A disconnect seems to be developing between the state's response to the shootings at Virginia Tech and the response of some of the victims' families.
The state's response is measured, weighty with procedure — and seemingly self-protective. Witness a recent observation by Gerald Massengill, chairman of the panel formed by Gov. Tim Kaine to investigate the shootings. Massengill said he doesn't think university officials or police could have done anything differently that morning — an interval that includes the first shootings in a dorm and the massacre two hours later in a classroom building — that absolutely would have saved lives.
That is preposterous. There are no absolutes, and hindsight is 20/20, but two decisions that might have saved lives come immediately to mind: One, to order a stay-put-and-lock-the-door order after the first incident. Two, not to spend so much time pursuing the wrong suspect. That isn't to blame the people who made the decisions, only to acknowledge that different decisions might have produced a different outcome.
Massengill's words — and the university's insistence that "it did everything it possibly could" that day — hint that there will be no mea culpa on the state's part, at least when it comes to the response once the shooting began. We'll have to wait for the panel's final report to see how well it sorts out responsibility for decisions made before that day.
Here, too, different choices might have made April 16 an ordinary day on campus. On the university's part, to respond more effectively to a student many people knew was seriously troubled. And on the state's part, to fund and organize local mental health services to intervene once he was declared mentally ill.
An impartial critique, a clear accounting of responsibility, official acknowledgment of any failures by agencies of the state, seems to be what the families are crying out for.
It looks as though the panel will focus on what can be improved to prevent a recurrence. That's essential, but we must forgive families if the issue that consumes them isn't how another child or husband or wife can be protected, but why theirs died.
Also understandable is some families' insistence on compensation. Money can't fill the hole left by a death. But it can help with the bills it leaves, and can bring comfort in the form of acknowledgment-by-checkbook of responsibility for their loss.
The compensation already proposed will come from donors who contributed $7 million to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund: $150,000 each would go to families of those killed, with smaller amounts to those wounded.
But some families seem to want compensation from the state, and in much larger amounts. That demand may not be just about money, but about a yearning to make the state pay for what happened to a person they entrusted to its care.
A lawyer who says he represents 22 families has talked of at least $2 million each, a figure pulled — inappropriately — from the average payout from a fund set up by Congress for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The idea is that the additional compensation would come from a fund set up by the state, with taxpayers making up any shortfall if donors don't send in enough. The implied threat that accompanies that talk — that a lawsuit could be forthcoming if that compensation isn't — may be another manifestation of some families' anger over the state's actions that day, and frustration with its handling of the matter since then.
What Virginia really owes the victims and their families is an honest and complete accounting of why they were victims. Of whose decisions and indecision, actions and inaction — the shooter's, the university's, the mental health system's — contributed to the terrible denouement of a situation that could have turned out differently. The question of whether it legally owes them money may be one for the courts, but the question of whether it owes them the truth, and apologies, is one any human heart can answer.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
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