I dreaded meeting with Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho in fall 2005. Though he had not made overt threats, his manner and affect seemed to be at odds with his whispered claim that he was being satirical when he wrote an accusatory poem about his classmates. But I was serving as chair of the English department at the time so it was my responsibility to deal with troubled students.
Eighteen months later, when Cho stormed the campus, killing 32 students and faculty, I realized how great the risk had been. And now, after Sandy Hook, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and others are suggesting that our response to threats like these should be to arm teachers. Some teachers agree and are arming themselves for school. Legislators in some states are trying to make it possible for faculty members at public colleges and universities to arm themselves on campus.
Teachers in Harrold, Texas, for example, have been permitted to carry weapons since 2008; and the March 2012 State Supreme Court ruling in Colorado means that those with a concealed carry license have the right to bear arms on the University of Colorado campus, though the university instituted new rules banning guns in dorms. Other states have similar provisions. Given the latest tragedy in Connecticut, this issue will be an even more contentious one in the future.
Although I support an increase in the number of resource officers on our campuses (i.e., trained members of law enforcement), particularly as we already have uniformed officers in about a third of our schools, and campus police and threat assessment teams working effectively with educators in many of our colleges, arming teachers in schools or colleges is a bad idea.
This conclusion is not based on a naïve romanticization of American education or an underestimation of the threat. I knew Cho could carry whatever he wanted in the backpack he planted emphatically at his feet when he sat down in my office. I knew his silence could be the silence of excruciating shyness or the kind designed to be menacing. There were times when his anger seemed palpable; his agony vengeful; his misogyny apparent.
At what point, however, does a professor draw a weapon? In her office? In a packed classroom? When the student-suspect reaches down to get something from his backpack? At what point does a perceived threat become an actual one? How many mistakes are we liable to make, and at what cost? How often will we be tempted to demonize difference because it scares us?
Were Cho to have stormed into my office, guns blazing, wearing his customary blank expression, his sunglasses and baseball cap obscuring his face, what good would a gun have done unless I already had it at the ready? If he had been armed with a 9mm Glock — one of the weapons he used 18 months later in his attack on a dorm room and classrooms at Virginia Tech — would I have needed a semiautomatic as powerful as his to have had a chance of defending myself and my staff? If he’d had about 300 bullets, as he’d had when he launched his attack on the campus, would I have needed a similar cache in my office drawer?
Should teachers’ guns remain loaded in their desks at all times, or should they be carried in handbags or holsters? Many of these weapons are heavy and difficult to conceal. How would teachers disguise the fact that they are packing heat from their students? How often would a nervous teacher misinterpret someone’s gesture and discover, too late, that it isn’t a gun he’s pulling out from his backpack after all? It’s the novel he’s written and wants her to read.
Many things are not made manifest to us before guns are drawn, even though we may suspect something is deeply amiss. In 2005, two years before his rampage, Seung-Hui Cho was still a student, not a student-shooter. He was still willing to seek help, still hoping to become a novelist. He was angered when I repeatedly urged him to go to counseling, but he also realized he needed to go. He sought out help, as he’d told me he would. Tragically, he was not able to get the counseling and medication he needed, even though he was later ordered by a judge to receive outpatient treatment.
Shootings like the ones at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook Elementary — reside at the intersection of many thorny, often competing issues including gun violence, accessibility to long-term mental health treatment, privacy laws, and an individual’s civil rights. And though common sense tells us we need more security in our schools, we can’t blast our way to a solution.
College professors and K-12 teachers are not law enforcement officers. It’s our responsibility to notice students who are seriously troubled and bring them to the attention of professionals trained to respond in crisis situations, which is why I reported Seung Hui-Cho to various units on campus. In cases where there is no record of violence, however, even the most experienced teachers, counselors, and law enforcement personnel cannot easily predict whether or not a threat is imminent. But we can detect extreme anguish, consuming loneliness, and unbridled anger in young people and try to intervene before these become toxic.
The opportunity for meaningful intervention on the part of educators is in the years, months, and days before the gun is drawn. And though some of us will try and fail, the period leading up to a tragedy like this is still the time when peaceful intervention is most likely to succeed.
A lone teacher should never be asked by the NRA or anyone else to use a lethal weapon to save her students. The chance of failure is far too high, the cost far too great. Teachers and students must be empowered by society to learn together in peace. We have a right to expect this, and a duty, as educators, to demand it,
Amid outrage about what Penn State officials are alleged not to have done about sex-abuse allegations, experts in crisis management see serious flaws in the university's communication efforts in last week.
One part of Milovan Djilas's Conversations with Stalin lingers in the memory well after the rest of the book fades. The author himself calls it "a scene such as might be found only in Shakespeare's plays." Actually, it does have its parallels to Rabelais, as well; for like many another gathering of the Soviet elite amidst the privations of World War II that Djilas recounts, there is an enormous feast, and a marathon drinking session.
This particular miniature carnival occurs in the final months of the war. Stalin is hosting a reception at the Kremlin for the Yugoslavian delegation. But before the partying begins, he must disburden himself; for Stalin has heard that Djilas (who would later become vice president under Marshall Tito) has criticized the behavior of some units of the Red Army as it has made its way across Europe.
"Does Djilas, who is himself a writer, not know what human suffering and the human heart are?" cries Stalin. "Can't he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes a trifle?"
