Time to find real remedies to killings

April 20, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- He defied our expectations in the worst ways.

We have a lot to be afraid of in this era of global terrorism and high school shootings. But the young man who took more than 30 lives as well as his own at Virginia Tech did not appear to fit either profile.

Cho Seung-Hui, 23, was born in South Korea but was a legal resident of the United States. He had everything to live for. And yet he killed.

And once again, we are afraid. Rural Blacksburg, Va., is the type of place many big-city people considered moving to after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Now a college student with a couple of handguns has shattered that illusion.

With that, the focus of media and many others turns to the guns. Reporters ask where Mr. Cho got his guns and whether any firearms laws were broken. The questions are now routine. It is easy to blame guns for such violence and pass new laws to control gun violence. But it pays to focus on what works, not what feels good.

As I noted during the first wave of shootings in the 1980s at rural middle schools, country boys have been firing guns since the days long before this country's birth. Yet only in recent years have we seen them turn those guns on their classmates. Why?

I'm not a big gun-ownership fan, but I do care about finding remedies that work, not just analgesics for temporary relief.

Researchers in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre eight years ago have found the problem is in the heads of the shooters.

"The most common element of these events is that the perpetrator typically says something to their peers about their intentions," said Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, whose district includes Columbine High.

That also was an important conclusion of the U.S. Secret Service after the Columbine tragedy, when agents started interviewing survivors of high school shootings at the request of the Department of Education.

Robert Woodson, head of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who helps coordinate anti-violence programs in schools, notes that investigators found that "the predators almost always told others what they were going to do before they did it."

Ten years ago, Mr. Woodson helped volunteers in the District of Columbia sew up a truce between warring gangs at the city's Benning Terrace public housing development. The development had seven homicides in two years but has not had another killing since then. Mr. Woodson's organization has spread the concept of "violence-free zones" to 21 schools in six cities. Although violence at those schools seems to have been avoided in a few cases by students who tipped off teachers, Mr. Woodson said, students are more likely to share useful information with outsiders who serve as "listening posts." In Mr. Woodson's program, those listening posts are older volunteers who are "tuned in" to "the same cultural ZIP code" as the students who appear to be the most troubled, or serve as confidants of students who are.

That's the sort of early warning system that can be valuable yet is virtually nonexistent on college campuses, especially big ones like the 26,000-student Virginia Tech.

In fact, the chairwoman of Virginia Tech's English department said Mr. Cho had been referred to counseling because his writings were disturbing.

What our schools need are more people watching out for troubled students and offering them help. If any sense can come of such senseless killings, it may simply be that we have to pay more attention to each other in times of peace, not just terror.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

Kathleen Parker's column will return next week.

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