Some lines in Dawn Turner Trice's Monday morning column in the Tribune on the NIU killings dug into me: "By many accounts there were few warning signs. . . . Days later, it's still frustrating to not have a motive. . . . 'People who can talk about their problems typically don't act out their problems. . . . It's not the trauma that causes people to go off, it's their feelings of helplessness.'" Trice was talking to a violence-prevention expert. Trice again: "The current leader of the free world suggests that we fight them over there so we won't have to fight them over here. What seems to elude us is that we are fighting them here. And they continue to be us."
The thing about a motive is when we know why we still don't know why. These senseless killings happen so often it's hard to keep up, and I'm still fixed on the last one, the killings at the council meeting at the city hall in Kirkwood, Missouri. That's my hometown. The wife of the mayor, who was shot in the head but is alive, sat behind me in French class. I liked her a lot. Another classmate now runs the local funeral home and has described to me in e-mail what it is like to stay professional and make the arrangements for three murdered friends. My sister was in the same class as the killer's big brother, an all-state basketball star. The killer, Charles "Cookie" Thornton, was himself twice the state triple-jump champion, which would have made him a big man at good old Kirkwood High School, his alma mater and mine, even if he hadn't been such a hell of a nice guy.
In Kirkwood's eyes, if not his own, Cookie Thornton wasn't an outsider; he was us. He talked and talked about his problems with Kirkwood's powers that be. And Kirkwood listened, even when the talk turned bizarre. Finally Thornton did the civilized thing and went to court. But if justice is a process to lawyers and judges, to people seeking justice it's a result. And at the first council meeting after a federal judge threw out his suit, Thornton showed up with a gun, killed two police officers, two councilmen, and the public works director, and critically wounded the mayor. Finally police shot him dead. Thornton was black. Everyone he shot was white. These facts figured centrally in the public's reaction to what had happened and in the media's coverage of that reaction.
I write this as prelude to something I want to share with you. Franklin McCallie became principal of KHS long after my time there. I knew that he enjoyed an outstanding reputation as an educator, but from Chicago I could measure his performance only by the transformation of the Call from the cheery rag I'd contributed to into a school paper that consistently was ranked as one of the finest in the country. In retirement, McCallie spoke up two days after the bloodbath. He committed journalism. He released a statement in which he identified himself as Thornton's friend and laid out a chronology of all the facts as he understood them. To a town that I'm sure was in dire need of lucidity, he offered it. A few days later, he spoke at Thornton's funeral.