Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Struggling to make sense of the Virginia Tech Massacre

Like most, I am shocked and saddened by the news of the murderous rampage that left 32 innocent people dead and others injured on the campus of Virginia Tech. I am relived that I have heard back from the people I know personally at Virginia Tech and that they are safe; my heartfelt wishes go out to those who must endure the pain of hearing less fortunate news.

As I struggle to comprehend such a cruel and senseless tragedy, I cannot help but to notice how other people explain and comment on it. Much like the criticism surrounding Hurricane Katrina, some people are condemning the leadership of Virginia Tech for failing to lock down its campus at the first sign of trouble, the idea here being that institutions are expected to perform with prescient exactness even in the most unusual and paralyzing of emergencies. And as to be expected when any criminal tragedy of such a magnitude becomes known, some voices are already issuing the call for increased government regulation of firearms, the idea again being that it is our very freedoms that threaten our lives.

I am able understand these responses, even as I disagree with them. One of the more trying aspects of enduring such a tragedy is the invariable questioning that becomes part of the fallout. We all find ourselves asking how could a single man actually murder 32 innocent people. What perverted this man's mind to the point that he could commit so savage and brutal an act? What might have been done to prevent it all from happening?

I see that the newspapers in Europe are already blaming America's so-called "gun culture" for the rampage. I cannot help but think to myself that if only we had the culture that they describe. An undeniable fact in this tragedy is that one man confronted hundreds with his two pistols but was not confronted back in kind; not even one student or faculty member possessed the means to fight back in defense of their very lives. Monday's victims were not the victims of a "gun culture"—they were the victims of its polar opposite.

But why? Each of us knows that addled minds similar to that of Cho Seung-Hui walk among us and that we cannot rely solely upon others to safeguard us from their actions. What then explains the willingness of so many of us to leave ourselves vulnerable to outright murder, or worse, demand that others leave themselves vulnerable? I recoiled in my seat today as I watched the convocation at Virginia Tech where the Buddhist minister called for non-violence in her speech to the victims of this tragedy. Wasn't that just how yesterday's victims died—as non-violent pawns at the mercy of a raging gunman? Every student, faculty member and staff member was denied by rule of law the right to posses the tools necessary for self-defense on that campus. Is that not one of the horrors that we must now confront?

We must to be willing to stand up in defense of our own lives—we must be willing to take concrete action as we do it. And this case, we would have had to have been willing to arm ourselves as a matter of course—a position that is a highly contentious viewpoint, even in some Objectivist circles.

* * *

As this story unfolds, we are beginning to get a picture of the mentality of the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui. Ian MacFarlane, a former classmate of Cho's has posted two plays Cho wrote for a drama course they took together last fall at the news blog at AOL. MacFarlane, now an AOL employee, paints a chilling portrait of Cho:

When we read Cho's plays, it was like something out of a nightmare. The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn't have even thought of. Before Cho got to class that day, we students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter. I was even thinking of scenarios of what I would do in case he did come in with a gun, I was that freaked out about him. When the students gave reviews of his play in class, we were very careful with our words in case he decided to snap. Even the professor didn't pressure him to give closing comments.
So here we are presented with a man operating with a disturbed and seemingly hair-trigger psychology. Yet it is MacFarlane's next words that I find to be the most troubling:

While I "knew" Cho, I always wished there was something I could do for him, but I couldn't think of anything. As far as notifying authorities, there isn't (to my knowledge) any system set up that lets people say "Hey! This guy has some issues! Maybe you should look into this guy!" If there were, I definitely would have tried to get the kid some help. I think that could have had a good chance of averting yesterday's tragedy more than anything.
Yet it seems Cho did more than write disturbing plays. The Chicago Tribune reports an anonymous source that says that Cho had recently set a fire in a dorm room and had stalked some women. If these allegations are true, I can only ask why wasn't Cho sanctioned for it? Why wasn't Cho expelled from campus and held accountable under the law (to include being institutionalized for mental heath treatment)? Why did the rights of the disturbed and unhealthy take precedence of the rights of the peaceable? This is not the kind of question that I think can be pointed at any one particular person or institution on the scene, but at our entire culture—and at ourselves.

