Balancing liberty and safety

I really didn’t want to write about the tragedy in Virginia this week, but every time I sat down at the computer a multitude of mixed messages came to mind. The first and most compelling is that, just as with Columbine and 9/11, the shooting at Virginia Tech displayed our common humanity. Some 8,000 students, faculty and family members crowded into the university’s coliseum, prompting one student to say, “It looked like game day.” Another 10,000 gathered outside the packed hall to share their grief and determination to keep going. The students set the tone for a nation stunned by the senseless slaughter. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine was clearly moved by the students’ response. “How proud we were even in the midst of this sad day to see how well you represented yourselves and this university,” he said.

I’ve written many critical comments about President George W. Bush in this column, but let me now say for the record that he rose to the occasion at the memorial service. In the role described by The Washington Post as “Consoler in Chief,” the president demonstrated that family is one thing he does understand. “As a dad, I can assure you a parent’s love is never far from a child’s heart.” he said. “People who have never met you are praying for you.”

America was once again united by tragedy. The news channels moved into full-time coverage; the networks even sent their anchors to Virginia for their Monday-night broadcasts. But the most powerful community developed on the Internet, where MySpace photos were replaced with expressions of sympathy and blogs became international group-therapy sessions. The Web played a role in saving the lives of some students, putting parents and children in touch and helping answer frantic questions about who lived and who did not.

Even politicians tried to subdue politics for a few days as flags flew at half-mast all over Washington. “… It has cast a pall over everything we are doing,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But this is Washington, after all, and political responses are heating up as the week progresses. There are plenty of questions to be raised. Gun control is a principal one, although even here the messages are mixed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sounded a note of caution, advising against a “rush to judgment” on stricter gun control. With only a few exceptions, Democrats seemed willing to follow his lead. There are sound political reasons for that. Nearly half of all voters come from a household that owns at least one gun. Many newly elected Democrats come from Western and Southern states where hunting remains popular. Although there are over 20 pieces of gun control legislation pending in the House and Senate, it is not likely this Democratic-controlled Congress is going to pass any of them soon. The political costs are just too high.

What is more likely to become the focus of political attention is the two-hour gap between the first two killings and the mass executions. Last summer this same campus was rapidly secured after an escaped convict was reported in the area. Yet, on Monday, officials decided to pursue a red herring lead rather than lock down every building. Gov. Kaine is forming a task force to investigate the university’s response. Hopefully, new procedures will be established at Virginia Tech and at other schools as a result.

The most important question is, How did it ever get this far? As with other such mass murders, there were plenty of signs of trouble. Cho Seung-Hui was so obviously distressed that he literally scared students away from classes. His violent and profane writings worried several of his professors. Samples were sent to the campus police, counseling services, college officials and other law enforcement agencies. Yet no significant action was taken. There is a clear message for America here. Whether it is fear of lawsuits, of charges of harassment or, dare I say, of being charged with racism — our institutions must be more aware and more proactive when such danger signs appear. Yes, it is easy to buy guns in Virginia. But it is not legal to bring them on campus. The disturbed young man who did so might have been stopped had someone taken action. We must be respectful of individual rights and protect our freedoms, but we must also be able to protect the lives of the innocent. That is a subject worthy of discussion in Richmond, Washington, D.C., and throughout our nation.



Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com