by Gregory Davidson
[Content warning: gun violence, school shootings, death, and suicide. This piece references the Heidelberg University shooting in January 2022.]
For me, it began with an anonymous text on a group chat for international students in Heidelberg, Germany. It asked us to stay inside and stay away from the campus on Neuenheimer Feld. It said that this warning came from the police and from the university. No further information. A couple of hours later, an email came through from Oxford University asking me to confirm my physical and mental wellbeing, offering me aid and support if I needed. Soon after that another email came from the university of Heidelberg. This one was written in several languages, to ensure that all international students could read it with as much ease as possible.
What had occurred was the first fatal school shooting in Germany since the Winnenden school shooting in 2009. Two students had died including the shooter and three others were injured.
The aftermath of this was a live-broadcast church service, which due to Covid could not be attended by most students and a minute’s silence was held across the university for students in their lecture theatres. Outside of this, classes returned immediately to normal. Or almost so.
Lecture theatres were emptier and online classes briefly filled back up again. I too felt afraid to enter the classrooms where lethal violence had been done. Leaving your student room to visit campus became a feat of courage, reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic. A challenge which I must admit, I failed several times.
There were thirty students and staff in the room when the shooting took place. Thirty people in a room where someone died. And all students on the campus nearby heard the shots and the police sirens that soon followed. Students living on site waited while the police searched the grounds for the killer, later found dead by suicide. And the whole university now knew that the lecture halls and seminar rooms were not safe.
We all felt the fear of what had happened. Friends and family when they heard the news felt it too, a fear for the safety of the people they knew were there. And motivated by that fear, a great amount of concern was shown. People reached out to be put at ease. Emotional support was offered almost immediately out of fear for the wellbeing of Heidelberg’s students.
It’s impossible to know how much good was achieved in this manner. I, for one, still feel afraid of heading to campus for class and many other students feel it too. It’s an immobilising fear made worse by the continuation of the demands of student life. And as the wider concern dissipates back into normality, fear finds fertile ground to linger on.
Whenever I heard reports of school shootings from the United States, it had almost always come with the motivation to improve. I saw students and people our age mobilise against a powerful organisation that maintained profit by bribing elected officials against reform and disseminating more weapons amongst the population. Yet there is no NRA in Germany, and gun restrictions were always strict. The media story soon dissipated due to a lack of an easy enemy to mobilise against. And I realise that the only reason I had ever learned about the reports in the US, were because of the movements that followed, while the smaller incidents that lacked such a radical response, faded quickly into obscurity.
Instead, there was only one main thing to consider in the following weeks, while I took online classes from a bedroom where I at least felt safe.
Perhaps tragedy is not always a teacher.
For the woman who died, certainly no lesson could be learned. And those who still feel afraid may find that there is little to learn either. Neither a motivator for change, nor a creator of lasting solidarity. It may be that some tragedies begin and end with people feeling afraid.