May-June 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 5

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Tragedy at Northern Illinois University

Dealing with the Shock of Violence at Northern Illinois University

by Fred E. Markowitz, Northern Illinois University

One word that has been used frequently to describe experiences of the February 14, 2008, shootings at Northern Illinois University (NIU) is "surreal." The events of that day and its ongoing aftermath have left many on campus shocked, with perceptions of our vulnerability to horror and tragedy altered for some time, if not permanently. In what is normally a safe place, we found ourselves asking "did this really happen here?"

At the time of the shootings, I was teaching a criminology class in a building near Cole Hall. We were discussing results from the National Crime Victimization Survey. Contrary to the day’s events, that study consistently indicates that young adults who are enrolled in college are at a lower risk of being a victim of violent crime than non-college students. Rates of violent victimization at NIU are lower than the national average among college students. Moreover, I had been emphasizing how the majority of crime on campus is property crime.

Candlelight vigil at
Northern Illinois University

After class, we entered our changed world. It is one thing to see it on TV; it is another to be there. We entered a scene with swarms of students and staff drifting away from campus, and an influx of ambulances, police, and medics from numerous surrounding communities, injured students being transported, and news helicopters circling above. I was able to get details about what was going on by listening to AM radio in my car.

As the afternoon progressed, it was revealed that the shooter was a former sociology graduate student. My immediate reaction was that had to be an error. Having taught our required classes in graduate statistics and research methods for several years, I scanned my previous class lists and concluded that it could not possibly be any of my former students. As the night progressed, we learned that indeed it was someone most of us knew and generally regarded as an excellent student prior to his leaving a year ago to enroll in another university. Soon, sociology faculty were barraged with media interview requests. We knew the guy, he was a good student, we had no indication of his instability, and we never would have predicted this.

Mental Illness and Violence

As the counselors, the media, and makeshift memorials around Cole Hall fade away, and we gradually return to our routines, we reflect on the larger social issues that provide the backdrop for such events. Among those issues is the link between mental illness and violence, which has received research attention in an era where psychiatric hospitals no longer maintain America’s most severely mentally ill and the promise of community treatment has not been fully realized. As critics are quick to point out, there are more persons with mental illness in jails and prisons than in hospitals. They are more likely to be homeless, to spend longer time incarcerated, and are subject to abuse from guards and other inmates. Although a much larger proportion of criminal offenders exhibit symptoms of mental illness, community studies find the risk of violence is modest, and is most likely among those with psychotic symptoms that result in persons believing they are under threat or under commands from unseen forces. Persons with depression or bi-polar disorder, some of whom may show signs of anger and rage as part of their illness, generally pose a much lower risk. The research also indicates that when persons have coexisting substance abuse problems, the risk of violence is intensified. The crime problem is, in large part, a mental health problem.

The risk of violence among those with mental illness is offset to the extent they are receiving quality treatment, including medication, to control symptoms. Therein lies the dilemma—treatment is not always available, adequate, and is not compulsory under the law until after persons have demonstrated they are at risk to themselves or others. On the other hand, some have blamed psychiatric medication itself for triggering violent episodes. This is not likely and may further fuel the stigma and resistance to seeking appropriate treatment. What makes the NIU shootings more perplexing is that there was apparently little indication of imminent threat of danger. In retrospect, the shooter’s history of troubled behavior, his recent violent tattoos, his abrupt discontinuation of psychiatric medication, and his acquisition of firearms, should have signaled intervention was needed. What, if anything, could have been done by those aware of this descent remains troubling.

Access to Firearms

There is also the issue of firearm availability. There are those who argue the ability to carry concealed weapons would limit the number of fatalities or perhaps prevent them. This is an unsound argument for many reasons. For one, police entering a classroom under siege with persons holding weapons may be unable to distinguish perpetrators from the protectors and inadvertently shoot the wrong persons. Also, just as disputes in inner-city schools used to be settled with fists, clubs, or knives in earlier eras, the wide availability of firearms has now made those same disputes lethal. Imagine colleges filled with young people—who often act impulsively and drink frequently—carrying weapons? As sociologists, we realize that this is a prescription for more, not less fatalities on campus.

