It was two years ago today that a troubled young man (and an alumnus of NIU) named Steven Kazmierczak walked into a lecture hall on the campus of Northern Illinois University and opened fire on those gathered there, killing five students and wounding sixteen others, before turning the gun on himself and taking his own life. Before I go on, let's pause for a moment to remember those whose lives were cut short untimely on that sad, cold day:
By most accounts, two years is about the length of time most people will need to work through an uncomplicated grief reaction fully. I think most folks at NIU have done that, but there are still rough edges (and those may never go away). It will also be interesting to see how NIU reacts to the horrible news from the University of Alabama in Huntsville on Friday. NIU's president has already been in touch with the president at UAH. I have no doubt that he promised, and we will soon begin delivering, more concrete support--just as hundreds of wonderful people from Virginia Tech did for us.
As our anniversary date rolls around again, I've noticed conversations around campus are turning toward the tragedy more frequently of late. It's interesting, the things that people remember--and the things that trigger those memories. One of my colleagues remarked the other day that the sound of helicopters flying overhead has made her uneasy ever since that day, when between news organizations, air ambulances, and police operations, there must have been at least half a dozen helos in the air above campus at any given time. One of my triggers is the sight of news trucks--for a good month (or maybe it only seemed that long), there were a dozen or more of them parked in a line somewhere on campus.
I was reminded of that trigger a couple of weeks ago, when one of my rougher edges also came to the fore. Not long after the shootings, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich came to campus to announce that the state would provide $40 million to tear down Cole Hall (the site of the shootings) and replace it with a new, improved lecture facility. That never happened, but the state did commit to provide some money for renovating half of Cole, and for repurposing the part where the shootings took place. Just before the Illinois primary election, now Gov. Pat Quinn also came to campus, to announce that he was releasing that part of the state construction funds allocated to the Cole repairs. I was out running an errand that morning and, as I often do, had to walk past Cole Hall and the memorial garden. Coming up toward the campus commons, I spotted a couple of news trucks parked in the visitors' lot, presumably for the governor's press conference--and I winced. I know they have a job to do, and I know that, sadly, their customers expect them to do rude things like shove microphones into the faces of people who would like nothing better than to be left alone. I have some experience in journalism myself--but it's hard to get rid of my feelings of rancor toward the profession, after seeing (and personally experiencing) their intrusive presence so frequently in the days and weeks after the shootings.
As I said the day after it happened:
It was said in many places yesterday, including the local bar where I met up with one of my fellow history graduate students for a few pints of Guinness, that if anyplace on earth should be safe, it should be a college classroom. But, as President Peters noted yesterday and again this morning, short of putting armed guards on every door to every building at every public institution across the country, there is no way to guarantee that kind of safety. To borrow a phrase from the second-season opener of The West Wing, yesterday's events, like those of last year at Virginia Tech, or the brutal murder of one student by another at my alma mater some years ago, were the work of madmen--or at the very least of individuals who were not fully compos mentis but who were determined to carry out their plans. We can't protect ourselves from that kind of individual or those kinds of plans--and we're only fooling ourselves if we believe otherwise... If we live our lives in fear of what may happen, can we really be said to be living at all?
I know it's a pipe dream to hope (much less think or expect) that I or anyone else in the NIU family is ever likely to get back to that sense of "It can't happen here" that we enjoyed in our blissful ignorance until two years ago. But I want to! I want that placid, peaceful campus back. I want to inhabit a world where the sound of sirens or the sight of news vans doesn't make me cringe. I want to go back to the me that could respond compassionately to news of campus shootings like the one at UAH on Friday, but without the deep visceral ache that came along with the realization that it was now my duty to help welcome another reluctant member into the club that nobody wants to join.
But I can't. I have to do those things, because that's the only way we ever get close to anything resembling sanity. And it's the only way that I want to live my life. I will not, in the words of NIU President John G. Peters, allow a single act of violence to define me, or keep me from being who I am and doing what I do.
I'll be going to campus this afternoon for the memorials and the candlelight vigil because, while the campus and I have moved "forward, together forward," in the words from the NIU fight song that form the title of this post and which have become an unofficial campus motto in the aftermath of our collective tragedy, it is important to remember as well, and even more so to reflect. And so I will close with a repeat (with minor adaptations) of the prayer I posted here two years ago:
Gentle God of all compassion, we call to You:
Welcome into the Blessed Presence the souls of those who died untimely two years ago this day, and who are named above.
Bind up the wounds--physical, mental, and spiritual--of those affected by this tragedy, those mourning their losses, and those who responded so bravely and without regard to their own personal safety. Do likewise for all those affected by the tragic shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville this past Friday.
Do You be gentle as well with the soul of Stephen Kazmierczak, who turned his own violence against himself after unleashing it upon others and forever changing our previously quiet and complacent community.
Bring us back, O God, to that campus. It can never be the same again: let us instead make it better than it was. Let not our own darkness conquer us and tempt us to retaliate with vengeance or with hatred; rather, do You bind up all our scattered leaves again into one book, one campus, one community, stronger and more dedicated to the ideals it was founded to promote. Help us to cast out our fears and to live love for neighbor and enemy alike, to renounce hatred and any desire for revenge. Teach us to embrace one another in our sufferings, and to wipe the tears from each other's eyes, lest we allow this one single act of violent madness to define us forevermore.
Loving Healer of our every ill, I give thanks to You and to the thousands of people, known and unknown, who have reached out to this community and its members in this, our time of trouble, and offered condolences, support, prayers, money, food, and whatever else was needed. For we were hungry, and they fed us. We were thirsty, and they gave us to drink. We felt naked and lost and alone, and they clothed us and cared for us and showed us to places of safety. We were sick and they ministered to us, grieving, and they consoled us. Let it be credited to them, O Just Judge, as righteousness. And help us now to do the same for our grieving brothers and sisters in Alabama.
Grant to all of us Your peace, that peace which passes all understanding, a peace that the world cannot give. Plant that peace deep within our hearts, and let it find there fertile soil, so that it wells up within us and spills out from us as a balm upon this troubled world.
And let the people say, "Amen."
(Adapted, with changes, from this diary at Daily Kos.)