I Don't Like Mondays

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On Monday morning, in the middle of a tutorial at UWS, a security guard entered the room and told us we had to leave not just the building, but the entire Werrington South campus. A young man had threatened to begin shooting everyone on the site.

I didn’t feel frightened and nor, it seemed, did anyone else students or faculty as we swarmed out of the buildings. In fact, a carnival atmosphere prevailed (it was, after all, a break in the routine). Mind you, as I drove past the long queue of students lined up waiting for a bus, I couldn’t help thinking what easy targets they would make.

Perhaps mass evacuation was not such a good idea, but I sympathised with the powers-that-be at the University. Just what exactly would be the right thing to do? After the Virginia Tech massacre, no one is going to take any chances. All it now takes is a few angry threats and thousands of people can have their day disrupted and worse, their sense of safety punctured.

Before the events on Monday, I had not in any way translated what had happened at Virginia Tech to my own lectures and tutorials at UWS. Sitting in my classroom, listening to my students make their major presentations (they’ll all have to be squeezed into next week now) I didn’t feel remotely unsafe. My students may have been a little anxious about their presentations, but I am sure their physical safety was the farthest thing from their minds. I wonder if we will feel as secure next week? The mere fact of the evacuation has brought home our vulnerability in a way that a news story from the United States could not.

As I drove home, I could not help remembering the story of the elderly Professor who was killed barricading the door with his body, while making sure all his students escaped. One of his students called it the bravest thing he had ever seen. Would I have that sort of courage, or would I be one of the first out the window? I suspect it’d be the window, but would the role I am in — that of ‘teacher’ — take over and propel me forward? I hope I never have to find out.

But I hadn’t even thought about it before, hadn’t made the connection between my classes on Mondays at UWS and the massacre on the other side of the world. And now, thanks to some idiot, I have. In fact, after very effectively distancing myself from the whole horrible story, I now find myself compelled to think more deeply about it. And what I’m wondering is what can we do to prevent these things from happening.

Image thanks to Sean Leahy.

After the Virginia Tech massacre people put forward lots of different theories as to why it might have happened. Some theorised about mental illness, others related tales of relentless bullying in high school.

One of the most interesting was from Melbourne psychiatrist Paul Mullen, who had worked with Martin Bryant and suggested that such events were actually a grandiose form of suicide with the shooter’s ultimate aim being to die. He used the example of a group of young men in pre-colonial India who had periodically gone on the rampage killing people with machetes until they were killed themselves — it’s where we get the term ‘running amok‘, apparently. The British wiped out the practice simply by keeping the young men alive and locking them up, thwarting their desire to die.

Mullen pointed out that Australia had experienced no copycat killing sprees after Martin Bryant, no doubt because we, unlike the Americans, tightened gun laws in response, but also because Martin Bryant was not killed and now lives a well-publicised but miserable existence in jail. His theory is further supported by the fact that Bryant has since unsuccessfully attempted suicide five times.

It is interesting to wonder if law enforcement aimed at stopping the shooter not only from killing others, but also from killing himself, might actually be an effective deterrent. It would certainly rob the shooter of his grandiose suicide and condemn him to a miserable and endless existence behind bars. (And, yes, I do understand that the first priority needs to be stopping any deaths, and if the only means to do that is to kill the shooter, well, so be it.)

A strategy to keep the shooter alive would obviously not prevent deaths in the primary incident, but if the objective is to prevent copycat incidents, it seems there is at least some evidence that this might be the outcome. Such a response would, of course, demand a total rethink of the death penalty in the US, so while an interesting theory, and possible in Australia, is unlikely to gain much of a foothold there.

What is so depressing about the US response to the Virginia Tech massacre is their weary, almost fatalistic, acceptance of such events. So untouchable is the gun lobby, so irrational that nation’s love affair with guns, they seem unreachable by simple logic.

The bizarre argument put by those who love their guns, namely that if the students and staff at Virginia Tech had been armed, they could have killed the shooter sooner, seems even more frightening to me since Monday than it did when I first heard it.

Would I feel safer next week if I knew that my classroom was bristling with loaded guns? No I would not. In fact, I think it might even make me hesitate to give feedback to my students on their presentations without fear or favour, as it might also curtail their ability to be forthright. After all, Seung-Hui Cho was some teacher’s student and some student’s classmate before he became their killer, and how do I know how stable or unstable every member of my class may be?

Freedom to carry guns may, in fact, fatally impact on other freedoms. While travelling in the US last year, my husband commented to his host on how courteous American drivers were. ‘We have to be,’ his host replied. ‘If you upset someone they might shoot you.’ I never thought I’d see road rage as a marker of a healthy society, but long may Aussies feel safe enough to be rude.

The real weakness in the gun lobby’s argument is that an armed good guy can only come to the rescue once the shooting has started, and many may already have died before the killer is stopped. To save lives we must look at prevention, not cure. If keeping Martin Bryant alive and in jail is possibly the reason his actions have not been copied in this country, surely it is a tactic worth investigating.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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