Massacre at Virginia Tech raises vexing old question

April 22, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

"A danger to self or others."

I first heard the phrase 28 years ago, after a disturbed young man was shot and killed by police at Baltimore's old Trailways station. He had gotten off a bus with his belongings, including a long package containing a bow and arrow. After he was not allowed to cash a check, he began shooting arrows at the building and frightening people.

Perhaps he was only pretending to endanger others, crying out for attention. Perhaps he was instigating what some call an indirect "suicide by police."

Six officers rushed to the station. Twenty-six shots were fired. Two people were killed, the traveler with the bow and arrow and a police officer, who officials said was struck by a ricocheting bullet.

This story and the legal language used subsequently to describe it came back to me after the rampage at Virginia Tech. A quarter-century has gone by since the episode I remembered, and we as a nation are still grappling with the dilemma: how to protect ourselves without denying individual rights, how to be a caring society without leaving ourselves open to the unpredictable and violent outbursts of the mentally unbalanced.

Perhaps the essential issue cannot be fully resolved, but some think our approach can be improved. We may see the possibilities as the still-unfolding Virginia Tech story comes into focus.

What happened in Baltimore in 1979 and on the Virginia Tech campus last week - and in many other situations, no doubt - is part of a bigger picture of how we deal with the mentally ill. In reaction to the shameful treatment of people in the past, laws were passed that require dealing with them in the least-restrictive circumstances. That objective led to the near-emptying of mental hospitals, returning patients to the community.

The troubled young men in Baltimore and on the Virginia Tech campus may have been dangerous to themselves and others for some time. But how to know with enough certainty to deny freedom? Recriminations are likely to continue in the Virginia Tech case, given the number of worrisome observations of students, faculty and family.

First, there were reports from teachers and classmates about Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui's alleged stalking of young women. Then, mental health authorities and a court found disturbing indications of mental instability. But authorities who evaluated him found the young man's judgment unimpaired. Looking back now, after the carnage, fellow students describe someone who fits the classic mold of the deranged mass killer. He was a loner, virtually reclusive. He seldom spoke to anyone even when spoken to.

Teachers reported that his writing was so alarming that he was referred to campus police. That may be quite revealing in itself. College years can be turbulent, and students may live in a less-restrictive world than they are used to. Creative writing students such as Mr. Cho, moreover, are encouraged to take risks. Was his writing merely creative - or a window into his mental state? Were any of the concerns sufficient to justify removing him from the campus? And if so, for how long? He was assessed by the courts - and then released.

"You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today," he said in one of the videos he made after the first shootings. The claims of an apparently deranged individual ought not to get much credibility, but experts may find some value in assessing them.

Lucinda Roy, the school's former English department head, attempted to teach Mr. Cho individually after he had frightened others in her department. The threats he posed, she was quoted as saying later, "were not explicit, and that was the difficulty the police had."

The Virginia Tech calamity may force a reconsideration of how much provocative behavior is acceptable on college campuses and elsewhere. It will not be an easy calculation, especially since there will be great pressure to act decisively in a realm full of shadow and uncertainty.

Michael Young, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Los Angeles Times: "I guess the question is: When is the writing on the wall? You won't stop every suicide, you won't stop every homicide, but you can have a significant effect.

"It's better to overrespond and overreact than to underrespond and underreact."

It's difficult to disagree, but disagreement in this area, even in the face of so much pain, is inevitable and even useful.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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