My View – Bad day at Blacksburg: When words fail


What can you say about a madman grabbing two pistols and killing 32 people? Nothing. Words fail.

How do you describe the terror of the students in the dorms or in the classrooms? You cant. Words fail.

What words do you use to comfort the parents of those who were killed? Or the parents of those who were injured. Or the parents who couldnt get through to their children for hours because the cell system was overloaded? None. Words fail.

Shortly after the scope of the calamity in Blacksburg became known, the cable news anchors and reporters ran out of words. Then, having turned the sound off to avoid listening to obvious conjecture and unavoidable repetition, even the pictures couldnt convey what had happened.

Blacksburg, is in southwestern Virginia; much closer to Winston-Salem, N.C., than to Washington, D.C.

Virginia Tech began as a land-grant college named Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1872 – two years after Virginia was re-admitted to the union – on the site of what had been a Methodist school.

In 1896 VAMC (it was, apparently, never popularly known as Virginia A&M) was re-named Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute – which was immediately shortened in popular usage to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or VPI. In 1944 the name was changed to its current official name: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and in usage to Virginia Tech. Its logo uses the letters VT.

This horror occurred at Virginia Tech, but it could have occurred at any major university – public or private; north or south; east or west.

Its student population of about 26,000 is the biggest among schools in Virginia but only about half the size of schools like Ohio State and the University of Texas which are each about 51,000 students at their main campuses.

Over the course of the next days and weeks people will tell us more than we want to know about the killer. That he was Korean is already known, and that fact was noted with relief by Blacks, Muslims, Jews and other ethnic groups: He wasnt one of ours.

The Blacksburg Police Chief and the Virginia Tech President held a press conference at about 4:30 in the afternoon. I thought they were marvelous, even in the face of some outrageous challenges by some reporters.

In fact, I thought the only thing the two did wrong at their press conference was not putting a stop to it when it became clear reporters had nothing else to ask, and they had nothing else to add.

They were asked why they hadnt locked down the campus after the early morning shootings in the dorm. The President patiently explained that the campus is 2,600 acres. One square mile is 640 acres so Virginia Tech is almost exactly four square miles in area.

Virginia Tech is not a gated community – like most colleges, one side of the street is the city the other side is the campus. And, he said, about half of the students – some 11,000 – live in Blacksburg not even on the campus and were, assumedly, driving in for their morning classes.

In spite of the modern requirement that reporters immediately apply blame in any situation, the realities of the Virginia Tech Horror was that the killer waited two hours between the time he shot two people in the dorm and the time he chained the doors shut in the engineering building.

The assumption was he had fled the campus. Reporters wanted to know why the President of the University and the Police Chief didnt know the killer was going to the engineering building.

Heres a good lesson: You cannot apply logic to foresee and forestall the actions of someone who is acting in an utterly illogical fashion.
The President of the University and the Chief of Police will live with this forever. Those students and professors were under their care and protection and they will – unfairly even to themselves – feel they let them down.

No words. No words can ever erase that.

Rich Galen lives in Old Town, Alexandria. He may be contacted at