To the People

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Safety on Campus: Why a Reactionary Military Model is All Wrong

MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs thinks he's figured out how to deal with violent episodes on college campuses, like the massacre at Virginia Tech last week.
Events such as this are unpredictable and unlikely, but that doesn’t mean that institutions don’t have to plan for them. In the military, we spend a great deal of time on planning, and for two good reasons: we can’t predict the future, and good planning is the essence of success in crises. It should come as no surprise that the Department of Defense has plans to conduct all kinds of military operations against a wide variety of real, imagined and potential foes. Defend against an incursion by Russia into Western Europe? We have a plan for that. Invade Iran after it attacks Turkey? We have a plan for that, too.
Though Jacobs makes a few good points about the unforgivable inaction of the university after the first homicides on campus last week, Jacobs, a military hero, is wrong about pretty much everything else in his piece -- and for a host of reasons.

First, Jacobs isn't proposing any measures that would prevent future shooting sprees. Instead, he suggests measures to help minimize the messy aftermath of such events. (Appropriately, Jacobs uses a life-insurance metaphor to illustrate his point.) What good is a plan to lock down a campus during a shooting? None, unless you see a positive in trapping unarmed students inside a campus building alongside a gun-wielding madman.

Second, just because the military has a whole bunch of plans in place and "spend[s] a great deal of time on planning" doesn't mean all that planning does a whole hell of a lot of good. The military may or may not have had a plan in advance of 9/11 -- and I'm suggesting the existence of a contingency along the lines of what Jacobs notes above, not a conspiracy -- to prevent just such attacks. If it did have one, the plan failed. Instead, it was the people on the ground (and in the air, as was the case aboard United 93) who saved lives with spontaneous cooperation rooted in courage, ability, intuition, fear, and patriotism. (As the closing credits of the United 93 docu-drama note, military commanders were authorized to shoot down unresponsive aircraft on 9/11 but chose not to share that information with subordinates in the skies. So much for planning.) Our military may also have had a plan to invade Afghanistan before they actually did, but that mission, spurred as it was by the 9/11 attacks, has gone decidedly better than the U.S. military's well-planned slog in Iraq.

Third, Jacobs ignores a major factor that makes murder on domestic military bases so rare as to be the stuff of movies (albeit true-to-life ones): everyone's armed. If Jacobs wants to make state college students safer, as I no doubt believe he does, he should suggest that Virginia support its students' right to bear arms on campus.

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