Monday, April 23, 2007


I've been reading The Chronicle for Higher Education's coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech, and one of the things that has struck me is how instructors and students talk about the unhinged youth (Cho Seung-Hui) and how they saw trouble coming. For instance, one former student (who was in a playwriting class with Cho) heard about the murders and immediately suspected that it was the kid in his class who wrote the disturbing plays. I work in an academic environment, and I know that it would be nearly impossible to pull a student like this out of the college (and similarly impossible, because of federal law, to learn of his deranged state). Still, it seems as though we ignore many dangers in our midst.

We pay little attention to the rate of violent death in this country unless it weighs heavily on a terrible scale. I mentioned to a co-worker the shootings and stabbings at my high school and surrounding schools in the late 1980s, and he was surprised that he hadn't heard about them. Why would he? He lived thousands of miles away. At the time, incidents like that weren't reported on a national scale. Certainly, we heard about the tragedy at Columbine, but that was perhaps the first time when school shootings entered the national consciousness. (Because of the ethnicity of the victims? Suburbs or exurbs as opposed to an urban environment?) Many people I spoke to at that time were surprised by the shootings, but the people who were not surprised grew up going to urban high schools. Teen-aged homicide has been with us for quite some time.

Consider the number of murders in this country. In 2005 (the most recent year with complete statistics that I could find) there were 16,692 homicides according to FBI stats. In California, there were 2,503. That's a rate of 6.9 murders per 100,000 residents in the state of California. In addition, homicides rates are increasing (but they're down overall from the high rates of the early 90s).

My point is simply that we live in violent times with violent people among us. The families of victims often suffer with the crimes unsolved (or prosecutable) and their stories untold. If you want to know more about the lives of victims in a violent city, Jill Leovy at the LA Times compiles brief stories at The Homicide Report. This reading isn't morbid voyeurism. They're reporting sad stories not addressed by the national media. While people are learning about the latest Hollywood gossip, there are personal tragedies that escape (and somehow demand) our attention.

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