The urgent need at Virginia Tech

Instant communication in a crisis breeds expectation of fast response. That doesn't always happen.

In a flash, e-mails, cellphones, and websites communicated Monday's tragic shootings at Virginia Tech to the world. This era of instant communication creates an expectation of instant response to a crisis. But the two don't always match up.

Urgency is surely needed in a situation such as that which unfolded at the Blacksburg, Va., campus – the largest mass shooting in US history, with more than 30 people dead. Those in positions of leadership, as well as law enforcement, medical staff, and the religious community must act quickly, but also wisely.

In many respects, wisdom and speed have come together at Virginia Tech. The university's president, Charles Steger, lost no time initiating the healing and community-building process that's so necessary after a traumatic event. Already on Monday he made counselors available to help people deal with grief and shock, and on Tuesday he brought the Virginia Tech family together in a convocation.

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When the 911 call went out about the first shooting at the university dorm, police arrived within minutes. The dorm was locked down. Interviews and investigation were begun.

After the second shooting two hours later, when the student gunman mowed down his fellow students and faculty in a classroom building and killed himself, medical personnel in the area were also thinking on their feet. They considered the fastest – and safest – way to get victims care. It was too windy for helicopters. They chose ground transport, a slower but surer way.

Students and professors also acted with urgency and clarity. Resident advisers knocked on doors and told students to stay in their rooms. Professors instructed students to take cover. Students barricaded doors, saving themselves in at least one classroom. The student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, regularly updated its website – proving to be a valuable resource for the campus as well as the national media.

In an electronic blizzard, students text messaged, instant messaged, and used popular websites such as Facebook to send the basic safety dispatch to friends and family, "I'm OK," or to send warnings not to go out.

The electronic world has also captured intense debate, frustration, and sadness over university alerts that could not keep up with or anticipate events. Despite the passage of two hours between the pair of shootings, classes were not canceled, and law enforcement was not able to head off the second, far more deadly episode.

Here is where another kind of urgency is needed. On campus and off, people must be patient – now. Not all the facts are in. It's easy to second-guess law enforcement and tempting to place blame, especially when the gunman is dead and so many people have been killed.

Those in Blacksburg and elsewhere, however, can still take prompt action. They can:

• Examine their own circle of compassion and make sure they don't leave out loners or outcasts who may feel society has failed them (this is a common characteristic of mass-shooting perpetrators).

• Continue to pray for the recovery of the wounded, victims' families, and everyone in Blacksburg. And why stop there? Every neighborhood, town, and country can benefit from the prayer and individual living that puts peace over violence, love over hate, and forgiveness over retribution. •

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