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When the Perp Is a Prof

Everybody’s crowding to get inside the head of alleged Huntsville campus shooter Amy Bishop.

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Campus shootings generate more comment than comparable mayhem in other workplaces. When a blue-collar worker goes on a killing rampage, public hunger for an explanation can often be satisfied with the tautological observation that he (or on occasion she) was "disgruntled." The same short answer won't suffice when the perpetrator is a professor. Academics are theoretically defined by their participation in "the life of the mind," and therefore we require their motives for murder to be more idea-driven than those of a laid-off postal worker.

In the five days since the serial revelations of the Amy Bishop tragedy began breaking, it's been fascinating to track the rival and sharply politicized interpretations imposed on her alleged crime, in the media at large and especially in the teeming petri dish of opinion called the Internet.

An assistant professor of biology who had recently lost a protracted battle for tenure at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the 44-year-old Bishop had been sitting quietly in a departmental meeting on February 12 when she allegedly brandished a nine-millimeter pistol and began methodically shooting her colleagues; three were dead and three more wounded before the survivors rushed her as she tried to reload.

It subsequently emerged that Bishop had been involved in the fishy 1986 shooting death of her 18-year-old brother, Seth, at the family home in Braintree, Massachusetts. Police dropped their inquiry into the matter after Bishop's mother, who according to recollections of officers who were on the force at the time, sat on the police personnel board, persuaded their chief that the fatal shotgun blast had been an accident, as Amy asked Seth for help in unloading the gun. That version of events has since been undermined by Braintree's current police chief, who told reporters on February 13 that Bishop discharged the shotgun three times, once before and once after killing her brother. She then reportedly fled to a nearby car dealership, where she held up two employees (according to one of the unfortunates involved) and demanded that they give her a getaway car. Moments later the police arrived and disarmed her at gunpoint. Apparently, though, the police report on the incident had been missing from the department's files since at least 1988.

The story got wilder still when it was reported that Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, had been questioned by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1993 about two dud pipe bombs mailed to one of the evaluators of Bishop's doctoral dissertation at Harvard. Since then it has been revealed that Bishop, a mother of four, punched another woman in the head in 2002 in a dispute over the last booster seat at an International House of Pancakes.

But even before these freaky secondary aspects of the case had come to light, the bloggerati (and answering commentariat) had begun generating competing narratives to account for the shootings. One the earliest out of the gate was video blogger Zennie Abraham Jr., whose work can be found on the Bay Area Examiner site and the San Francisco Chronicle's City Brights blog network; he's also covered electoral politics for the Huffington Post. Rejecting the current consensus that Bishop was angry at having been denied tenure, Abraham offered a two-sided explanation for her alleged actions: On one hand, he posited, she "believed that someone in that organization, that university, was trying to steal her idea" for a biotech invention that she and her husband were developing; on the other, she was unduly stressed by "an environment that is anti-intellectual and perhaps having some problems adjusting to the south."

Abraham's first guess sidesteps the fact that UAH, like all comparable research institutions, has a well-defined profit-sharing policy for patents developed on university time. By his second theory, Abraham seems to have been inferred that Bishop, as a Harvard product, was operating on far higher level than her hick-town colleagues—although the clarity of this argument is blurred by his assertion that the Harvard angle is so irrelevant that it should never have been reported. At any rate, Abraham's culture-shock thesis is—as several commenters pointed out—tough to reconcile with the fact that high-end academic credentials are common as kudzu around Huntsville, which is a major hub of aeronautics and engineering R & D.

Conservative construction of the tragedy is summed up by a plethora of blog headlines identifying Bishop as a "socialist professor" or "socialist serial killer," and much reiteration of the Boston Herald's anonymously sourced assertion that she is "a far-left political extremist who was 'obsessed' with President Obama to the point of being off-putting."

