Like many of you, I was horrified earlier this week to turn on my computer and read, throughout my work day, about the escalating tragedy at Virginia Tech University, in which a highly disturbed student killed 32 people on campus, and then himself.
As a reporter I saw this kind of thing in great detail. With every school or office shooting, every bulletin made available to the media came across my desktop, and I read most of them. This time my new career kept me insulated from the worst of it, but despite that, old habits die hard, and I found myself reading what I could about the tragedy as the information became available. And as I have in situations like this in the past, I got angrier and angrier.
When a situation goes horribly awry, you hear often, "How could this have been prevented?" And that is the question that I think needs to be addressed here, and quickly.
By all counts, Cho Seung-Hui was a peculiar guy. He hardly talked to his roommates. He photographed women in class. He wouldn't talk to people who addressed him first.
And so the people who knew him weren't surprised when they learned it was he who snapped and began firing on so many innocent people. Two women had already reported he was stalking them. At least one professor found him so mean and disturbing, she threatened to quit if he stayed in her class. His family, at least according to many accounts I've read, rarely, if ever, visited campus to see him.
So why didn't anyone DO anything? Everyone said nothing he did was specific enough to warrant action. The women he was stalking found it annoying, not frightening. His writing, though disturbing, turned out to be indicative of his intentions, but it was also fiction, and any writer will tell you, imagination is entirely different from action - for most people.
But here was a guy obviously disturbed and hateful, yet it seems everyone just expected he would continue to be weird and self-isolated, even while they watched him out of the corners of their eyes. Instead, he bought guns and ammo, videotaped manifestos, and sent them to the media before slaughtering people sitting in their classes, pursuing futures they now will never have.
THIS WASN'T A SURPRISE TO THOSE WHO KNEW HIM. So where was everyone who could have taken action?
Now, don't get me wrong. I blame HIM entirely for this situation. In the case of the Columbine killers, I laid some blame on their parents. (After all, how does a teenage boy, still in high school, play with pipe bombs in his basement without anyone finding out? Where was his family?) Cho's culture may have played a role in the fact that his family took no action. And at the risk of speculating, if his family didn't visit, perhaps they had very little contact with the boy they found so odd. Perhaps they even sighed a breath of relief that he was no longer at home. I don't know.
He was also a college student, far away from his family influence. But even his roommates, who saw him as so odd, didn't seem to find him particularly threatening. There seems to be a conflict here - those who thought him weird but not dangerous, and those who saw him as both. Why did these groups not put their heads together to decide what to do in case something went wrong? Those who attempted to have him committed seem to have been rebuffed, from what I understand.
Why did he snap? Maybe we will never know. I know he was a victim of bullying in middle school. To which I reply, WE ALL WERE. GET OVER IT. I know that's harsh, and I know it is tough for a new student from a foreign country to come in and be accepted. Middle schoolers are vicious and hateful as they sort out their hierarchy. High schoolers can be too.
But by all accounts people who DID reach out to him were rebuffed. So his attempt to blame everyone else for his actions falls far short of reality. Who hasn't seen the class wars and fallen on the wrong side of them? Who hasn't watched some people get handed everything and seen themselves with nothing? Who hasn't, at least for a moment, loathed someone else becaused she was prettier, he was better at sports, she was great at theater, he was a math whiz? We have all envied, and despised, and dare I say it hated. It is part of the human condition.
But we have not killed because of it. We may indulge in violent video games or loud music (my weakness for dealing with anger). Maybe we've taken up a contact sport or thrown ourselves into a passion or a hobby. But we've dealt with it. He did not.
Make no mistake, Cho was crazy. Not just mentally ill; I think there is a serious difference between coping with a mental illness, and doing something so immeasurably hateful and sick as gunning down students and staff, many of whom had probably never seen him before in their lives. You can even argue, and probably successfully, that he was evil. I would certainly believe it. When people tried to befriend or even talk to him, he took the road of what he probably thought to be long suffering martyrdom in his behavior - snubbing them in return, then blaming them for his acts of violence.
And so we will now spend years discussing the 32 innocent people who died at his hand. To me, that's the hardest part. Call me callous, but I'd rather read about the man I loathe who killed them and his reasons for doing it, because it stirs anger in me, than to read about the people whose lives were cut short, which stirs pain and fear and utter deep sadness in me. I, like many, grieve for those lost, and grief is a wearing feeling, sometimes too heavy to bear.
So where do we go now? It seems that just about everyone who saw in Cho's previous actions the signs of an unwell mind spoke up - yet no one actually did the one thing that would have saved 32 victims - committed a psychotic individual. How did he slip through the cracks? Indeed, how do they all?
We can start by crushing bullying in schools. Children want to find out where they fit on the social ladder; that much is inescapable. But teachers can watch closely for the playing out of the hierarchy and deal with it swiftly, ignoring the indignance of parents who only see the halo on their child, not the devil horns that may, from time to time, hold it up. Every child wears them at one time or another. Not allowing it in the classroom can be a start. And that requires the support of parents and administrators too.
But teachers are given far too much responsibility, I'm aware, when it comes to raising children. Where are parents in this equation? Are kids under too much pressure? Not enough? I don't know the answer to that. But I know expecting teachers to solve the problem single-handedly is ridiculous. They see your child five hours a week. You should see your child far more than that, and know what that child is doing and thinking. You should be in touch with your child, even when they go away to school. And you should trust that a teacher may see a side to your child that you may not, and give their suggestions serious thought. That might help to nip some of this social anger in the bud.
We also need to take better care of those obviously in need of mental help. Instead, we toss the mentally ill out on the streets, where many scrounge to survive, not able to afford medication, or not under any pressure to take their medications if they do have them. In Michigan several years ago we closed several mental hospitals. What good, exactly, did that do? Some people cannot survive in society at large. They should not be on the streets where they can harm others or themselves. Many don't understand the difference between right and wrong or are incapable of handling that sort of decision. We should put more money into this side of health care, while telling the drug lobbies to shut up for five minutes while we deal with our citizens in need. Health care is a disaster (a blog for another time) and because of it everyone suffers.
But Cho's problems may also have come from home in a way where the answers are tougher to come by. His writing hinted at sexual abuse. If only he had had the courage (something he was clearly lacking in all areas of his life) to report the person who may have abused him. Perhaps his culture did not allow that. I don't know. But had he taken other actions to deal with his rage and hate then perhaps he would have found an existence he could live with. Even perhaps if he could not have lived with it, he could take his own life and leave the innocents alone. Harsh, yes, I realize that. But to cause pain to others because of your own pain is childish and sociopathic, not righting any wrongs. Of course I don't advocate suicide. But my anger also wonders why the middle man was necessary. Go straight to the endgame, spare the innocents, and deal with yourself. If you can no longer bear to live, let those of us who enjoy our lives to continue with them. Leave your manifesto if you need to, to share your message. Killing others as revenge for real or perceived social wrongs brands you only as a killer, not as a martyr.
So for this child (not a man, by any stretch) I feel pity and disgust, and for his victims and their families, and his family as well, the deepest sympathy and my profound sadness.
Let this be the last of these stories any of us ever have to read.