MacFarlane continues:

While I was hesitant at first to release these plays (because I didn't know if there are laws against it), I had to put myself in the shoes of the average person researching this situation. I'd want to know everything I could about the killer to figure out what could drive a person to do something like this and hopefully prevent it in the future. Also, I hope this might help people start caring about others more no matter how weird they might seem, because if this was some kind of cry for attention, then he should have gotten it a long time ago.
Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university's English department offers a similar account, saying that she read Cho's writing, reported its content to the authorities and even offered to take Cho to counseling herself if it would have helped him.

I thank MacFarlane and Rude for the courage it must have taken to offer such frank and obviously painful public statements, for these with the other reports begin to present us with the information we need to come to understand the roots of this tragedy. On so many levels people failed to assert their egoistic rights and responsibilities in defense against this deeply troubled young man. It was not to mere classmates, instructors and acquaintances to secure mental health treatment for Cho; either he or others with a more intimate relationships with the man ought to have recognized his issues and acted accordingly. Rather than patronize a seemingly violent person, people ought have asserted their right to be free of a man that obviously troubled and threatened them so. Rather than allow themselves to be victims of seemingly random and senseless violence, people ought have asserted their right to personally protect themselves.

It is not that I in any way blame the victims of this tragedy for their losses; they are and will remain wholly innocent and my heartfelt sympathy rests completely with them. It is that I cannot but help note the self-abnegation that seemed to infect people's thinking before this tragedy and that only served to exacerbate its fallout. I am reminded yet again that it takes egoism to live.

And for me, the failure of others to grasp this point (or even my own ability to grasp and apply it had I been in their shoes) is one of the hardest parts of this whole story to reconcile. Most if us understand that we each have a right to our lives—yet this truth requires both thought and action. It would not have violated any of Cho's rights to have held him to account for any of the warning signs he did give—even if the response was limited to merely saying that he could not act as he did and expect to be allowed to keep the company of peaceable men. Yet rather than confront his madness, people only tiptoed around it.

I can understand the error, for its one that I can see myself making. Would I, having been confronted with the likes of Cho, pressed the case like it deserved to be pressed? Or would I have been unable to imagine a tragedy like the one that unfolded and have let my guard down accordingly? Would I have allowed myself to be disarmed? I find it hard to offer a definitive answer that I am content with.

And therein lies the sad yet truthful moral of this story for both me and others: one cannot tiptoe around evil or madness—at least not if one seeks to live.

3 comments:

Dan Rohr said...

My daughter's H.S. drills for such events – basically duck & cover in a corner of a room and hope for the best. I ask, why not take advantage of the numbers and overpower an attacker – throw books at him or something; don't just wait to be done in. It's a hard sell even from me to her, but it's not even presented as an option at [any] school. Is it a stretch to see it as a reflection of our culture at large – defensive in the homeland rather than confronting enemies head-on in their homeland?

I am curious about VT humanities classes that Cho may have taken.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

I just read this report about one on CNN:

Cho's poetry was so intimidating -- and his behavior so menacing -- that Giovanni had him removed from her class in the fall of 2005, she said. Giovanni said the final straw came when two of her students quit attending her poetry sessions because of Cho.

"I was trying to find out, what am I doing wrong here?" Giovanni recalled thinking, but the students came to her during her office hours and explained, "He's taking photographs of us. We don't know what he's doing."

Giovanni went to the department's then-chairwoman, Lucinda Roy, and told her she wanted Cho out of her class, and Roy obliged.

"I was willing to resign before I was going to continue with him," Giovanni said. "There was something mean about this boy."

Giovanni said she's taught her share of oddballs in the past, but there was something malicious about Cho's behavior.

"I know we're talking about a troubled youngster and crap like that, but troubled youngsters get drunk and jump off buildings; troubled youngsters drink and drive," she said. "I've taught troubled youngsters. I've taught crazy people. It was the meanness that bothered me. It was a, really, mean streak."

* * *

I hope that one of the outcomes of this tragedy is that people come to be more assertive when dealing with such mentalities. If Cho's various actions would have led to him being committed to a mental hospital for treatment, he would have been unable to legally purchase a firearm. He still could have committed his crime, but he would have a far more difficult time obtaining a firearm with which to do it.

David, The Machine said...

Penny Arcade’s post of February 21st has a profile of another such predator, the ringleader in the murder of a homeless man by four young animals in human skins.

The Penny-Arcade article features an account written by the step mother of the young man. She describes a perfect nihilist who values destruction, and Seung-Hui seems to share a lot in common with this monster.