How our universities teach violence

January 30, 2014

Tithi Bhattacharya is an associate professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. In response to the recent shooting on her campus, she examines the way violence is taught on campus, in ways that aren't even questioned. This article is the first in a new series called "Life in the time of austerity."

LAST WEEK, a student came into a laboratory in the Electrical Engineering Department at my university, while class was in session, and shot a fellow student dead. Both the victim and the shooter were seniors--about to go out and start their lives in the world.

It was hard for many of us to find peace that night. I cannot begin to think of what it must have been like for the parents of both young men. As we gathered up the threads of our work lives in the week that followed, we received a long message from our university president about this tragedy.

It was his concluding remarks that caught my attention. He said that having reviewed crime statistics on campus, for him, "one fact stood out clearly"--that our campus was "an extraordinarily safe place" and "despite being among the nation's largest universities, data show[ed] that [it was] among the safest, including within the Big Ten."

If I found the shooting profoundly disturbing, this assessment of it I found utterly unacceptable. What the highest administrative authority in the university was in effect telling us was that this act was an aberration, something that just happened, and could not be explained by the general laws of history. And yet this was the fourth incidence of gun violence on campus since 1991.

Campus police respond to a shooting at Purdue
Campus police respond to a shooting at Purdue

Also, the Purdue shooting came in the wake of a series of school shootings in January: last week, two students were shot at a Philadelphia charter school, another took place at Widener University in Philadelphia, and another in New Mexico on January 15.

My 5-year-old now knows what a "lockdown" is, as her elementary school, perhaps understandably, cannot take risks after Sandy Hook. Indeed, my child's school had to actually go on "lockdown" three weeks ago when someone issued a phone threat.

I have two questions for my university president: Are all these incidents aberrations? Is this culture of violence to be explained only by the existence of tragically unstable individuals whose actions have only personal, and no social roots?

LET ME take you on a tour of my campus and show you where I think the university breeds the bacilli of violence that have the power to infect everyday life on campus. It is on such sites we ought to seek the roots of violent actions that haunt life in this country, rather than solely in individual psychosis.

My university is not just home to a football team with flagging fortunes--it is also a leader in the research and development of drone technology. A look at the Indiana Access to Public Records Act reveals a 2006 agreement between the university and the company Lite Machines, in which the university and its Birck Nanotechnology Center agreed to develop antennas for mini-drones at the request of the U.S. Navy.

Remember that the recent shooting was between two students in the Electrical Engineering Department? Well, according to reports:

Lite Machines is listed on the website of Purdue Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an engineering professional organization, as a sponsor of the group's involvement in an aerial robotics competition. Other sponsors of the group's aerial robotics program include military contractors Northrup Grumman, Rockwell Collins and Lockheed Martin.

Guess which professor was one of the many faculty members involved in this "aerial robotics competition"? The very one whose two teaching assistants were the shooter and the victim in the recent tragedy. In one of his old semester reports available online, this faculty member says his specific involvement in the aerial robotics competition was to develop a project whose:

primary function is to provide autonomous reconnaissance within an unexplored room. It is going to be land-based, wheel-driven vehicle, which will use an array of range finders and proximity sensors to autonomously navigate and map out a room while avoiding obstacles.

This particular project, the online report states, was developed for "military and/or law enforcement applications."

I am reminded of Michael Moore's incisive documentary on gun violence in which he pointed out that the largest employer in Littleton, Colo., the hometown of Columbine High School, where the tragic 1999 shootings took place, was Lockheed Martin.

Let me be very clear as I process this terrifying data about my own campus: I do not hold this or any faculty member or their specific academic work in any way responsible for the tragedy of last week. No one knows the motive of the shooter.

But I do hold accountable the multibillion-dollar private weapons manufacturers, such as Lite Machines and Lockheed Martin, for profiting from using my campus as their research lab. I hold such companies and the U.S. war machine responsible for creating a culture where scientific knowledge developed in centers of academic learning can be so easily be turned into weapons of death and destruction.

