Northern Illinois University (NIU) is a peaceful university located in Dekalb, Illinois, about 65 miles west of Chicago. It has a beautiful campus and the town and university live in a beneficial co-existence.
It is the last place you’d ever expect the kind of tragedy that unfolded on Thursday to happen.
Stephen Phillip Kazmierczak, the gunman who killed five students and himself and injured 20 more at Northern Illinois University on Thursday still had guns and ammunition available when he turned the gun on himself. Campus police responded to the shooting within minutes, but could only call for ambulances; Kazmierczak was already dead upon their arrival.
And according to the Detroit Free Press, Kazmierczak, 27, was the last person on earth you’d suspect as being capable of this:
Both papers were written under the guidance of Jim Thomas, a professor emeritus at NIU who became acquainted with Kazmierczak during a sociology course.
“He stood out because he was hardworking,” Thomas said. “He was bright. He would come up and talk about ideas behind what I’d taught.”
“I have had him in my home. I knew him as a warm, sensitive, very bright student,” Professor Kristen Myers said in an e-mail.
But now the attempt at a forensic dissection of this man’s personality begins.
The Chicago Sun-Times, in an article published today, says Kazmierczak was dumped by his live-in girlfriend at the end of last year and the gunman was acting ‘somewhat erratic’:
“He said all of a sudden she decided she wanted somebody else,” his godfather, Richard Grafer, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday. “She told him it was enough. She’d had it. She walked out on him.”
Still, Grafer said, Kazmierczak didn’t seem all that upset about the breakup when they spoke last month. In fact, Kazmierczak, who had transferred from NIU to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he had a new girlfriend — at NIU.
So, the obvious inference the police and the reporters want us to draw is that by going off of your psychiatric medication — in this case, antidepressants — you could be more prone to “erratic behavior” and then, of course, murder.
Which makes no logical sense, since millions of people have gone off and on psychiatric medications, including antidepressants, without ever having a murderous thought in their head.
Could such a change in this person’s medications been a contributing factor to his recent “erratic behavior?” Absolutely. But going off of one’s medications doesn’t cause someone to kill others.
Of course, Kazmierczak’s life was a little more complex than what most people knew about him on the surface.
Kazmierczak enlisted in the Army in September 2001 but was discharged in February 2002 for an ”unspecified” reason, said Army spokesman Paul Boyce.
He had talked about spending time in group homes, said Grady, who called him “one individual that obviously had some problems.”
Well, obviously — in hindsight. Not so obvious on Monday, when he was just another student who had no issues or run-ins with anyone or the law.
And that’s the key — we’re pretty good at suggesting and seeing “obvious” connections after-the-fact (look at all the hand-wringing done after the 9/11 tragedy). We are, however, pretty across-the-board terrible at predicting such tragedies before they occur. In fact, our track record of predicting when someone is going to decide to try and end a few fellow students’ lives is pretty much nil. We can’t do it today. We might be able to do it 10 or 20 or 50 years from now, but not today.
I believe one of a university campus’s short-term reactions might be to completely rethink campus security. Every campus offers a wildly diverse set of different kinds of teaching facilities, from large lecture halls and laboratories, to small classrooms and lounge areas. So it seems that it would be virtually impossible to reasonably secure such facilities to prevent such a tragedy in the future. Metal detectors would surely have caught his cache of weapons masquerading in a guitar case, but a campus would need to buy dozens, if not hundreds, of the machines (and subsequent staffing) in order to secure each building. Perhaps the use of a lot more undercover (armed) security staffers would help. I don’t know. The things we value in our universities and colleges, from freedom of movement and speech to the open campus and open buildings, would seem to be at risk if we seek to lock them down like an airport or prison.
As usual, there are no clear or ready answers to this tragedy, and few reasonable solutions to prevent it from occurring again in the future.
We mourn for the NIU campus this week, and our sincere condolences go out to the families of students who were killed in this tragedy.