Don't Capitulate to Tragedy

How Northern Illinois University can move on


The University of Texas Tower is one of the glories of Austin. The 71-year-old limestone skyscraper rises 307 feet above the tree-shaded campus, dominates the city skyline and, on special occasions like a national championship, is lit up in the school's signature orange. Turn on the PBS show Austin City Limits sometime, and you'll see it glowing behind the musicians.

But the building's history is not all happy. In 1966, Charles Whitman carried several guns up to the observation deck and began firing at passersby on the ground. By the time police shot him to death, he had killed or wounded dozens of people and assured that he and the tower would forever be linked.

Yet the university and the city refused to let that be the final chapter. Not only did the tower stay, but the public was allowed back in, though it was closed in 1975 after a rash of people jumping to their deaths. In 1999, after the installation of a shield to prevent suicides, the administration once again opened the doors. Four decades later, the association with Whitman is inescapable. But that is only a small part of what the tower means.

There are lessons there for any institution that goes through a similar tragedy: Be strong. Hold to your own purposes. Understand that this will pass. Don't let a psychopath govern you from the grave.

But none of these was offered by the governor of Illinois or the administration of Northern Illinois University in the aftermath of the Valentine's Day slaughter in a lecture hall on the DeKalb campus. In what must come as a shock not only to the people of the state but the rest of the country, they propose to bulldoze the building and replace it with a new one, at a cost of $40 million.

If the facility were an ancient firetrap, this might be the right moment to do the inevitable. But Cole Hall is a perfectly functional building that, having been built in 1968, is younger than your average tenured professor.

Until now, as The Chicago Tribune reported last week, no one thought it needed replacement: "Instead, a $20 million request to renovate the Stevens Building, which houses the anthropology department and theater program, has consistently been at the top of the university's capital requests."

Officials, however, insist it would be unthinkable to use a building scarred by terror. NIU President John Peters said he "made the decision that we had to raze that, we had to demolish that building and replace it with something fitting, something fitting our needs and as a memorial." NIU board chairwoman Cherilyn Murer agreed, "Instincts told you that we cannot have students in this building."

But a lot of people in the state have instincts that say something very different: You don't squander $40 million to erase a memory that can't be erased. Lots of places have witnessed nightmarish events. But we normally don't punish the building. We mourn, we remember, we use the site to help us understand and overcome what happened, and we press on.

That's what happened at the University of Texas. It's what happened at Virginia Tech, where a mass shooting took place last year. It's what happened at Columbine High School.

Ford's Theater in Washington remains an operating playhouse even though Abraham Lincoln was shot there. The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, where Gov. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935, still serves as the seat of state government.

No one would have seriously suggested levelling those buildings just because something awful happened in them. They are part of history, and history is often dark and savage. To wipe out a place merely because of a grim event is not an act of healing but an act of capitulation.

Returning to Cole Hall after the massacre promises to be painful for students at NIU. But pain is a part of life that college students, like everyone, must learn to endure, preferably with courage and resolve. Restoring the building to the noble use for which it was meant—higher education—would help in that process.

Most important, it would allow NIU students to show what they are made of. As President John Kennedy said, some things are worth doing not because they are easy, but because they are hard.


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  1. You mean I could have had a building destroyed just by shooting people instead of all the blowing-it-up work I had to do?

  2. Yeah, the dude killed people, so let’s blow $40 million for his sake too. Great fucking idea. The shitheads who do these shootings are just getting more and more return on their fucked up investment, aren’t they?

  3. What Episiarh said. This country needs a lot less “touchy feely” sensitivity, and a lot more “Fuck You Asshole” attitude.

  4. Most important, it would allow NIU students to show what they are made of. As President John Kennedy said, some things are worth doing not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

    “God, how can you say that? These are children. They are so fragile. They need psychotherapy. We must erase these memories or they will be damaged forever. We know best. We are acting for their parents. (Who, by the way, didn’t do nearly as good a job raising them as we would have.)

    “If we expose them to hard lessons, who knows where it will end? That’s where students get the insane idea they want to carry guns. They start to think they’re responsible for defending themselves. We need a gun-free campus where they are protected by our heavily armed SWAT teams. (Unless they’re being naughty, in which case the SWAT team can-Nevermind, I wasn’t supposed to mention that.)

    “They might even get the idea they are capable of thinking for themselves. That would be counterproductive to our mission as an institution of higher education.”

    Or, I could be wrong. Maybe these aren’t typical intellectuals. What do you want to bet the new building will be much more “security friendly?”

  5. There’s a couple ways I was contemplating going with this comment. I went with this one:

    Do any of you people know who Charles

    Whitman was?

    No response.

    None of you
    dumbasses knows?

    COWBOY raises his hand.


    Private Cowboy?

    Sir, he was that guy who shot
    all those people
    from that tower in Austin, Texas, sir!

    That’s affirmative. Charles Whitman killed
    people from a twenty-eight-storey
    observation tower at the
    University of Texas
    from distances up to four hundred yards.

    HARTMAN looks around.

    Anybody know who Lee
    Harvey Oswald was?

    Almost everybody raises his hand.

    Private Snowball?

    Sir, he shot
    Kennedy, sir!

    That’s right, and do you know how
    far away
    he was?

    Sir, it was pretty far!
    From that book
    suppository building, sir!

    The recruits laugh at
    “suppository. ”

    All right, knock it off! Two
    hundred and fifty
    feet! He was two hundred and fifty feet away

    and shooting at a moving target. Oswald got
    off three rounds with an
    old Italian bolt action
    rifle in only six seconds and scored two
    including a head shot! Do any of you people

    know where
    these individuals learned to

    JOKER raises his hand.

    Private Joker?

    Sir, in the Marines,

    In the Marines! Outstanding! Those

    individuals showed what one motivated
    marine and his rifle can do!
    And before you
    ladies leave my island, you will be able to
    the same thing!

  6. Warren, were you about to call me an asshole?

  7. $40 million to erase a memory

    Erase? They might as well name the building “The Steven Kazmierczak Memorial Palace of Fear.”

    Nothing wipes out a bad memory like building a monument to it. What a bunch of retards.

  8. I bet the shooter would have LOVED to know that he was making the college demolish the whole building.

  9. You can only hope that some wiser alumni bitch-smack some sense into the university president.

    I guess resolve isn’t a personal attribute any more. But people shouldn’t have to deal with anything that makes them uncomfortable – this is America!!

  10. Am I mistaken or didn’t VT lock up and stop using that building?

  11. About a decade ago, wasn’t there pressure to close a fast food joint that’d been the site of a multi-shooting? And why aren’t people calling this sentiment what it is: superstition?

  12. About a decade ago, wasn’t there pressure to close a fast food joint that’d been the site of a multi-shooting?

    The McDonalds in San Ysidro, CA. It’s been gone over 20 years. The ‘new’ one is two blocks from that one.

    Superstition you say? Why only primitive people believe in that!

  13. I hate to be cynical (no I don’t), but I wonder how much this decision turns on every administrator’s desire to oversee the construction of shiny new facilities.

    I mean, come one, a reason thread without rabid fear of bureaucracy? (I’m glad I was able to help.)

  14. The school is now reconsidering the decision to raze the building.

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