The disaster in Huntsville

La Querida and I set out Friday afternoon for Huntsville, to see a performance by the touring American Shakespeare Center players. They were staging Beaumont’s comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). It’s not every day that you get to see a Jacobean comedy in Alabama that wasn’t written by The Bard™.

The unusual snowstorm had passed and the roads were clear. As we headed north on I-65, the radio reported a shooting in Huntsville, on the university campus. Two people were dead and four injured, and the “shooter” — a word that seems to have sprung from the lingo of video games — was in custody. The 4 p.m. shooting was the lead national news story for the next 24 hours.

I used my phone to check the UAH website for more info, and to see whether the play had been cancelled. The home page redirected to a terse announcement that a shooting had occurred, the shooter was in custody, no students had been harmed, and everyone on campus was encouraged to go home. All classes were canceled, a “Command Center” had been set up, and counselors were on duty at the University Center.

As browsers throughout the English-speaking world sought out the UAH website, the servers seemed ill-prepared to handle the load. As La Querida drove, I browsed for news about the incident and periodically checked back with UAH. The play was at 7:30 p.m. in the University Center. No word of a cancellation. We decided to keep going.


Why should they cancel the play? It isn’t as if the audience would be in danger. I remember saying this aloud as we drove.

Have gun murders really become so commonplace? Doesn’t the death of three people — one of them in the trauma ward at Huntsville Hospital — demand a pause to mourn at the place where it happened?

A pause, yes. But not a lockdown, I thought.

We approached the campus on Sparkman Drive. The Shelby Center, the scene of the crime, was brightly lit and surrounded by the blue and red flashers of emergency vehicles. Neither of us had been to UAH before, and our emailed directions from someone on campus were chatty but vague, susceptible to more than one interpretation. After one set of wrong turns, we tentatively returned to the main campus entrance, in front of the Shelby Center.

Police cruisers were parked at angles around the campus entrance, and an energetic city cop intercepted our car with almost frantic hand gestures. Another man chaperoned a news camera on a tripod, taking in the campus entrance, the flashing lights, the building.

We stated our business. We asked for directions.

We were invited to turn around and leave. No one was allowed to enter the campus this way.

So we turned around and took the next street onto campus. I got out of the car to consult a large illuminated map, and we found the University Center, a long, low, white concrete building. Students and older adults were walking in, and dozens of people milled about inside.

The news about the play was scrawled on a whiteboard easel: “Tonight’s play, ‘The Knight,’ has been cancelled.”

A volunteer for the Huntsville Literary Association, which had sponsored the play, sat at a folding table and answered questions from would-be playgoers. No, it won’t be rescheduled. The company has to return to Virginia. The campus is closed, and it will remain closed — all next week.

You know, she confided, there was a fatal shooting at a middle school in metro Huntsville just last Friday. A 14-year-old shot another 14-year-old. Her words demanded expressions of sympathy and horror, and we provided them. But all I really felt was numb.

Students stood in knots in front of TV screens. We joined them to glean more news.

9mm pistols come in styles to suit any taste and budget.

Yet another mass shooting

Of course it was shocking to hear that six people had been shot on the campus we had come to visit. But it was shocking in a commonplace way, like a car crash that happens in front of your eyes. There is no longer anything rare or extraordinary about a mass shooting in the United States. Like car crashes, they happen all the time, and may involve almost anyone.

I’m not pretending that mass shootings are daily occurrences, as car accidents are. Only that they’ve crossed the threshold from extraordinary to ordinary.

As if to drive home that point, Friday’s shooting in Huntsville coincided with the funeral of the child who had been shot to death by a schoolmate at Discovery Middle School. The district attorney is also prosecuting a Huntsville college student who shot and wounded three students during a car chase through the Alabama A&M campus in late January — all because “someone stepped on someone’s foot” at a nightclub. [Decatur Daily report]

Just another day in America.

My youngest sister’s alma mater, Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, endured a mass shooting in 1999, after she had graduated. The shooter was a church-going Boy Scout who smuggled a rifle and handgun onto the school grounds. He wounded six students.

The Fort Hood massacre last November, which took 14 lives, occurred in a town that had seen carnage before. In 1991 a man with a pair of handguns drove through the front of a Killeen, Texas restaurant and opened fire, killing 23 people and wounding 20 more before shooting himself to death.

The state of Texas, convinced that the gunman might have been stopped if one of his victims had fired back, passed a law to make it easier for a citizen to legally carry a concealed weapon. A nationwide movement followed. Today 38 states, including Alabama, issue “concealed carry” permits to almost anyone who asks for one.

So with the help of mass murderers, the firearms industry (through its industry lobby, the NRA) has achieved its goal of making handguns an ordinary consumer good. Although designed primarily to shoot human beings, handguns are easy to buy (or have someone buy for you, if you’re a felon), easy to sell, and more lightly regulated than, say, automobile tires, or chicken carcasses.

