Campus shootings have plagued American life for the better part of twenty years. One of the earliest in that span, on November 1, 1991, occurred at the University of Iowa. Gang Lu, an embittered graduate student in physics, shot and killed five people and seriously wounded another, paralyzing her, before killing himself. The victims were Linhua Shan, his perceived academic rival, physics professors Christoph Goertz, Dwight Nicholson and Robert Alan Smith, and administrator T. Anne Cleary, all murdered, and Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, a student employee, who was shot in the neck, causing permanent paralysis from the neck down. Gang Lu shot the first four victims in Van Allen Hall, which housed the physics department, before proceeding to Jessup Hall, an administration building, where he shot Cleary and Sioson. Jo Ann Beard’s excellent essay “The Fourth State of Matter” deftly relates telling details behind these disastrous events.
As the shooter made his way from Van Allen to Jessup, I was in my teaching assistant office in Shaeffer Hall, near Jessup Hall in the area known as the Pentacrest. It was a Friday afternoon, suddenly wintry but otherwise quiet. Out of the blue, I received a call from the department office down the hall, telling me and anyone else in the room to close the door, turn off the lights and get on the floor. There were only two or three of us there, and we immediately did as instructed. Though I don’t now recall how long we waited, eventually we got the news about the shootings in Van Allen and Jessup.
Being on the Pentacrest while the Iowa City shootings were going down made me realize that violent crime can happen anywhere. Over the years, the list of campus shootings has lengthened, with fresh horror every time – at Virginia Tech, the University of Central Arkansas and elsewhere. Courts, churches and parks have not been immune, either; clearly sanctuary gets harder and harder to find in a society in which so many guns are so widely available.
Yet the violation of sanctuary is not an exclusively American story. In the Taize community in France, an ecumenical religious group committed to contemplation and reconciliation, 90-year-old Brother Roger, the community’s revered founder, was stabbed to death during evening prayer in 2005 by a disturbed Brazilian woman. Centuries after Henry II arranged for Thomas Becket’s “murder in the cathedral.” the story of Cain and Abel continues to echo across history. Even in the gospels, the pacific pageantry of the star, the shepherds and the angels quickly gives way to a headlong flight into Egyptian exile, one step ahead of Herod’s murderous thugs.