Garance Franke-Ruta detects “1950s thinking” in the police decision not to immediately warn students about a killer on the loose at VA Tech. This seems uncharitable. Obviously, in hindsight, we all wish a warning had been issued and the campus closed. But most people who kill someone don’t then go on a shooting spree. And there are genuine costs on both sides: Making an announcement will induce public panic—which may result in distracting false leads being called in—and depending on the circumstances and how much information is released, may induce the killer to go to ground. So it’s not crazy that the police would attempt to evaluate how much of an immediate threat the killer was likely to pose to third parties. Obviously, in this instance, they got it horribly, horribly wrong. But surely the parallel conclusion would be correct in most cases of apparently “private” disputes—between former lovers of whatever gender, guys who came to blows over gambling debts, or any number of other homicidal permutations. It seems a leap to conclude that the decisive factor in the decision was a cavalier attitude toward “domestic violence” as such rather than a mistaken inference about the motivation and probable further threat posed by the killer, which might have been drawn in a variety of situations.
Addendum: To be clear, I’m not denying this was the wrong decision, even without the benefits of hindsight. Just that I’m not sure it reveals anything interesting in particular about antiquated attitudes toward domestic violence. For that we’d have to know whether police would have reacted differently if they’d come on the scene and interpreted it as some other sort of personal-vendetta killing.