33 dead.

Who's to Blame

While we mourn those who are lost, we seem all too eager to find reasons for the Virginia Tech tragedy. But in the end, there are no easy answers

April 22, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun reporter

What does it mean?

Who is to blame?

The search for meaning seems to be rivaled as a fundamental human instinct only by the belief in cause and effect. These shift into high gear after an event of the enormity of last week's killings of 33 people on the Virginia Tech campus.

Immediately, we want to know what these killings say about our society, about our youth, about our colleges. How does this event speak to the issues of the day? It must have something important to say, we believe, simply because it was so horrific.

But too often such events are used not as a reason to ask honest, searching questions, but only as an excuse to bolster preconceived opinions.

Take one of the first ways people tried to give this act meaning, by placing it in the gun control debate.

Gun control advocates immediately saw it as proof that the country needs stronger regulation of firearms. Gun control opponents immediately responded that if some students had been armed, they could have fired back and saved lives.

But those who back gun control need to recognize that few, if any, gun control measures that have been proposed would have prevented the man identified by police as the killer, Cho Seung-Hui, from buying his guns. He had no criminal record. As a South Korean citizen, he had passed a security check to get a green card.

Perhaps Cho's previous brushes with the mental health establishment should have ruled out gun purchases, but that raises all sorts of issues of privacy and discrimination. The pro-gun-control argument seems to be a non-starter.

As for the view favored by some of those pushing gun rights, the vision of a campus full of armed students is not one that many Americans want to see. It's also a non-starter. Those favoring it should go to a country such as South Africa, where it seems everyone has a gun and the murder rate is astronomical. That said, there have undeniably been occasions when armed citizens stopped deadly criminal acts. But at what cost?

The point is, the shooting at Virginia Tech not only does not come down squarely on one side or the other of the gun control argument, it also probably did not change anyone's mind. It just reinforced long-held beliefs.

On a parallel path, we seek to pin responsibility on someone, something or some institution after such a heinous act. When an event of this magnitude occurs, we think there must be a reason.

But too often in doing this, we act like members of some African cultures who refuse to believe that a fatal lightning strike was simply a matter of chance and instead seek out the cause. That usually means going to a spiritualist for help in identifying a witch in their midst. That witch is often burned to death.

In the initial aftermath of the killings, the focus was on the reaction of university authorities. Why was the campus not shut down? Now it comes out that after the early morning dormitory shooting that left two dead, the police had a solid lead, the boyfriend of one of the victims. He lived off campus.

So, what were the authorities to do in the wake of a shooting at a dormitory apparently by someone who was off campus? Tell everyone to stay in their dorms or remain off campus? In hindsight, that would have been the perfect thing to do, keeping them from the classroom building that became a scene of carnage. But at the time, it made little sense.

The focus then turned to the mental health aspects of the case. There is no doubt that Cho Seung-Hui was a very troubled young man. Flags were raised all over the place, by fellow students and teachers.

The result: He was counseled at the university, he was committed to a mental health facility. About the only thing further that could have been done was the equivalent of an arrest, and he had not done anything that would have made that legal.

So where was the mistake? Where should the blame be placed? Where is the lesson that can be learned? If every weird and depressed college student were confined to a mental hospital, we would quickly run out of beds. The same goes for students who write disgustingly violent stories and plays.

Certainly it can be argued that Cho was an extreme case, but many people who seem much sicker are no danger to anyone. What, really, could and should have been done? In hindsight it seems clear, but at the time? How do you identify which troubled student is just going to mutter to himself in the corner of the computer lab and which is going to murder 32 people?

There are many other arguments that have, or will, be heard. Since Cho was Korean, there was a whimper of xenophobia, quickly slapped down as he has been in this country since he was a youngster and he comes from a solid family that produced a Princeton graduate daughter.

There will probably be some who point to the high-pressure world that many of the Asian and Asian-American students live in, pushed to excel at every stage of life, so much so that they now are the dominant ethnic group on many elite college campuses.

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