Don’t Overreact to UT Shooting

Mentally unstable person with assault rifle does not call for militarizing campus


A disturbed man took an assault rifle onto the University of Texas at Austin campus and shot himself Tuesday, law enforcement officials say. Early reports from witnesses say the UT student carried a Kalashnikov and wore a dark suit with a ski mask. He fired a few shots outdoors, and then moved inside a library where he killed himself in front of terrified students. This was a tragic day for Austin.

The shooting takes place after another high-profile shooting at the State Capitol. Fausto Cardenas is charged with making a terroristic threat for firing a pistol into the air in front of the building’s main entrance. I certainly hope the university does not follow the state government’s example following that shooting. More guns and metal detectors are not the answer.

Of course, UT parents were worried about their children Tuesday morning. As an adjunct lecturer, I was preparing to go to campus to teach a journalism class when I heard the news that “an active gunman” was on campus. I was worried about one of my students who works in the Perry-Castaneda Library where the alleged shooter took his life. I exchanged e-mails with colleagues who were under lock down with their students. I was grateful not to be there.

Unfortunately, many people will try to parley these fears to further personal agendas. There will be demands for better security on campus. The military-industrial-law enforcement complex will demand millions of dollars to put in more elaborate  security systems. Law enforcement agencies will want more military-grade firepower.

We know this because that is what happened after the Capital shooting. Our beautiful Capital is now marred by metal detectors and surrounded with state troopers carrying M-4 assault rifles. All because a man popped off a few rounds outside the building one day, hurting no one and not even hitting the Capitol.

Cooler, less financially-vested, heads must prevail at UT. We need to recognize that the systems already in place worked marvelously well. No one but the alleged gunman was hurt. Electronic messages warned students and faculty, who locked down the campus and kept students safe. Within 15 minutes after the shooting started, I heard an Austin police officer on a scanner say that the bloody crime scene on the library’s 6th floor was secure. Police then took the next three hours to make sure there were no other suspects and no other dangers to campus. The system worked.

I could argue that spending millions of dollars and turning our public spaces into fortifications is a waste of money. After all, how often have these things happened in the past? I could argue that these precautions are futile as long as guns are readily available and mental health care is not. But the real reason I feel the need to speak out so soon after the shooting is how I felt standing in my front yard this morning as these vents unfolded.

I live just north of the UT campus. I can hear the warning sirens from my living room. When the police helicopter circled overhead, I could see the sniper hanging out the open door, his rifle at the ready. And these sights took me back to Baghdad, where I worked as a reporter across the river from the Green Zone.

The sirens they use at UT are the same that they use when the Green Zone comes under attack. From my office in Baghdad on the other side of the Euphrates, I would watch as the Special Forces helicopters launched with gunmen standing on the skids to hunt down the mortar teams. What I saw and heard this morning was all too familiar. Central Austin for a few hours resembled Baghdad.

I learned in Iraq that no matter how high you built a wall, and no matter how advanced your weaponry, those things do not stop attacks like these. All you do is make the place where you live uglier and more dangerous because the attackers escalate to match the defenses. I have learned that strong communities that ensure health and justice for all citizens live in greater peace than those that do not, no matter how many security systems you purchase. Adding security is nothing more than running on ice.

The lesson from the UT shooting should not be that we need more barriers in our community. We need a stronger community that makes sure people don’t need a weapon to feel secure, and mental health care that is easier to obtain than a gun.