Because we somewhat regard the college campus as a safe haven for learning, growth, and formation of friendships, society is horrified and intrigued, yet perhaps is becoming desensitized by the shocking and unpredictable tragedies that have occurred. As sociologists, however, we must point out that on any given day, a far greater number of killings take place on the streets of disadvantaged neighborhoods across America. Although the underlying causes of violence on campuses and urban streets may differ, the unnecessary prevalence of firearms plays a part in both settings with a similar impact on the lives of those who survive. small_green.gif

The Wrong Solutions for a Tragedy

by Kirk Miller, Northern Illinois University (BS, Virginia Tech)

In the aftermath of the NIU shooting tragedy, we are left wondering what could have been done to prevent the horrifying deaths and injuries sustained by our students on Valentine’s Day. In my view, this reaction reflects a combination of human nature and our training as academics, which spurs us to try to improve our understanding of events through a systematic intellectual process.

Much of the focus in the aftermath of the Northern Illinois University (NIU) tragedy has been on trying to understand how a star student could do something like this. My colleagues and students who knew Kazmierczak well would never have suspected that he was capable of something like this. We are still trying to reconcile the contradiction between the man we knew and the man who killed five, wounded 18, and affected so many of our students, friends, and family members.

Firearms as the Solution

Others are trying to create policies to prevent future mass murders. Several radical proposals offered by some students and a few faculty have encouraged either arming students through concealed weapons laws, training key personnel to use firearms, or both. I suppose that these responses should be expected when the vulnerability of students, faculty, and staff are so tragically demonstrated by tragic events on campuses and school grounds across the country. For many desperate to feel a sense of control in the face of vulnerability, a gun offers a salve for the raw and painful feelings of helplessness. Ironically, many feel that guns are the solution to thwart future shootings.

One analysis of this response is that it is the result of what could be described as a media-industrial complex that plays on the fears of individuals by highlighting carnage, pathology, and vulnerability. The gun industry, with assistance from the media, thrives on these events by harnessing feelings of personal insecurity and fear to generate sales and advance a policy agenda. For example, since Virginia Tech, and bolstered by the NIU shootings, there has been increasing momentum to legislate efforts to arm Americans. A proliferation of conceal and carry proposals before state legislatures in Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, and, of course, Virginia, have often invoked campus shootings as a rationale. Some have successfully sought provisions to allow concealed weapons on campuses.

The plainest fact is that it was firearms—a Remington shotgun and a Glock pistol at NIU and a Glock and another handgun at Virginia Tech—that provided the technological capability necessary for both shooters to unleash the consequences of their mental illnesses upon their victims and themselves. Without these particular instruments of destruction, both men would not have had the power to act in ways that affected so many innocent people. Without these instruments of destruction, our campuses would be less vulnerable. (Also, many of the 78 Americans killed by a firearm each day in 2005—the most recent year data are available for both homicidal and suicidal gun-use—might also be alive.)

I was also struck by a recent story in the NIU college newspaper, the Northern Star, on March 24, 2008. It was a two-paragraph blurb from the Associated Press wire that described an act of mass violence that had occurred in a shopping mall in Tsuchiura, Japan, on the previous day. Eight victims had been stabbed, including one who died. This story is clearly relevant to mass acts of violence in the United States and elsewhere, but it failed to generate any dialogue about the role that firearms (or culture) play in these events.

A Sociological Point of View

Some of my colleagues have expressed a sort of exasperation when we as sociologists are asked to weigh in on why mass shootings occur and why anyone would ever do something like this. I can understand this feeling, but then I remember that sociologists are uniquely qualified to contribute to the public policy dialogue that follows these tragedies. We spend a chunk of our professional lives analyzing data to identify patterns in persons, groups, and events in order to make sense of underlying social phenomena. Among the several school shooting tragedies, we see diverse profiles of shooters, their motives, and their victims. However, there is one common pattern: The easy availability and enhanced lethality of firearms in America. Firearms are too easy to obtain and too effective at inflicting maximum lethality as quickly as possible—too quickly for law enforcement to have much of an effect in these incidents.

Preventing similar tragedies in the future is not likely to result from developing profiles of potential shooters, nor arming students, faculty, or the public to secure our campuses and communities. These wrong-minded proposals undermine the mission of colleges to be open and inviting environments, places where reflection, interaction, and intellectual growth are nurtured.

It is very difficult to explain to my young daughters why we live in a world where tragedies like NIU and Virginia Tech take place. I have explained that people sometimes do horrifying things to others and that we need to do better to help people who suffer from mental illness. But I cannot explain why our society does not limit the availability and massive lethality of firearms when it offers the most logical solution to ending mass murder in America. small_green.gif


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