What happened yesterday at Virginia Tech surely represents one of the most brutal, cruel, and tragic events ever to occur on a college campus. There are no words that can comfort the victims’ families. There are no actions that can make this situation right.
There are, however, some observations that come out of it, especially for those of us interested in the world of online communications and what it means for the state of connectedness in our society.
Electronic Communications Step Up in a Crisis
CNN repeatedly rolled cell phone video footage of part of the attack. Citizen “journalists” shared still photos of the scene online and with media outlets. Students commiserated and communicated via existing social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Parents got information by SMS, email, and IM from their children.
Clearly, electronic communications among the students and with the outside world changed how this tragedy was covered and will be perceived. But more important, it made it easier for students to communicate their status to their loved ones, and it provided additional outlets for students to communicate with each other.
The Blame Game
Some allege that Virginia Tech administrators failed to deploy electronic communications fast enough. Apparently the first email to students went out 90 to 120 minutes after the first shooting. The fog of crisis won’t likely lift for several days so facts remain sketchy.
What troubles me, however, is the constant need to affix blame after a tragedy like this. I see great value in taking lessons from these events and trying to apply them. But it seems that there are always those who believe that every tragedy can be avoided. That’s simply not the case.
One talking head on TV yesterday claimed that with instant cell phone notifications the tragedy would have been largely averted. She went so far as to suggest that Virginia Tech was irresponsible for not having such technology in place.
Regrettably, tragedies happen. It is impossible for any institution — public or private, large or small — to plan for every contingency. Clearly, emergency plans should be considered. Crisis communications plans must be prepared. But we must all accept that there will be events beyond our comprehension that will occur.
To blame the Virginia Tech administrators — at least based on the information available at this moment — is itself irresponsible and certainly unfair. This tragedy dwarfs any other similar event in our nation’s history. To say that that university should have been prepared for a shooting of that magnitude strains credulity; in the past 40 years, there have been less than a handful of similar outbreaks on college campuses.
Moreover, to argue that any campus shooting demands a complete university lockdown makes no sense. Media reports suggest nearly 30,000 students, faculty, and other employees live and work on campus. A “lockdown” of such magnitude would be exceedingly difficult to execute — at 30,000 people that’s larger than most towns in New Hampshire. Technology makes such communication easier, but executing on the details is much harder.
Inevitably, colleges and universities will be pressured to implement all sorts of new plans and security measures in the wake of this tragedy. We would all be wise to remember that we cannot plan for or prevent every possible crisis. Those that are clearly foreseeable — a plane crash for an airline, an oil spill for an energy company, a power outage for a utility, a food poisoning outbreak for a restaurant — should be actively planned for.
But we must all accept that sometimes the blame relies strictly with the perpetrator.