Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Texas and Virginia: A Bloodied Window into Changes in American Public Life

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Texas and Virginia: A Bloodied Window into Changes in American Public Life

Article excerpt

"Texans ... hoped and prayed they never would share [their] emotion with another campus ... Now, though, there's one more institution to add to the list of places we never again can consider safe. ... No one can possibly expect the grief to subside soon; it will take a lifetime to put April 16, 2007, into perspective. ... Surely there is an extra prayer being sent from Texans who recall their grief from another dark day many years ago." (1)

The killings at Virginia Tech in April, 2007, had a deep echo at the University of Texas, where the first modern university massacre in the United States had occurred in August 1966 (first and, until 2007, largest). Recollections of the earlier killings were inevitable, prompting particularly heartfelt expressions of sympathy from Austin for those involved in the Virginia tragedy. What was additionally intriguing, however, was the sense, largely on the part of victims' families, that the Texas affair had never been properly handled emotionally; that grief still existed that had not found adequate expression. This helped prompt the deep condolences to those linked to the 2007 victims, but it also evinced a current of frustration that was surprisingly close to the surface. Forty years of separation is not too long to inhibit active connection--though as we will see, it's also plenty of time for significant change in culture and policy.

It was difficult to determine, of course, how much the sense of unrequited sorrow reflected the kinds of emotions the media were so actively trying both to encourage and convey from the killings in Blacksburg, as opposed to an ongoing lack of fulfillment that simply found a new opportunity to surface.

There was no question, however, that the two incidents, despite similarities in broad outline, had generated different symbolism. Despite some local pressure, the University of Texas long resisted pleas for a permanent memorial for victims of the 1966 shooting rampage, yielding only in 1999. In contrast, within weeks of the Virginia Tech crisis of 2007, a temporary memorial was underway, with a commitment of a three-year study to determine a suitable, and presumably rather elaborate, permanent monument. The need to memorialize innocent victims had obviously and considerably expanded. Had the need been there in 1966 as well, and if so what explains the reasons it could be ignored? Or, despite the revived laments from Austin, had need itself changed? A similar contrast applies to claims of responsibility and demands for compensation and, even more broadly, to demands for recasting university policies: tragedy, for whatever reasons, had gained far broader ramifications by the early 21st century.

Memorialization and policy pressure were only part of the comparative story. The geographic range of emotional response was also quite different, as were the demands for urgent inquiry and with this, at least in all probability, the level of fear and tolerance of risk. Changes in reaction invite assessment, offering a modest vantage point on ways elements of American society have altered emotional standards and the repercussions of misfortune, and the consequences drawn from these standards and reactions.

*****

At slightly over a four-decade interval, mass murders on two major college campuses drew national attention and dismay. Sniper fire from the tower at the University of Texas, Austin, struck down more people than had ever before been killed at any kind of American school; the more recent horror at Virginia Tech was the first time that the Texas record had been surpassed.

The two gruesome mass murders offer a distinctive opportunity to look at changes and continuities in the ways Americans react to tragedy. The laboratory is unusual, in providing enough similarities in the nature of the actual massacres to permit the identification of differences almost certainly due not to the murders themselves but to the larger contexts around them. …

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