Ben Agger and Timothy W. Luke
Last Thursday, February 14th, 2008, Steven Kazmierczak reportedly shot and killed five students, and then turned a weapon on himself at Northern Illinois University. At least sixteen students were wounded in the rapid-fire shootings in this large NIU lecture hall during class. We have few certain details about the shooter, except that he used four weapons, two of which were purchased legally within the past week—a shotgun and a 9mm Glock semi-automatic handgun. Ironically, he purchased two magazines and a holster for the Glock from the same online vendor which sold Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, one of his guns through a dealer transfer last spring.
Apparently, he was a good student (a former sociology major at NIU) who had no police record. He was pursuing graduate studies in social work at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. It was also rumored that he recently had ceased taking mood-modifying medication and had broken up with a live-in girl friend. He was 27 when he died in the large NIU lecture hall. Yet, there was another side to him. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 2001, but soon was “administratively discharged” within six months. More recently, he took a job as an officer at the Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana in September 2007, but he failed to complete his preliminary training after only two weeks, and then never returned to work.
The shooting in DeKalb, Illinois occurred almost exactly ten months after the shootings at Virginia Tech last April, when 33 died, including students in classrooms, some of their professors, and the gunman himself. On November 7, 2007 Pekka Eric Auvinen walked into his high school in Tuusula, Finland, and shot eight people, killing five, and then also turned the gun on himself. There are parallels between these three bloody events: The shooters were young males; they used deadly semi-automatic weapons; they burst into school classrooms to do their damage; they took their own lives. There were apparent differences, too, although as yet we know next to nothing about the ‘real’ Steve Kazmierczak. Cho had already been identified in the Virginia mental health system as a troubled individual, and a potentially dangerous one at that. And Auvinen and Cho left video and written manifestos. In his testimony, Cho acknowledged the inspiration of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who killed twelve of their high-school classmates and a teacher at Columbine in Colorado on April 20, 1999.
How are we to understand the sequencing and connections among Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tuusula, and now Northern Illinois? It is unimaginable that the Valentine Day’s Massacre in DeKalb would have occurred in the way that it did without Virginia Tech having occurred, as the December shootings in Finland also demonstrated. Tech is imbedded in DeKalb as its prototype and possibility. Kazmierczak might have found other ways to kill and to die without the example of Tech (and Columbine or Tuusula before it), but he surely framed his actions last Thursday within the scenario of last April in Blacksburg, Virginia.
This is not to suggest that DeKalb is simply a copy-cat killing. What did Klebold, Harris, Cho, Auvinen, and Kazmierczak have in common that led them to enact these epic killings and suicides, on school grounds? It seems they were alone in a crowd; they were alienated, lacking social ties. Whether they were mentally ill or not is somewhat beside the point. They might have been stopped, helped, redirected—yes, even medicated. We are intensely interested in the experience of being alone in a crowd, in Cho’s case as an Asian-American outsider on a big-time college/fraternity campus, which considers itself ‘Hokie Nation,’ —the illusion of tight community achieved through the gridiron Gemeinschaft of the Virginia Tech campus. And in the hours after the NIU attack, the response in DeKalb, Illinois and around the nation was to appeal to the school’s athletic mascot, the Husky, and tout “Huskie Spirit.” Perhaps we know only this: people more on the inside do not tend to commit mass murder and then take their own lives.
It cannot escape notice that the killers at Columbine, Blacksburg, Tuusula and DeKalb were men. Women usually do not embark on shooting/suicide escapades, even though not even a week before on February 8, 2008 at Louisiana Technical College a female student shot two classmates and then herself in a classroom. Four of the five killed at DeKalb were women students, and many of those killed in Tuusula and Blacksburg also were female. This is a potent admixture: social isolation, male gun culture, fantasies of revenge.
Were the killers evil madmen predestined to wreck havoc? Were they beyond social influence and redirection? They committed mad acts, to be sure. But there is a thin boundary between those who keep their demons within, and at bay, and those who erupt. The answer to these acts of deliberate madness lies not in armoring our campuses but in acknowledging people’s interior turmoil and trying to help, where possible. This is difficult amid a sea of faces in large college lecture halls. But can we afford to reduce such acts merely to irreversible psychopathology? Columbine and Virginia Tech have now become a set piece—a media spectacle--with a certain inexorable momentum.
Ben Agger is professor of sociology and humanities at University of Texas, Arlington. Timothy W. Luke is professor of political science at Virginia Tech. They co-authored a book There is a Gunman on Campus: Tragedy and Terror at Virginia Tech forthcoming in April 2008.