[A]s I watched the discussion unfold online about the tragedy and learned more about the events, a few have things have become clear to me.
Immediately after the murders, a left-right split developed as conservative commentators wondered why the students were apparently so passive in the face of the killer. Liberal pundits were aghast, arguing that this wasn’t necessarily true, it was “blaming the victim,” and claiming an unwarranted level of personal courage on the part of the conservatives.
But the facts as they have come in since then do support the notion that the students did not confront the murderer. The Associated Press carried this story yesterday: “Dr. William Massello, the assistant state medical examiner based in Roanoke, said Sunday that Cho died … after firing enough shots to wound his 32 victims more than 100 times. … Those victims apparently did not fight back against Cho’s ambush. Massello said he did not recall any injuries suggesting a struggle. Many victims had defensive wounds, indicating they tried to shield themselves from Cho’s gunfire,” he said.
And the Washington Post carried a story citing students who had been in the classrooms that were attacked. “I quickly dove under a desk,” Clay Violand, a Virginia Tech junior, told the Post. “That was the desk I chose to die under.”
Violand listened as the gunman began “methodically and calmly” shooting people. “It sounded rhythmic-like. He took his time between each shot and kept up the pace, moving from person to person.” After every shot, Violand said he thought to himself, “Okay, the next one is me.” But shot after shot, and he felt nothing. He played dead.
“The room was silent except for the haunting sound of moans, some quiet crying, and someone muttering: ‘It’s OK. It’s going to be OK. They will be here soon,’ ” he recalled. “The gunman circled again and seemed to be unloading a second round into the wounded. Violand thought he heard the gunman reload three times.”
The students didn’t fail to act correctly by not attacking their attacker. The doctrine they were operating under — the one we have trained them in all their lives — failed them.
Sept. 11, 2001, was not a failure of our security systems, but rather a failure of doctrine. “Doctrine” is defined as a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions. On Sept. 10, 2001, we had a standard doctrine about response to aircraft hijackings.
The passengers and crew should be compliant, not confront the hijackers, minimize exposure to violence and get the plane onto the ground, where negotiations or intervention would resolve the issue.
Similarly, the Columbine murders did not represent a failure by local law enforcement to act; it was a failure of the doctrine they had been trained to act within. Because most hostage situations are resolved with minimal force and patience, the doctrine was to cordon and wait for negotiations or SWAT.
Both doctrines have changed. No passenger airplane will be hijacked again anytime soon except by multiple hijackers with guns — and possibly not even then. Police departments have trained their officers to “go to the active shooter” and aggressively attack — as the police apparently did in responding to the Virginia Tech shooter.
Similarly, the discussions around the responses of the students seem to imply those of us who are suggesting the students could have done other things that may have changed the outcome are blaming the students.
No, we’re not. We’re blaming the doctrine the victims were trained to operate under, and arguing that we — all of us — should rethink it and start implementing other ones, just as airline passengers and police officers have.
We need to be teaching people a new doctrine, one that neither leads them into fantasies that they are more capable than they really are, nor into believing that they are helpless and must lay down waiting to be killed while muttering “It’s OK. It’s going to be OK. They will be here soon.”
Maybe not soon enough.