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Public Grief: History and Emotion

Public Grief: History and Emotion

A month or so before my service as provost ended we had a “shooter” exercise for our safety folks and upper administration. The idea of course is that some realistic scenarios would help us all deal with the real thing should it ever occur, and while I always disliked the simulation I can’t argue that it should be avoided.

The scenario was this: it was an early Thursday morning, and a shooter had entered one of our buildings, killed three people and injured 10 others, and then took his own life. Within about an hour and a half the police were able to begin to assure that safety was restored and the order to remain in place was lifted. But of course there was an ongoing aftermath, including public announcements, dealing with parents, trying to prevent premature flight from campus that would simply create a massive traffic jam and so on.

Frankly, a provost does not have a big role in most of this, save to join others in trying to provide best recommendations on the spot. The main provostial function was deciding what to do about classes. And this was where an interesting aspect materialized, that raises some wider tactical and analytical issues.

Obviously, we cancelled classes and events for the day in Fairfax, where the incident occurred. The decision was pretty quickly reached that we should cancel also on our two main other campuses, in Arlington and Prince William, though I was able to make it clear that we should exempt our operations in Front Royal (Smithsonian) and Korea, as they were so far removed that disruption would have been pointless.

But then the question arose about classes going forward, a clear issue in this simulated decision process. I and a few colleagues thought we should reopen the next day (Friday). Our argument was that most people would feel better if they were able to get back to normal, have some classes in which among other things the incident could be discussed and digested. Of course we assumed that there would be memorial services and other appropriate acknowledgements.

Our position was forcefully attacked by others, who accused us of insensitivity and lack of proper respect for the dead and wounded. This group wanted an interruption for at least a week, pointing to incidents elsewhere, as at Virginia Tech, that had occasioned pauses of at least this length. Finally an agreement was reached in which we would remain closed Friday, but reopen Monday. This was a sensible compromise, but it left me wondering whether we would have been able to reach a similar midpoint decision had the incident occurred, say, on Tuesday.

How long should an institution stand down when a tragedy of this sort strikes? What kind of emotional rules should prevail? I was struck among other things by the vehemence of the charges of insensitivity, reflecting an assumption that there was some clear grief standard that should prevail over any other reaction.

I emerged with no clear response. My own impulse, reflecting personal values that obviously not everyone shares, is to restore function fairly quickly, with other ceremonies called upon to express grief and pain. Increasingly, however, the culture seems to be moving toward a need for more elaborate expressions, including more prolonged suspensions of normalcy – and of course, ultimately, decisions rest on cultural standards. It’s clear enough that individual reactions vary (I was not alone in my position, though outvoted), so probably it’s a question of whose voice best corresponds with prevailing public values.

These values have unquestionably changed, which is what makes this kind of situation so interesting analytically. In 1966, when an assailant killed 16 people at the University of Texas, emotional responses were quite different. Of course those immediately involved were severely affected emotionally, and expressions of sympathy poured in more widely. But the University closed for only one day; efforts to raise money for the wounded or to create some memorial for the slain did not fare well. Great attention applied to restoring normalcy as quickly as possible, including reopening the tower from which the gunman had operated – as one commentator put it, “battlefields are not roped off because many men died there.” (Imagine saying something like that after an incident today!)

This historical evolution stated, the question remains why our public standards have changed so much. Compensation for the pervasive lack of tolerance for prolonged expressions of private grief, so that we use public incidents to express wider emotion? Sheer emotional reaction to the increasing number of tragic incidents? A response to the growing effort by media to elicit ratings-worthy outpourings?   (My guess is a bit of all three.) None of these options tells us that the new public culture is wrong, or how functionalists like myself should respond. But the pattern certainly warrants attention – it’s one of the more interesting emotional changes in recent American life, and one of the more interesting challenges to administrators faced with real-life or simulated decisions.

And is a fourth factor involved? Is our growing penchant for public grief also an emotional replacement for the anger we would otherwise feel at the lack of policy response to repeated shootings? (Note that in 1966 Austin, while there was much less grief, there was immediate policy change in the arming of campus police.) As a society, we clearly have problems with anger and we unquestionably have problems with gun violence, so the notion of emotional compensation is not farfetched. Is this a tradeoff that warrants attention?