Then death intervened.
On Friday, at a faculty meeting, Amy Bishop murdered three of her colleagues in the Biology Department of the University of Alabama/Huntsville and badly wounded three others.
I learned about this homicidal violence the way one does these days: first a crawl at the bottom of a newscast, which noted her Harvard training as a neuroscientist. Apparently, the fact that a Ph.D. from a prestigious university would fatally ransack a human body with bullets can still shock us. Then TV elevated the murders to "Breaking News" and a "Developing Story" with law enforcement officers giving their sober press conferences.
Then The New York Times began to run its fact-filled stories.
I have stared at the pictures of Dr. Bishop after her arrest: a woman in a pink sweater, a heavy face, dark hair cut in a page boy with bangs, looking fierce and distraught in one photo, blank in another. The pictures tell me nothing except that her appearance would be familiar on a campus. Murders, of course, are far less familiar on an American campus than frumpiness. Both sweetly and despairingly, we want campuses to be islands of civility and learning in a sea of disputations, blows, and ignorance.
However, I am rarely surprised by violence on a campus. The academic ideal of being an island of civility permits quirkiness to flourish---among all the disciplines. Unfortunately, more than quirkiness abounds. Every day I see wonderful, wonderful people at work, but I have also noted a rudeness that self-righteousness justifies; indifference to the well-being of others; and the moral equivalent of manslaughter through reviews, tenure and promotion letters, memoranda, and gossip.
Within departments and dormitories, little villages within the large city of a big university, people know each other well, unless they dwell with an oblivion to others that borders on and flows into neurosis. People know who is on edge, who is cruel, who is merely a curmudgeon. People know about the stresses of the tenure process, and who seems to be handling it well or not. The "shock" that gets expressed on campuses where violence occurs should not be over the fact of murder itself. It should be over our inability to tell who will merely "speak violence" and who will bring a weapon to a faculty meeting. I believe that our tolerance does permit vicious feelings to spill out with comparatively little harm. Words are less harmless than sticks and stones. So folklore tells us. But our tolerance, like our devotion to academic criticism and research, does atrophy our capacity to tell who might actually murder or critically wound us.
When I was making notes about snow and the city, I observed feet. Who was wearing sneakers, who boots? Whose pants were protected from slush, whose were wet and dragging in puddles of ice and water? The task, without lapsing into paranoia, is to ask whose feet might be carrying death towards us.