Monday, February 15, 2010

Thoughts on the Alabama Shooting

Every time I hear about a shooting on a college campus, I wince. This one was especially surprising, given that the (alleged) shooter was a professor and a woman.

It seems that Amy Bishop, a professor in the biology department at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, opened fire at a department meeting, killing several colleagues and wounding several more. She has been taken into custody, and she will face murder charges.

Although it's hard to know immediate causes, Prof. Bishop had recently been denied tenure, and this was to be her final semester at Alabama.

First, obviously, my condolences to everybody at Alabama, and everybody with family and friends there. At some level, I think we all know that there but for the grace of God...

Second, though, I'm cringing as I imagine the ways this case will get used in other arguments.

Second-day coverage revealed that Bishop had previously shot and killed her brother in Massachusetts in the 1980's. The case was officially classified as an accident, though the paper trail is murky. For my money, any explanation of the Alabama incident needs to mention the Massachusetts one. Instead of using Bishop as somehow typical of a tenure case gone bad, let's keep in mind that this is a woman who shot a close family member in the chest. There's nothing typical about her.

Regular readers know that I consider the tenure system unethical, and that I've specifically taken it to task for the "up or out" moment of decision. That position isn't terribly popular in higher ed, but there it is.

But to use this case to argue against the tenure system strikes me as way out of bounds. This isn't about a typical, predictable consequence of the tenure system. It's about someone who has killed before, killing again.

To make this case about the tenure system, we'd have to imagine that shootings like these don't happen in other employment settings. But they do. They happen in corporations, schools, and all manner of public and private places. I don't begin to understand all the reasons they happen, but they do. My kids have had 'lockdown drills' at their school, so they'll know what to do if a deranged person gets in. The fact that we think to put five year olds through lockdown drills says a lot about our culture, most of it harrowing, but I'm glad they do the drills. When I was a kid, I never heard the word 'lockdown.' Then again, I never heard words like "Columbine" or "Virginia Tech," either.

The horror of this case, besides the obvious human loss, is the sheer randomness of it. Although the facts are still streaming in, it doesn't look like any reasonable measures could have prevented it. Bishop wasn't trespassing; she was still an employee there. Short of patdowns of every person every time they come on campus, she wouldn't have been stopped. Since she was never charged in the 1980's shooting, it's unlikely that even strict gun control laws would have prevented her from getting a weapon if she wanted one, or that even a rigorous pre-employment background check would have prevented her hire. On paper, as far as I know at this point, there weren't any red flags. Given how quickly the shooting apparently unfolded, even a heavy and heavily armed campus security force (or heavily armed colleagues) couldn't have stopped her in time.

From what is known now, this case doesn't provide another example for some ideological battle. It's not about gun control, or campus security, or tenure, or any of that. It's about someone who came unhinged and committed a horrible crime, and about the losses of several innocent people.

I know the internet has its own habits of mind, but for anyone out there thinking of using this case as "yet another example of...," please don't. Let's not use a deranged shooter to make points. The crime is awful enough as it is.