, students repeatedly told the media; thereâ€™s nothing more to see here.
What I saw in August, and have continued to watch from afar, is not a story of tragedy but of courage, of doing whatâ€™s necessary to get past awful events and get on with new business. I consider my brother a hero for his work during the shootings and in the aftermath with those families; he, of course, saw himself as just doing his job. After my son wrote a moving tribute to him for a class project, my brother begged me to stop lionizing him. Well, Kit, maybe someday, but not just yet. I remain incredibly proud of him, and of the entire community of students, faculty and Tech supporters who have bound themselves together over the past year and stitched up the hole in our hearts.