No wonder, then, that Dr. Amy Bishop had a 9mm handgun in her handbag to help her express her rage. For a crucial moment, her colleagues at UAH were bad guys and she was the avenging heroine. She pulled the trigger and her enemies fell.

Justice, American style. Now Amy Bishop is famous.

The shooter

It will be up to the courts to determine Amy Bishop’s state of mind and how it affects her culpability. Colleagues who were at the meeting have said Bishop sat quietly for several minutes before pulling out the gun.

On Friday night she looked and sounded like a madwoman. Huntsville TV filmed her being led from the police station after questioning. Bishop shook her lowered head and muttered, “It didn’t happen, didn’t happen.” The short head-shakes continued as she sat in the back seat of a police car. “What about the people who died?” a reporter called out. “There’s no way,” she muttered. “They’re still alive.”

On Saturday we read that Amy Bishop had killed her brother with a shotgun in 1986, when she was 19 and her brother was 18. She escaped punishment when her mother supported Bishop’s claim that the shooting was an accident. The chief of police ordered her release. Now there are second thoughts about how that case was handled. [NYT report]

Amy Bishop is a Harvard-educated neuroscientist with a reputation as a biotech star. Bishop and her husband, who collaborates in her research, reportedly accepted jobs at UAH for the sake of gaining tenure — the status marker that indicates a successful academic career.

As universities cut budgets, the proportion of tenured faculty has declined from 75 percent to less than 40 percent. There’s a class divide between the tenured and (often equally qualified) non-tenured faculty. The latter often commute between temporary teaching jobs at several schools to piece together a living. Science faculty must compete for diminishing research funding as well.

The Christian Science Monitor noted that academic pressures have led to tension and violence before. Last year a University of Georgia professor killed three people at a community picnic before taking his own life. An MIT professor went on hunger strike after being denied tenure. [Full report]

UAH refused to grant tenure to Bishop, and this is the best guess as to the motive for her attack. Colleagues and neighbors describe her as intense, opinionated, and confrontational. She took one neighbor to court over barking dogs. She wasn’t likely to leave her own tenure uncontested.

What kind of tribute?

Dr. Bishop’s attack has shut down the university. All classes and other activities have been canceled for a full week.

I accept that it was appropriate to cancel The Knight of the Burning Pestle on Friday. Three people had died within a quarter mile of the theatre. It was no time for comedy and high spirits.

We were told that a Friday evening music recital was moved to an off-campus hall instead of being canceled. That seems fine as well, although it might have gone ahead on campus, as originally scheduled. It all depends. “Serious” music does not automatically offend the need for commemoration of the dead. It may support it.

Because mass shootings have become ordinary, our institutions plan for them in advance. UAH administrators, well schooled by the killings at Virginia Tech and elsewhere, skillfully arranged to have counselors on call for the benefit of alarmed students.

The decision to shut down for a week was also probably made in advance. Yet I wonder how appropriate it is, especially in a case where no students have been attacked or endangered. Amy Bishop shot six fellow scientists in a room on the third floor, discarded her gun on the second floor, and submitted to police in front of the building. Aside from the discarded gun, the only danger to students occurred when armed officers burst into a lab with guns drawn.

The incident was over within minutes — one reason the campus police waited more than 40 minutes to send out an emergency alert. These campus alert systems, now commonplace at American colleges and universities, were created in response to the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. It’s one more way we have accommodated the ordinariness of gun violence.

UAH is closed for the week. Is it a tribute to the three biologists who died, and the three more who are still recovering from their wounds?

Or is it a mark of our awe and fear of gun violence? Are we giving in too easily?

Updates: Amy Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, were questioned, and exonerated, about a pipe bomb placed in the home of a fellow Harvard professor. Bishop is the mother of four children. She had successfully appealed a denial of tenure, but the university provost overruled the review board. Her husband worked at Bishop’s biotech startup, Prodigy Biotechnology, across the street from the Shelby Center. [NYT] Presumably, the loss of tenure would threaten the future prospects of Bishop’s company.

Corrected wording of Huntsville TV reporter’s question, and Bishop’s age when she shot her brother.

One thought on “The disaster in Huntsville

  1. “Shooter” may be the result of eliminating alternative words with troublesome connotations. Without a conviction “murderer”, though seemingly safe, makes an assumption about intent (“murderess”, while more descriptive, implies an interpretive distinction between male and female assailants). “Assailant” might work, but perhaps it implies that more of a fight was put up in defense. “Gunman”, the neutralized alternative to “terrorist”, “jihadist”, or “freedom fighter” when describing irregulars firing on coalition troops in the middle east, fails to be descriptive and “gunperson” would advertise that one is over-reaching for neutrality. “Suspect” falls short of expressing violent action. And my own choice, “madwoman”, should be rejected out of hand by any sensitive editor.

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