Will we learn from tragedy?

April 20, 2007|By Gordon Livingston

It was a scenario familiar to bereaved parents like me: the shock, the anger, the bottomless grief, the vain wish that the universe, just this once, would turn back time to give us a do-over with a different outcome. The tragedy was universal: Young people were dead, allowing all of us a glimpse of the randomness and indifference of a world that routinely crushes our fondest dreams and dearest loves.

The avalanche of media attention, drawn by the sheer numbers of the dead Monday at Virginia Tech, forced those directly involved to wonder if this would be the defining moment of their lives. Would they ever be known for anything else?

In a desperate attempt to learn something from this apparently meaningless act of violence, the questions began: Should the authorities have acted more quickly to shut down the campus after the first murders? Could the dangerousness of the shooter have been reasonably anticipated and action taken to treat or restrain him? Are we helpless in the face of the unpredictability that exists at the outer limits of human behavior?

The identity and characteristics of the shooter put him squarely within the profile of previous attackers: an angry outcast, preoccupied with thoughts of violence against those whom he saw as bullying, victimizing or ignoring him. A history of mental illness and paranoid thoughts was also familiar. His leaving testaments blaming others for what he was about to do completed the depressingly familiar picture of a person on the verge of an explosive act of violence.

From the tapes that the shooter made of himself, it is apparent that he was in the grip of a paranoid psychotic illness. His delusions of persecution led him to conclude that a violent "retaliatory" response against those he saw as responsible for his psychic pain was required. That he had exhibited profound social withdrawal, suicidal thinking, destructive fantasies and stalking behaviors is further evidence of his derangement.

Though he was obviously capable of meticulous planning, he had passed the limits of rational thought. All efforts to get him to participate in mental health treatment had failed, and in the absence of threats or illegal behaviors, it was hard to anticipate his homicidal intent.

In our efforts to imagine how we might prevent or mitigate such tragedies, we have to confront the reality that school shootings are overwhelmingly an American phenomenon. They have occurred elsewhere, but in other countries, these events stand out for their uniqueness, whereas the FBI recently profiled 41 school shooters (now 42) in this country. As in most categories of gun violence, we lead the world.

It is getting harder to argue that these numbers are unrelated to the long American love affair with the gun. We live in a place where practically anyone, as long as he or she doesn't have a criminal record or recent psychiatric hospitalization, can legally - as Cho Seung-Hui did - purchase a firearm.

A second issue, one that we are apparently forbidden to talk about, is the apparent passivity of the police who respond to these situations. Just as at Columbine, we were treated at Virginia Tech to images of police officers crouched behind cars and trees while in the background we could hear shots from inside the building.

What were these first-responders waiting for? Apparently for some order to enter. When they finally did, of course, the shooting had stopped and the gunman was dead by his own hand.

Where is the initiative shown by the officers in 1966 who confronted and killed Charles Whitman at the University of Texas Tower, preventing further loss of life? How about this as an instruction to police officers confronted with the sounds of unarmed people being massacred: Don't wait for orders. Enter the building and engage the shooter.

If our response to past shootings is any indication, we will, as a society, move on from this one without visible signs of change. After a series of mass killings in Australia, the last being the 1996 massacre of 35 people in Port Arthur, tighter gun laws were passed. Does anyone think this is likely to happen here?

And what of the families of these dead students? Can any of us who have not been similarly touched by the unbearable loss of a child imagine the lifetime of grief that they must now endure? Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that the body count at Virginia Tech was roughly the same as the cost in American lives of one week in Iraq, a price that we also appear prepared to endure indefinitely.

Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist and a West Point-trained combat veteran who lives in Columbia, is the author of "And Never Stop Dancing." His e-mail is gslcvk@aol.com.

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