Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Virginia Tech Massacre


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

I really didn’t want to write about the actions of Seung-hui Cho on the campus of Virginia Tech on Monday, April 16. What is there left to say about these crazy rampages committed by students or others with too many grievances and too many guns? When the Columbine killings happened I began my editorial (Zenger’s, June 1999) by noting that the morning after, I had written in my daily journal, “Just about everybody in America is going to be tempted to seize upon the Columbine slayings to advance whatever their pet social cause happens to be.”

So it’s turned out with the Virginia Tech killings as well. We’ve heard the usual laments from what’s left of the gun-control crowd in this country about how easy it was for Cho to purchase the two guns he used to kill 33 people (including himself) on campus that Monday, and how we need new laws to keep firearms out of the hands of potential mass murderers. In fact Cho meticulously followed Virginia’s admittedly lax firearms laws, patiently waiting the required 30 days between each gun purchase — though the dealers should have known, but didn’t, that he’d spent some time as an involuntary patient in a mental institution in 2005 and refused to sell to him on that basis.

We’ve also heard from the yahoo crowd that the problem isn’t too many guns, but too few: that if Virginia Tech hadn’t virtuously declared itself a “gun-free zone” and prevented its teachers, students or on-campus police force from carrying weapons, someone might have pulled out his or her own piece and blown Cho away before he had a chance to shoot at least some of his victims. The possibility that a Western movie-style shootout in the corridors of Norris Hall might well have ended in more, not fewer, innocent people losing their lives doesn’t seem to occur to these people.

Also, because Cho was a person of color, we’ve heard Asian-Americans worry that their entire community will be blamed for this, even though it never would have occurred to anybody to blame the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine on all white people. Cho’s own family has emphasized the difference between their solid, well-grounded, high-achieving daughter and their troubled son — much the way the first President Bush defended sitting with members of Osama bin Laden’s family on the board of the Carlyle Group by saying the bin Ladens were wonderful people except for that crazy black-sheep brother of theirs who started al-Qaeda and was ultimately responsible for 9/11.

Rightists have blamed Cho’s action on the so-called “culture of permissiveness,” on the breakdown of traditional family morality since the 1950’s and the nation’s gradual acceptance of divorce, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, you name it. Leftists have blamed it all on capitalism and an increasingly individualistic, competitive, dog-eat-dog society that ruthlessly discards those who fall behind. One Los Angeles Times op-ed writer with a hyperactive imagination even suggested a parallel between Cho’s life at Virginia Tech and “reality” TV shows like Survivor or American Idol — except Sanjaya Malakar didn’t respond to being voted off Idol by sneaking guns onto the set and blowing Ryan Secrest and Simon Cowell away.

What’s most chilling about Virginia Tech has become how normal this sort of crime has become. When Charles Whitman went up into the bell tower at the University of Texas in Austin in 1966 and shot down 16 people; when James Huberty went “hunting humans” at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro in 1984; when Harris and Klebold brought guns to Columbine High School and targeted their teachers and fellow students in 1999, these events still seemed shocking because they were still new. Now we hear about a massacre like the one at Virginia Tech, make a few mental gestures of sorrow for the victims and then go on about our way, saying, “Oh, we know what that is.”

In 1950, James Agee wrote a profile on film director John Huston for Life magazine in which he described a scene from one of Huston’s least-known films, We Were Strangers, set in pre-revolutionary Cuba: “A student is machine-gunned on the steps of Havana’s university. A scene follows which is breathtaking in its surprise and beauty, but storytelling, not beauty, brings it: what seems to be hundreds of young men and women, all in summery whites, throw themselves flat on the marble stairs in a wavelike motion as graceful as the sudden close sweeping of so many doves. The shot is already off the screen before one can realize its full meaning. By their trained, quiet unison in falling, these students are used to this. They expect it any average morning.”

We’re not quite at that level yet — clearly the students at Virginia Tech were not “used” to having a crazy classmate start blowing them away — but we’re getting there. What’s more, in our anguish over how often events like these happen and how depressingly similar they are, we’re proposing solutions that could be even worse than the disease. The biggest theme in the comments on Virginia Tech since the massacre has been that we should somehow try to predict which people in society will commit crimes like this and intervene in their lives before they do — which sounds good until you realize that the criteria these would-be intervenors are looking for are so broad they could easily encompass millions of people.

Through a good deal of my childhood I was a loner, a misfit, an introvert, picked on by others my age and drawn even deeper into my shell as a self-defense mechanism when I was teased or hassled. I started to pull out of that, ironically, in high school — historically stereotyped as the time a lot of introverted loners pull farther in and cut off whatever ties to the rest of humanity they’d previously maintained. I was lucky enough that my high-school years were 1966 to 1970, in which young people in the U.S. celebrated and even embraced iconoclasm far more than they ever had before or have since. What happened to me was I found other people whom I could respect as they were, and who would respect me as I was.

Before that, however, I could readily see myself fitting into someone’s idea of a “profile” of someone who could commit a Columbine- or Virginia Tech-style massacre — and what I worry about is that the post-Virginia Tech hype will lead to people being punished merely for being loners, iconoclasts, rebels, thereby making it more, not less, likely that they will explode outward into acts of violence. Indeed, the most chilling part of the print and video manifestos Cho wrote before his killing spree and sent to NBC during it (what a terrifying to-do list: “Kill people, send package, kill some more people”) was his utter indifference to whether any of the people he was targeting had had anything to do with creating the suffering he felt justified his punishing them.

As I wrote in my post-Columbine editorial, “Between the isolation and the hopelessness of the age, we’re breeding a generation of already cynical, jaded, alienated young people who’ve carefully been trained not to give a damn about anyone but themselves — and to be ruthless and unforgiving towards their weaker peers. Most of the people getting ‘picked on’ in this fashion are going to accept it calmly and die a thousand deaths every day — but a few will turn their anger outwards and create more Columbines. And whereas I would have hoped, in those first few days after the massacre, that the silver lining in the dark cloud might be a renewed understanding of teen alienation and more care and concern for those who are ‘different,’ what’s been happening instead is quite the opposite.”

The reaction of most school administrators to Columbine was to impose “zero tolerance” policies and to turn all too many U.S. high schools and colleges effectively into high-security prisons: to post metal detectors and security guards at the entrances and mount cameras in the hallways. And, if the signs so far are an indication of the future, the standard response to Virginia Tech is likely to be to single out anybody who is even remotely “different,” anyone who seems the slightest bit alienated or disaffected or afraid, and treat them as a gunman-in-the-making, adding the condemnation of authority figures to the condemnation of their peers and therefore quite possibly, in a few cases, creating the monster they are trying to prevent.