Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Alabama Shootings

On Friday, a faculty meeting at the biology department at the University of Alabama ended in gunfire.  When it was all over, three faculty members were dead and two more plus a staff assistant were wounded.  Another professor was under arrest.  Although no official theory of motive has been issued, the alleged shooter was embroiled in a particularly messy battle of the denial of her tenure.

We all carry with us an inherent understanding of where danger lurks and where it doesn't, and of which jobs are inherently dangerous and which are not.  If you are a police officer, for example, you have probably considered the possibility that you will be shot at in the course of your work.  Convenience store clerks and even toll takers consider security.  No one thinks of "professor of biology" as a dangerous profession, and most university faculty members I know consider the greatest risk at a faculty meeting to be dying of boredom.  This just isn't supposed to happen.

It is unfortunate but true that, when something like this does happen, we also have expectations for how the story will unfold.  The shooter, in our minds. is a white, middle-aged male with job issues.  He is either dead, having killed himself after the shootings, or seriously wounded either by himself or the police.  Coworkers and friends are interviewed and they  either tell us that the suspect seemed perfectly normal or that he was quirky and kept to himself, but they never imagined something like this could happen.  Further digging will turn up some kind of troubled past that could explain this behavior -- problems with mental illness, for example, or a childhood of abuse.  The suspect, if alive, pleads insanity but probably isn't found to be insane because it will turn out that he planned this for a while, showing that he was somewhat in touch with reality.  That's how these stories go.

This particular story, however, violates these expectations, plus some other ones, in some pretty significant ways.  The first issue is that the alleged shooter is female.  This is fairly unusual statistically and certainly violates our mental image.  She did have job problems, she is white and she is middle aged, but the fact that she is a woman is sufficiently surprising that early bulletins about the shooting did not say, "a suspect is in custody," as you would expect, but rather, "a female suspect is in custody."  The second issue is that not only is she alive but she is not injured.  As you would expect, coworkers and friends are saying they had no inkling that this could happen.  They say she was odd, but aren't all brilliant scientists?

When we dig into her past, things get weird.  It turns out that the suspect shot and killed her brother in 1986 in an incident that was ruled an accident even though local police said it happened during an argument.  She was also questioned briefly when she was in graduate school about a mail bomb that was sent to another biologist.  She was cleared.  It speaks to the power of our expectations that, despite this past, at least one news organization ran the headline, "Alabama Professor Showed No Hint of Violence."

This brings us to another belief we generally hold, which is that, at least in some lines of work (and professor of biology is one of them), the bad guys have been weeded out.  We know that someone could "snap" without warning.  We know that someone could be seriously disturbed.  But I doubt that any of us think that it is even remotely possible that the quirky person in the next cubicle has already killed someone and not been jailed.  This is not one of the questions you ask people at the water cooler, because it never crosses our mind that it is even a possibility.

Whenever something traumatic happens, it messes with our understanding of how the world works.  That much is a given.  This incident certainly does that for the victims and witnesses, who will have a hard time trusting colleagues again.  But it also, to a lesser extent, does it for the rest of us.  All of us know someone who is a little odd and we don't think much of it.  If they were a danger, we think, they'd have already been put away.  Now we're all looking at that person and wondering if that's true.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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