Some Thoughts on the Attack at Ohio State

Praying for Ohio State.jpg

As some of you may know, my day job is in campus ministry at The Ohio State University. Ever since the Virginia Tech shootings, I’ve been signed up for text alerts in the event something like that were ever to happen. Monday morning I received the alert I hoped I never would see:

Buckeye Alert! Emergency on Columbus Campus: More info soon. Shelter in place/be observant/take action as needed. Public Safety responding.

This was followed by:

Buckeye Alert: Active Shooter on campus. Run Hide Fight. Watts Hall. 19th and College.

As always, there is a haze of conflicting reports as these situations unfold. Early reports were that it was a shooter, and perhaps multiple suspects. Some reports had a suspect fleeing to a nearby parking garage which was surrounded by SWAT and other law enforcement.

At the time, my response was two-fold: pray, and alert students and faculty I know on campus if they hadn’t seen the text alert. Over the next hour, as Facebook set up a safety check-in, I learned that a number of those involved in our ministry were safe. We began to see pictures on the news and in social media of barricaded rooms as students sheltered in place.

Here is what we know as I write: the suspect, a permanent legal resident in the U.S., driving a car registered to a 20 year old Somali man, was shot dead after disregarding officer commands by an OSU police officer on the scene within a minute. The suspect was an 18 year old Somali student who had borrowed the car. Eleven people were wounded, either being struck by the suspect’s car or by a butcher knife wielded by the suspect. It appears he did not use a gun. The wounded were taken to three area hospitals. One was initially reported as critical but all are now stable and expected to recover from their wounds. Around 11 am the shelter in place instruction was lifted but classes have been cancelled at the Columbus campus for the remainder of the day Monday. Much of the north campus classroom area is an active crime scene investigation.

First of all, I have to commend Ohio State. One of their officers was on the scene within a minute and his quick action prevented further attacks. Communication of the threat was almost instantaneous. Also, staff and students are trained how to respond if such events occur and those measures were implemented. The only injuries were those at the scene.

I’ve been impressed by how the university and the religious community have rallied to provide students and staff with opportunities to seek spiritual solace and express care for the victims. President Drake set the right tone when he said, “Days such as these test our spirit as Buckeyes – but together we remain unified in the face of adversity.”

At the same time, I am deeply concerned about how media and social media will play the Somali nationality of the suspect and the means of attack. The suspect was a legal resident of the United States, probably coming here in childhood. It could well be that this is a terror-influenced act (but I would stress it is too early to know), but what concerns me more is the effect this has upon internationals who are already fearful given anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. and to peaceful Muslim students, some U.S. citizens, with whom there are opportunities for hospitality and witness. Right now there are a record number of internationals studying in the U.S. including at Ohio State. I think we have a unique opportunity to welcome these students, and forge ties of friendship and understanding that could be life-changing.

Campuses are uniquely open places. The world of scholarship and inquiry knows no borders. The chance to study abroad, to learn about another culture up close is vital in our global village and students today will be country leaders tomorrow. But such openness makes them vulnerable, although it was apparent that OSU’s training and communication for staff and students served to protect all those not in the immediate way of the suspect. I’m deeply concerned that our fears for safety will lead to actions that thwart the openness that allows for exploration, encounter, and for ministries like ours, witness across all kinds of cultural boundaries. I hope we can advocate for responses like what we actually saw at Ohio State of vigilance but not fearful retreat behind barriers, that maintains this open place.

I am concerned that people will use the suspect’s ethnic roots or religious background to attack the Somali community or the wider Muslim community in our city or elsewhere. On Facebook, I posted:

“No one judges my character as an American of German descent by the actions of Germany’s leaders in World War 2. Similarly, I will not judge the Somali community of Columbus that has enriched our community because of one young Somali, no matter what his motives.”

Because of the reach of the internet, the possibility of someone “self-radicalizing” under the influence of foreign elements can never be eliminated. No amount of registry or immigration vetting can protect from this, and I can’t help but wonder if anti-immigrant and Muslim rhetoric may even aid and abet “self-radicalizing” by giving further justification for such violent acts.

The truth is that our hospitality might not eliminate these possibilities either. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest associates who broke bread with him. But to choose the course of retreat behind barriers is to retreat from the possibilities of reconciliation, of understanding, of finding ways to make peace across our differences. Our campuses at their best can be places where students meet those who differ greatly from them and learn to build bridges across the differences, acquiring skills they will need when it is not intra-campus, but international relations that are at stake.

Let’s not give up on that because of the tragic decisions of one student.