Too Many, Too Often: Putting Fort Hood in perspective
Recently, while reading the authorized history of the British intelligence agency, MI5, I came across a quote from Winston Churchill: “The further backwards you look, the further forward you can see.”
That of course is the goal of this column, to look at past incidents to help those in emergency planning prepare better for future ones.
But sometimes it’s easier said than done. So often, we ignore what the past can teach us.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I suspect some Americans, having heard about the massacre at Ford Hood, wish they lived in a more peaceful country, such as their northern neighbor and my home country, Canada.
It probably seems like a reasonable wish based on what most Americans know about my country, but there isn’t much basis for it.
Infamous shootings in Canada
On May 28, 1975, a student entered the boy’s washroom at Brampton Centennial School (Brampton is just west of Toronto) where he killed another student, then shot and killed an English teacher and, after that, shot and wounded 16 more students. Finally, he killed himself.
Less than five months later, Oct. 27, 1975, a student in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, raped and killed a 17-year-old female before heading to St. Pius X High School, where he opened fire on his classmates, killing one and wounding five others.
On May 7, 1984, a Canadian Forces corporal stationed at the federal government’s underground command post in Carp, Ontario, drove to Quebec City, where, as he stated in a tape left with a radio station, he planned to destroy the provincial government.
Armed with two submachine guns, he entered the Quebec legislature, where he shot and killed thee government employees and wounded 14 others. He had planned to kill government leaders including the premier of Quebec, Rene Lévesque, but he mistimed Lévesque’s arrival. No elected officials were killed.
On December 6, 1989, a man entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal and shot 28 people before killing himself. Fourteen of his victims, all women, died. The other 14, 10 women and four men, survived.
All those shootings took place years before the one at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, when two students killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 21 other students. They also booby-trapped fire doors in the hopes students fleeing would be blown up as they fled and planted a device in a car parked in the parking lot that emergency responders used as a staging area.
And the one in Columbine was followed, a week later, by another Canadian incident, this one in Taber, Alberta, where a student shot and killed a student at his school and injured another.
On Sept. 13, 2006, there was also a shooting at Dawson College in Montreal. This time one victim died and 16 others were injured, many of them critically, but the rest survived.
And others elsewhere
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to claim that Canada leads the world in massacres.
England has had Hungerford, the town where a 27-year old man shot and killed 16 people, including his mother, on Aug. 19, 1982, and then killed himself.
Scotland has had Dunblaine, where a man went on a shooting spree in an elementary school on March 13, 1966, killing 16 children and their teacher.
Australia has had a number of incidents. The worst was at the former prison colony of Port Arthur in Tasmania on April 28, 1966, when a 28-year-old man shot and killed 35 people and wounded 21 others.
A generation ago, the United States had the Texas Tower incident (14 dead, 32 wounded) on Aug. 1, 1966, and much more recently the worst killing spree of all, at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, when a lone gunman killed 32 students and wounded many others.
And I’m sure there are others I haven’t listed here.
It would be nice to report, and upsetting to the U.S. gun lobby, that all these killers were using illegal weapons, but that was not the case. The Dunblaine shooter had six licensed weapons. The killer at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique had a legal semi-automatic. The man who shot up the Quebec legislative building was a serving member of the Canadian Forces with access to weapons.
The shooter in Australia was also using legal weapons. In fact, at that time it was common for people to shoot rodents from their homes. The sounds of gunshots in the rural area near Port Arthur would not have been alarming.
A veiled threat on campus
So what’s the answer? I don’t know.
It seems that at times persons who otherwise appear normal, or at the least do not appear like maniacal killers, suddenly go berserk. Sometimes evidence shows up later that they were bent on killing. That was certainly true after the shootings in Dawson College, and the killer at Virginia Tech had a history of problems though university officials were unaware of that because of privacy laws.
Obviously, we can’t lock up every disturbed person who we think just might go off the rails. And it’s hard to determine whether the threat is real.
Some years ago, a student at my university sent a note to a colleague of mine which stated simply, “Remember Rabbi Adler.”
Rabbi Morris Adler had died a month after being shot during a bar mitzvah in February 1966, by a member of his own congregation in suburban Detroit. The incident had been written up in Atlantic Monthly and was well known to students in my program.
Since the colleague who received that note was Jewish, I called the university psychiatrist, told her what had happened and the name of the student, and asked if I should be worried. She said that we had to take the threat seriously. She told me to move my colleague’s family immediately and call the police.
Fortunately, we acted in time and nothing happened.
The problem, in short, can arise anywhere, and, unlike what happened in that case, there will not always be a warning. Often, too, the shooters kill themselves, so we can never ask them what drove them.
But what I really want to emphasize is that such incidents are not simply a U.S. phenomenon.
I know that’s small comfort, but in this case I thought I should remind Americans that incidents of this kind can and do happen anywhere. Obviously, they require the disturbed persons to have access to weapons, but unfortunately even in Canada this is not always that difficult.
It would be nice if we could examine what happened at Ford Hood and ensure that it will never happen again, but we felt the same way after the previous shootings in both Canada and the United States. So far, we have never found the answers.