Thursday, September 30, 2010

Shooting at the University of Texas

Law enforcement officers position themselves on the University of Texas campus in Austin.

The University of Texas bore witness to a disturbing shooting on September 28, 2010. Colten Tooley wreaked havoc on the campus early Tuesday morning by running down 21st Street with an AK-47, firing a few shots into the air before ducking into the Perry-CastaƱeda Library. Once in the library, he headed for the sixth floor, where he opened fire again, panicking those in the room and causing them to flee. The SWAT team arrived and cornered Tooley, who then shot himself.

About 9:30am, I was driving to my job on campus when I heard the announcement over the radio warning listeners that the University of Texas was on lockdown and all citizens were advised to stay away. A shooting had taken place inside a University building, and police were searching for a possible second shooter. Driving into the campus was like arriving at a ghost town, instead of a normally swarming tiny neighborhood of 50,000 students. The sun shone brightly but no was out. Emails, Tweets, Texts and a booming, campus-wide loudspeaker announcement warned students to stay inside, lock the doors. School was closed.

The University of Texas and the Police Departments involved should be commended for their quick response time and well-conveyed urgency. Twitter and texts as a means to notify the students? Well done. They proved they are up-to-date on communication technology and willing to employ all means necessary to prevent catastrophe.

Many parts of this story are tragic and upsetting. Eyewitness accounts from students on 21st Street say that they saw Tooley running down the street in a dark suit and a ski mask, once stopping to wave at people frozen in shock. He fired anywhere from 6-10 shots into the air. The taxi cab driver who drove down 21st Street honking and shouting at students to run deserves to be commended. Tooley made his way toward the PCL entrance where he crossed with Lawrence Peart, an international relations junior.

“So I start advancing toward the entrance and a man — pretty tall in a black business suit, ski mask and an AK-47 — runs in front of me, so I froze,” Peart said. “He was running down the 21st Street along that brick wall that’s beside the PCL and he glances over at me. He looked at me in the eyes then waved his arm as if to say, ‘Don’t come in here. Go away.’”

Did Tooley have intent to harm, or was this a macabre, grandiose suicide, a plea for attention in the final hour of his life? Reports say that Tooley had few friends and a family unwilling to comment. School papers reveal he was interested in gun control policy and identified as socially disconnected.

The unfortunate response has been a mixture of repugnant "good riddance" and relief for lack of casualties. While these reactions are understandable, the heart of the matter is that a young, very disturbed boy cried out in only the last hour of life. His family lost a son. Tooley may have suffered from depression, at the very least, isolation. How should we, as a society, address the plight of the young person today? Why are shootings in high schools and colleges prevalent in our country - how does this correlate with wealth, access to resources, exposure to violence? How did a nineteen year old gain access to an illegal automatic weapon? And, in the wake of tragedy, how can move away from fear and prevention techniques to the heart of the matter - why are so many Americans taking out rage and sadness in such malevolent ways?

Crime scene barrier tape is seen on the University of Texas campus near the scene where a gunman opened fire then killed himself inside the Perry-CastaƱeda Library, on the sixth floor.

Photos from Austin American Statesmen and The Daily Texan.

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