When I was in college back in the mid-1970s, Northern Illinois University was the four-year home of many friends. Not as prestigious as Champaign’s University of Illinois, NIU was always the school out there in the cornfields: far enough from Chicago that you could truly “be away” at college. Yet located just 65 miles from the city, it was close enough that you could easily drive home for the weekend.
These days, I have a few friends whose kids attend NIU, and my own high school junior is beginning to plan for his own college experience somewhere. Several months ago, as I watched the details of the Virginia Tech shootings unfold on MSNBC and CNN, I was saddened and grieved, but in an abstract way. I knew no one at Virginia Tech, like I had known no one at Columbine High School, nor at any other college or high school campus where this sort of senseless violence occurred. They were “there” not “here.”
But this time it’s different. I listened to the local radio station in my car as the college president explained what had happened on an ordinary winter day, in a freshman geology lecture. I longed to hear names, wondering if any of our local kids had been hurt or worse; anyone whose parents I know.
Then name of the first victim was announced, a young man from Elmhurst, Illinois — half and hour's drive from here. And then this morning more victims and more hometowns, some nearer, some farther. And I worried. And thought about my college senior, safely (or so I want to believe) sequestered at her ivory tower of a Boston-area private college, realizing that safety is an illusion. Because if can happen here, it can happen there.
A lone gunman enters with a rifle and two handguns and starts shooting and five young lives are ended; another 18 lives are changed forever; the psyche of an entire campus of young adults is challenged in a way their parents never though possible just the other day. And northern Illinois is shaken, understanding all too well, that it can happen here.
The college president explained to reporters that there was probably nothing that could have been done to prevent such a random act of violence. The shooter, a bright and, by all accounts, promising young man, obtained his weapons legally right here in Illinois. And I have to wonder whether the college president's words are entirely true. But perhaps that's a discussion for another day.