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Warning Signs

When George W. Bush says of the Virginia Tech dead that "[t]hey were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time," he is not merely mistaken, but gallingly so. The murdered university students were not in the wrong place; they were just going about their business. Too often the president and his officials have trusted fate before and blamed it afterward, rather than act to protect us as we go about our business. This administration has ignored expert warnings that terrorists might fly planes into buildings, killing Americans who were just going about their business. It has ignored warnings that a hurricane might destroy New Orleans, killing Americans who were just going about their business. It has ignored warnings that toppling Saddam Hussein would not easily lead to a free and democratic Iraq, but rather the needless deaths of Americans and Iraqis in their thousands, the vast majority of whom were just going about their business. All of which is not to mention its record of taking unseriously the expert warnings that human activity is changing the earth's climate, and may yet kill billions of us who are just going about our business. It's not all Bush's fault--but because he's the principal beneficiary of exactly the tactics that might have saved the Virginia Tech dead, the president could show better grace than to offer his usual cheerful despair.

After the shootings at Columbine, the Department of Education and the Secret Service undertook a study of school violence, which issued a final report in 2002. They concluded that, while there is no effective way to profile the killers, you can profile the killings. That is to say, there's no point in trying to keep an eye on bullied kids or unpopular kids or video-game players: That's everyone, and almost all of them are harmless. There's no demographic group you can target. But you can keep an eye out for certain kinds of behavior: Kids who are going to do something dreadful give more than enough warning. Often, they tell people what they're going to do. These threats, the report found, need serious assessment if we are to keep American children safe in their schools.

Two of the report's chief authors, Robert A. Fein and Bryan Vossekuil, came to the same conclusion almost ten years ago when they analyzed a similar kind of "targeted violence"--attacks on public officials, including presidents of the United States. They looked at 74 incidents over the years 1949-1996, including 25 attacks or attempts on the president. They found, and later research affirmed, that you can't profile assassins, nor can you attribute their actions to mental illness. There is no assassin "type." But there is a type of assassination: "targeted violence is the end result of an understandable, and often discernible, process of thinking and behavior." You can look for a comprehensible pattern of action.

These are discomfiting thoughts. We'd rather believe that assassins are just bad men, or crazy men, who every so often decide to aim at the president of the United States for no good reason, than that, slightly less than once every two years, on average, someone follows an "understandable ... process" that leads them to try killing the president. We would so much rather say the man was just in the wrong place in the wrong time. "If our beloved President had met with a railroad accident coming here to our city and had been killed, we should all regret very much, we should mourn over the loss of such a just man, but our grief would not compare to the grief that we have now," one public figure explained after William McKinley's assassination. It would be much preferable to consider the man who murdered McKinley "not responsible for this crime. ... [If McKinley] met his fate by the act of an insane man, it would amount to the same as though he met it accidentally."

As comforting as such a thought might have been to the ordinary American, it wasn't good enough for the Secret Service, who, to their great credit, refused to believe that bad stuff just happens and instead, following McKinley's death, developed a science of protecting the president--a process that led to the reports on threat assessment, targeted violence, and the measures taken to protect the president today.

And, as a people, I expect we are pleased; I know I am. We should not happily trust our president's life only to a knack for avoiding the wrong place at the wrong time, and surely we want the Secret Service professionally assessing threats to his life.

So when the Secret Service says we could apply some of the same methods to the protection of our children and their teachers, it would only be appropriate, only graceful, only commonly decent for the president, who daily enjoys such guardianship of his person, to refrain from saying that sometimes, bad things happen and there's no way to make sense of them. His own protectors tell us that's not true. Not at all.

Let's be clear: Nobody expects our children to wear armored vests, nor to have professional bullet-blockers dogging their steps. But we should know now that neither postmodernism nor policy is the problem here, nor is it providence.

Nor is our national tendency to ignore well-sourced and carefully argued cases for doing something to forestall disaster only the president's fault. We are, after all, the country that had to endure the Great Depression for six years before we thought, well, there might be something to this whole idea of public unemployment insurance.

But facing the challenges we face as a people, we could stand to have a president less inclined to say that bad stuff just happens. Maybe if you're thoroughly insulated from the hazards and unpredictability that ordinary people face, maybe if in addition you wholly lack curiosity about what the average person's life is like, you can afford to believe it. But the rest of us don't live in that bubble. And too many of us in recent years have found that the president thinks we're in the wrong place at the wrong time when we're just going about our business.

By Eric Rauchway