A related strain of commentary construed the shootings as a function of Bishop's presumed feminism. Some conservatives proposed the simple equivalence of liberalism/feminism and insanity; their more restrained fellow travelers allowed that it would be improper to crudely politicize the shootings, though some further postulated, perhaps not without justice, that if Bishop's politics were remotely conservative, the liberal enemy would be all over it. Objectors to the "socialist" trope noted that the tag was first put into play by a single comment culled from Bishop's very mixed student evaluations at RateMyProfessor.com, where, as any academic can attest, anything and everything will eventually be said.

Foes of affirmative action floated two theories, one to the effect that Bishop was hired for her gender and wasn't qualified for tenure, the other positing that she was denied tenure because she was white and chose her victims accordingly. Conservatives were also quick to pounce on the racial dimensions of the shootings, noting that all of the deceased were nonwhites and demanding to know why progressives weren't pillorying Bishop as a racist. But the racial interpretations are problematized by Professor Joseph Ng's eyewitness account of the shootings, which stated that Bishop simply "started with the one closest to her and went down the row."

Still other conservatives predicted that feminists would appropriate Bishop as a symbol of the way that women are marginalized in the fields of science and technology. To date, I've only encountered such arguments in the peanut gallery of comments sections; however, professor Gina Barreca, who blogs about women's issues for the Chronicle of Higher Education, found another way to cast the alleged shooter as a victim: Bishop, she wrote, "was a different soul, one who apparently howled out her pain and rage 20 years ago, one who might have been rescued or restrained, one who might have been cured or caged or at least taken out of circulation. But because she was smart and because someone was willing to take care of her, the system forgave her—only to have her attack and allegedly kill those who represented another kind of system, one that did not reward her to her satisfaction, 24 years later. She thought the world was unfair and she was right."

Men's rights activists positioned the story as an equalizing demonstration of the female capacity for violence and pointed to Bishop's track record of unchecked violence as an example of the "pussy pass" women supposedly enjoy before the law. A proponent of intelligent design drew links between the slayings and her participation in the Clergy Letter Project, an initiative to evangelize the theory of evolution to ministers. Anti-Semitic and white supremacist bloggers decided Bishop was Jewish and demonstrating the "entitlement" characteristic of her race. Critics of the pharmaceutical industry jumped to the conclusion that Bishop had been knocked off her rocker by antidepressants. Academics expressed their wonder that the tenure process didn't culminate in bloodshed more frequently.

Everywhere and always, the Harvard brand loomed large in commenters' imaginations, though it meant different things to different observers. To some it was presumptive proof of Bishop's insufferable elitism; to others definitive evidence of her brilliance. As an Ivy League PhD, I would argue that both presumptions are incautious—the latter perhaps slightly more so than the former. Also, none of the online commentary I've seen has registered the sharp status differential between Ivy League undergrads and grad students. These are different social types entirely, as dissimilar in aspect and lifestyle as the Eloi and the Morlocks in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. Bishop, it's worth noting, did her undergraduate degree at Northeastern University, a fine enough school I'm told, but not widely seen as an incubator of the aristocracy.

Presumptions of Bishop's genius were cast into doubt by California lawyer and blogger Mary Agnes O'Connor, who took a hard look at Bishop's archived UAH Web pages and found evidence that her tenure portfolio was a house of cards: Bishop's published research plan remained essentially unchanged between 2003 and 2008, which suggested that her work on "resistance to nitro-oxidative stress in CNS cells" may have been going nowhere. O'Connor also discovered that the most recent article on Bishop's list of scholarly publications was cocredited to three of her children, who are identified as employees of "Cherokee LabSystems" despite the fact that the eldest is 18, and was published by a journal of last resort whose declared philosophy of peer review "is that any paper that has interest to the readers and is reasonably written will be published. Thus the Editor is looking for reasons to publish your paper, NOT reject it."

Ultimately, of course, we're just going to have to wait for Vanity Fair and/or Law & Order to issue any authoritative verdict on the meaning of the Huntsville tragedy. In the meantime, our invaluable marketplace of ideas stays open all night.   

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