It was a scene we’ve witnessed before, from the safety of our living rooms and offices: a school building that has become a slaughterhouse, and scores of police officers arrayed outside, waiting for . . . something, for orders perhaps, or for the specially trained tactical units, or perhaps just for the shooting to stop, because while they wear badges they also have wives and mortgages and children of their own. Whatever their reasons, they hesitated, even the cluster of officers captured on a student’s videocamera, the ones who made a half-hearted attempt to enter the building, waited while one shot, then another, then a string of shots rang out, and between them the screaming from inside the classrooms.
I’ve never been shot at, and so I don’t know the fear. But I’ve never put on a badge and sworn an oath to protect the defenseless, either. I only know that had my children been inside, I would want the men and women with guns and badges to come through the doors, or windows if they have to, and cut down the man with the gun.
I remember a murder in my hometown, a man who walked out onto his front lawn with a rifle, and started shooting his neighbors and passersby. A girl from my school was hit, and she lay in a ditch in front of her house, bleeding and crying. The man went back into his house when the police arrived, and so they encamped behind their cruisers for hours. That girl lay there, bleeding and crying out, and eventually she died.
The men with badges that day were rightly denounced as cowards. Only the people who were in Blacksburg yesterday, or at Columbine nearly eight years ago to the day, can accurately judge the actions and inactions of the men and women wearing badges. The rest of us can only know that sometimes men and boys pick up guns, and they start butchering people, and there is no one on this earth who can protect us once the killing starts. This is why each of us who is a parent hugged his children more fiercely yesterday, after we heard. You either have hope in the world to come, or you have no hope at all, but either way you hold your children close and pray that the wolves attack somewhere else.
Now the counselors and journalists and talk show hosts will descend on Blacksburg, bringing with them a secondary wave of psychological damage disguised as “healing” and “talking things out,” but which will really be about serving our need to see it, to witness it in safety, perhaps because we are thankful, in an ugly, selfish way most of us have, that it happened to them and not to us, or to our children.
Today there are parents waking up and remembering that their child is dead. There are children waking up and remembering that their parent is dead. Sleep always offers some hope that the world will be different when we awake, but it isn’t, is it? I wonder if this is the hopelessness that drove that boy to become a monster. I wonder if his parents will ever smile again.
Judy Miller, a reporter who covered the Columbine killings, had a graceful essay on NPR this morning. In it she mentioned the strangeness of seeing snowflakes swirl about the campus as the killing took place, and how it was similarly snowing in Columbine the day two other boys became monsters. It made me wonder if God was crying, and if the coldness of the world we have made has frozen even his tears.