- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

At a time like this, we’re all Virginia Tech grads. What happened in Blacksburg — the senseless tragic randomness of it — could have happened at any of the places we went to college. We can only begin to feel Tech’s pain, sure, but we have no trouble imagining it … or relating to it.

Those of us watching from safe distance should feel doubly blessed this morning — blessed that the bullets weren’t aimed at us or anyone dear to us and further blessed that the Tech massacre took place when it did. After all, had it occurred a few weeks earlier, we’d probably have to listen to Don Imus make disparaging remarks about Koreans — or maybe defend gun sales with his cowboy hat perched firmly atop his head. Now that would have added a lot to the dialogue.

So to the Rutgers women’s basketball team, I say, “Sorry you had to go through that nightmare, but thanks. You did us all a favor.”

Anyway, here’s what the rest of us can do while Virginia Tech buries its dead and deals with its grief: Try to make sure Tech doesn’t become the New Kent State. It’s a real possibility, make no mistake. Granted, the two incidents are radically different — at Kent State, National Guardsmen killed four Vietnam War protesters; at Virginia Tech, a deranged student took 32 lives and then his own — but the fallout in Blacksburg could be every bit as great. Only in recent years have the words “Kent State” not instantly evoked images of students getting shot, of an academic sanctuary being violated. Virginia Tech could suffer the same fate.

It’s not fair, of course. Tech is many things — first and foremost a fine university with a highly regarded engineering school — and shouldn’t be defined by a single there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moment. But that, alas, is how the world tends to work. It’s certainly how it worked in Kent State’s case. Heck, by the early ‘90s, the university was asking to be referred to as “Kent University,” just to blur the association. (The NFL handled the Kennedy Assassination in like fashion. When Dallas played at Cleveland that weekend, the PA announcer identified the visitors only as the “Cowboys.” No sense in reminding the crowd of the tragedy.)

Kent State is going by its maiden name again, but it took, what, 30 years? Perhaps it would have helped if the school’s athletic program weren’t so low profile. It wasn’t until the men’s basketball team went to the Elite Eight in 2002 that fans heard anything very glorious about Kent State, anything to distract attention from What Happened.

Fortunately for Virginia Tech, it’s nationally ranked in football, NCAA tournament-quality in men’s basketball and successful in other sports. That should make a difference as the university seeks to regain its equilibrium. Folks won’t just think of April 16, 2007, when they will think of Tech; they’ll also think of touchdowns, ACC victories — better times.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Even the best-case scenario predicts some difficult years ahead for the school. Common sense says there will be more students transferring out and fewer applying to get in. The horror is simply too fresh. Recruiting athletes will also be more of a challenge.

Already the backlash, if you want to call it that, is taking its toll. The following post appeared yesterday in a Virginia Tech chat room:

“I am watching CNN and going back and forth to Chris Matthews on MSNBC. To say I am totally disgusted is putting it mildly. ENOUGH!

“Those of us who have worked in law enforcement KNOW how hard it is to have someone voluntarily committed or seek mental health treatment. You must have sustainable PROBABLE CAUSE, like you do in an arrest or warrant. From what has been reported, the shooter did not violate any laws or hurt himself or anyone else [prior to the killings]. In short, in normal criminal circumstances, he could NOT be arrested. … He sadly chose not to get help.

“To place any blame on the Administration (thanks Chris Matthews, who said the administration ‘failed to do anything about it’) is totally irresponsible and ignorant reporting. How does anyone know anyone else is a ticking time bomb?”

What Virginia Tech could use from all of us right now is the benefit of the doubt. But that’s easier said than done, human nature being what it is. What took place Monday morning in Blacksburg is truly terrifying — and the feeling isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Fear slows forgetting, as Kent State knows only too well.

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