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Universities could learn from the military

Inaction between first, second shootings at Virginia Tech inexcusable

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Jack Jacobs
Military analyst

Investigations into the massacre at Virginia Tech will ultimately paint a fairly complete picture of what happened, but one thing is clear: it will be difficult for officials to justify their inaction in the hours between the first two murders and Cho’s rampage in the classrooms.

So far, in responding to repeated questions about why nothing was done, campus officials said that the first murders appeared to be an isolated incident, and so no further security action seemed warranted. Are murders at Virginia Tech so common that they generate nothing more than blasé indifference? By contrast, at most other institutions, a murder on the premises would have triggered a complete, pre-planned lockdown. And even on an Army post, bristling with small arms and automatic weapons, where the sound of gunfire is almost constant, a murder in a barracks would result in strict, pre-planned security measures.

At Virginia Tech, the likely explanation for inaction is ineptitude, and it is all the more disturbing because these officials are charged with the responsibility of caring for our children.

Events such as this are unpredictable and unlikely, but that doesn’t mean that institutions don’t have to plan for them. In the military, we spend a great deal of time on planning, and for two good reasons: we can’t predict the future, and good planning is the essence of success in crises. It should come as no surprise that the Department of Defense has plans to conduct all kinds of military operations against a wide variety of real, imagined and potential foes. Defend against an incursion by Russia into Western Europe? We have a plan for that. Invade Iran after it attacks Turkey? We have a plan for that, too.

And these plans must be updated, verified and certified annually. Although few of our plans address events that are likely to happen, the worst of all possible worlds is to be unprepared if something catastrophic occurs.

In everyday life, we plan for rare events all the time. Most people have life insurance, even though the chances of growing old are very high. Indeed, in paying a life insurance premium, you are placing a bet, at very long odds, that you will die young. But your early death, however unlikely, would be a catastrophe for your unprotected family.

Furthermore, it’s not as if the campus has been bereft of highly publicized turmoil and danger. The disgraceful nonchalance with which Virginia Tech treated the first two murders is all the more difficult to excuse in light of the recent events in which an escaped convict attempted to hide at the university. It appears that Tech officials learned nothing from that experience.

Anyone can operate effectively when the situation is routine. But officials with responsibility must always demonstrate that they are prepared to act decisively and responsibly in difficult situations. That is why a failure to plan for the unlikely is so irresponsible. Even the most jaded and cynical among us would agree that a murder on campus is a circumstance that calls for immediate action. And few people would find defensible an official paralysis in time of crisis.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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