By "having fun," he was referring to well over two million rapes, by Soviet soldiers, of women of all ages and backgrounds. The very indiscriminateness of the sexual violence gives the lie to the idea that it was revenge for the suffering inflicted by the Germans. Inmates liberated from Nazi concentration camps were raped as well.
As for Djilas, it must have seemed, for a moment, as if Stalin's outburst were the kiss of death. Luckily for him, the dictator's mood changed. "He proposed frequent toasts," recalls the author, "flattered one person, joked with another, teased a third, kissed my wife because she was a Serb, and again shed tears over the hardships of the Red Army and Yugoslav ingratitude."
Perhaps in response to the criticism, Stalin issued a command that soldiers behave themselves. The Soviet officers read the proclamation to their troops with a smirk. Everyone knew it meant nothing. Boys will be boys.
The anonymous memoir A Woman in Berlin, now appearing in a new English translation from Metropolitan Books, is an extraordinary chronicle of life in the streets as the Thousand Year Reich turned into rubble and the advancing "Ivans" had their fun. The author was a German editor and journalist who died in 2001. Her book, based on a diary kept over two months during the spring of 1945, first appeared in English in 1954. It was only published in German in 1959, where it seems tohave been regarded as an intolerable faux pas, a violation of the unstated rule that the events never be mentioned again.
The book's rediscovery now comes in the wake of Antony Beevor's massive documentation of the rape campaign in The Fall of Berlin 1945, published three years ago by Viking Press. To judge by the reservations of some military historians, Beevor's account may not be the last word on howSoviet forces advanced into Germany. (A reviewer for Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College, praised it as a work of popular history, but lodged some complaints about certain gaps in the book's account of troop manuevers.) Yet the book did take an unflinching look at the extent of the sexual terror.
Beevor supplies an introduction to the new edition of A Woman in Berlin, situating the document in historical context. He notes, for example, that the statistics about rape for Berlin "are probably the most reliable in all of Germany," falling somewhere between 95,000 and 130,000 victims "according to the two leading hospitals."
He also points out that there is no particular evidence that rape was treated as a deliberate strategy of war -- as human-rights activists have recently charged the Sudanese military with doing in Darfur. "No document from the Soviet archives indicates anything of the sort in 1945," writes Beevor. But he suggests that the scale of the attacks may have been a by-product of the Red Army's internal culture, even so: "Many soldiers had been so humiliated by their own officers and commissars during the four years of war that they felt driven to expiate bitterness, and German women presented the easiest target. Polish women and female slave laborers in Germany also suffered."
Reading the memoir itself, you find all such interpretive questions being put on hold. It is not just a document. The author, an urbane and articulate woman in her early 30s, writes about the fall of Berlin and her own repeated violation with an astounding coolness -- a bitter, matter-of-fact lucidity, the extreme candor of which is almost disconcerting, given the lack of even a hint of self-pity.
"No doubt about it," she writes after being raped several times in a row. "I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage. After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy's language?... My mind is firmly made up. I'll think of something when the time comes. I grin to myself in secret, feel as if I'm performing on the stage. I couldn't care less about the lot of them! I've never been so removed from myself, so alienated. All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live."
I've just reviewed the latest edition of A Woman in Berlin for Newsday, and will spare you a recycling of that effort (now available here ). Since then, a look at other reviews has revealed some debate over the authenticity of the book. The comments of J.G. Ballard ( no stranger to questions of sexuality in extreme conditions ) are indicative.
"It is hard to believe, as the author claims, that it was jotted down with a pencil stub on old scraps of paper while she crouched on her bed between bouts of rape," wrote Ballard in The New Statesman a few weeks ago. "The tone is so dispassionate, scenes described in so literary a way, with poignant references to the strangeness of silence and the plaintive cry of a distant bird. We live at a time that places an almost sentimental value on the unsparing truth, however artfully deployed. But the diary seems convincingly real, whether assembled later from the testimonies of a number of women or recorded at first hand by the author."
Given that concern, it is worth looking up the original edition of A Woman in Berlin, now more than 50 years old. It came with an introduction by C.W. Ceram, whose book Gods, Graves, and Scholars, first published in 1951, remains one of the best introductions to the history of archeology. Ceram recalls meeting the author of A Woman in Berlin not long after the war.
"From some hints that she dropped," he wrote, "I learned of this diary's existence. When, after another six months passed, I was permitted to read it, I found described in detail what I already knew from the accounts of others."
That means Ceram saw the book in 1947, at the latest. "It took me more than five years, however, to persuade the author that her diary was unique, that it simply had to be published."
She had, he writes, "jotted down in old ledgers and on loose pages what happened to her.... These pages lie before me as I write. Their vividness as expressed in the furtiveness of the short penciled notes; the excitement they emanate whenever the pencil refuses to describe the facts; the combination of shorthand, longhand, and secret code ... all of this will probably be lost in the depersonalizing effect of the printed word."
Ceram's introduction is interesting for its testimony about the book's provenance. But that remark about "the depersonalizing effect of the printed word" will seem odd to anyone who has read A Woman in Berlin.
In many ways, of course, the book is an account of brutality. (War is a force that turns people into things, as Simone Weil once put it; and killing them is just one of the ways.) But the anonymous author also created a record of what is involved in resisting depersonalization. At times, she is able to see the occupiers, too, as human beings. You cannot put the book down without wondering about the rest of her life.