Such a culture seeks to normalize war, to turn it into a series of buttons, simulating but never approaching the reality of destruction. War, however, is too real and too excessive a phenomenon to be thus normalized and tamed. And its shadow is bound to fall on the everyday life of campuses such as mine and Columbine.

I CANNOT end my tour of campus without taking you past the Veteran Affairs (VA) office and the Veterans Success Center, tucked away in one of the Engineering buildings. The passage of the 2009 post-9/11 GI Bill, which helps military veterans pay for college, has helped bring rising numbers of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq into our classrooms.

You can always tell a returning veteran from other students. She/he sits scrupulously straight in class, obeys all your instructions to a T, and always begins their sentences with a curt "ma'am." If you look carefully, you can also detect that haunted look in their eyes, but it's perhaps best not to imagine what those eyes may have witnessed.

Last semester, I had one such returning vet in my class. He had served three tours in the U.S. Army--twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. He was a white, working-class boy from southern Indiana who signed up for the military at age 18 when his father lost his factory job. That boy was now 30 and back at school after being a machine-gunner for 12 years.

I didn't know any of this until he walked into class really late one day. When I pulled him aside after class and reminded him of the rules, he told me, "I am still learning the protocols of how to be student, ma'am, just like I learned the protocols of how to be a machine gunner." He could not sleep at night, "because my dreams take me back to places and things that no human should ever have to see."

He received only two counseling sessions a month from the VA, and sometimes, he was afraid whether he would ever see his 5-year-old daughter.

In 2009, the then-governor of Indiana, now my current university president, passed a law for Purple Heart recipients to receive free tuition at all Indiana state colleges and universities. My student, let's call him John, was one such recipient. He received his Purple Heart after his third stint in Afghanistan, when a bomb exploded, pushing him under a giant concrete slab, crushing half his body and collapsing most of his vital organs.

In many countries of this world, tuition is free in colleges because those societies regard education to be a fundamental right. Here, it is a privilege, to be acquired, in my student's case, through serving time in the war machine.

There are now nearly 2,000 such returning veterans on my campus. Many of them do not receive the services they need. In 1993, one of them, a janitor, in yet another campus shooting, fatally shot his immediate boss. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was fired from his job. According to court records, "after becoming extremely frustrated concerning disability benefits, he loaded a pistol with three rounds, walked into [his supervisor's] office and fired three shots, two of which struck" his supervisor, killing her.

LAST WEEK'S tragedy again reminded me that a university is not an isolated island of learning, immune to the ongoing militarization of the outside world. All news reports also point to the unavoidable relationship between the rise of neoliberal policies in this country with their attack on social services and emphasis on military spending, and the rise of this deadly phenomenon of mass shootings.

A recent report in Mother Jones magazine shows how the 1980s marked the beginning of this violence, and such events escalated throughout the 1990s as the U.S. fought numerous wars in the Persian Gulf, Eastern Europe and South Asia. Finally, the post-September 11 rhetoric from the U.S. political elite of intense suspicion, racism and jingoism abroad had its own tragedies at home. As Danny Katch reminded us in

Consider that 2012, the year that saw mass shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and Connecticut, also saw a celebration of "the greatest manhunt in history," as the posters for Katherine Bigelow's movie Zero Dark Thirty described the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

But the university is not an uncontested space for the neoliberal economist and arms manufacturer to do as they please. It is still a place where students, staff and faculty from all sorts of backgrounds work and find each other. And like Bertolt Brecht, who detected the flaw in capitalism's war machine, I must continue to place my hopes on the real people who drive the tanks, who unwittingly help design drones.

People like my student John, who had seen so much carnage inflicted, both on his own body and on others. And yet the last time I saw him, I asked him if he is able to concentrate enough to be able to read books.

"Yes, ma'am" he said, "I'm reading Muhammad Ali's biography."

"So you like Ali?" I asked.

"Oh yes, ma'am," said John, "I love that he was the strongest man in America, and yet refused to fight in a war."

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