August 1, 1966. I’d spent the afternoon cleaning the pool,
which is how I spent most of that summer, when I heard the news about Charles
Whitman. Only two weeks before, Richard Speck killed eight student nurses in Chicago, so mass killings
were still in the news. And later that year would be released Truman Capote’s
In Cold Blood, a story of a murdered family in rural Kansas. Coupled with the nightly Vietnam
death tolls, it was a bloody year. When he returned home from the office that
day, my father brought out his 1940-something University of Texas
yearbooks, and we looked up the tower where the former Marine and Eagle Scout Whitman
picked off his forty-six victims, killing fifteen of them.
Only four years later KentState
became a turning point in my college career when the National Guard opened fire
on unarmed students, killing four and injuring nine.
Virginia Tech had its defining moment this morning, and
colleges and universities won’t be in the same for years to come. Why wasn’t
the university put under lockdown, many asked. Just how do you lock down a
major university, short of instantly building a wall topped off with concertina
wire, installing gun turrets, and armed patrols? And doesn’t that defeat the
idea of a campus? Metal detectors and ID cards may work to shield buildings,
but how could they protect the commons? Whitman loaded up his arsenal on a
dolly and gained entrance to a secure area by flashing his duly-issued
identification. Do you think for a minute that the armed and uniformed National
Guard would’ve flashed special badges to access the Kent State
Kinky Friedman went on to pen and sing The Ballad of Charles
Whitman, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sung about Kent State.
Tonight someone is probably writing a song about Virginia Tech. Books and
movies will follow, and it will become a folk memory reflected upon forty years
But something more important will arise out of today’s
events. There’ll be the usual hue and cry over gun control, blaming foreigners
and foreign terrorists, ridiculously cumbersome regimens for police action
imposed, and campuses will come to resemble maximum security penal facilities. No
one will seem to recall that the Beltway sniper of 2002 did his work out in the
open, and no one will particularly notice that shopping malls are filled with
And college campuses won’t be one whit safer.