A deranged student shot nearly sixty people on the Virginia Tech campus on April 16th, killing twenty-eight students and four teachers before shooting himself. Since those events, people all over the nation - perhaps all over the world - have been asking questions and looking for answers: Why did this tragedy happen? Who failed? What could have been done to prevent it? How did a disturbed young man slip through our mental health system? When did the warning signs appear? Sane enough to plan his crime carefully, student Cho Seung-Hui killed two students at a campus dormitory around 7:30 AM, then disappeared. Two hours later he chained the doors of a building shut and methodically shot his victims - some three or more times.
This week I read these comments by Camille Paglia, a teacher of poetry and musical lyrics at the Philadelphia University of the Arts: "... I have a class on song lyrics, and I was presenting the Negro spiritual 'Go Down, Moses.' I was talking about how it's a coded message of liberation, a way for slaves to make political statements without being recognized. I suddenly realized to my absolute horror that so many of these students had no idea who Moses was! In this class of 30, not one white person, only African-Americans, understood the Biblical references. The only people I'm getting at my school who recognize the Bible are African-Americans. And the lower the social class of the white person, the more likely they are to recognize the Bible. Lots of these white students, if they go to church, it's all feel good social activism. There's no preaching.... The Bible is one of the West's foundational texts, and they don't know it anymore."
Within the context of the week's horror and the plaintive questions that followed, Miss Paglia's words flare up like a match struck in a dark place. It is an answer hidden in plain view. This crime didn't happen because we had too many guns, or too few gun laws, or inadequate mental-health care procedures - or because officials didn't "lock down" the 2600-acre Tech campus after the first shootings. It happened because the heart of an angry young man was consumed by evil of the kind the Bible describes.
People who might have put Cho away where he could not harm himself or others saw something troubling, but they didn't recognize it as (or dare call it) evil. Indeed, many people - including a high percentage of professing Christians - no longer believe in literal evil. One reason we don't believe in evil (and therefore can't recognize it) is that too many of us either don't know the Bible (as Miss Paglia observes) or don't buy what it says. An oh-so-modern colleague once asked me, "Why should we base our modern legal and ethical systems on the words in some old book?"
The Bible declares, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Proverbs 9:10) Wisdom seems to have been in very short supply in this tragic case - the more so because misguided laws or conventions prevented wise people from acting. Cho was a bomb waiting to go off. He turned in writing assignments awash with grotesque violence. Students in his classes feared him and had discussed whether he could become a "shooter". Teachers sent word of this up the chain of command, but school officials saw no legally justifiable way to deal with him. Expulsion was rejected, as it might violate Cho's First-amendment right of "self-expression" (i.e., the PC do-nothing argument).
Reports about Cho's psychosis were "confidential", of course. They could not even be revealed to his parents, let alone to a university community which had a legitimate right to know that a potentially homicidal psychotic was in their midst. (Had Cho actually detailed his plan of attack in a poem or a play, would the university have finally bestirred itself to action? You tell me.)
When Cho's "bomb" finally went off, police officials found two persons shot dead in a campus dormitory, but no killer. Investigators decided it was just an isolated "domestic" incident, and announced that the killer had apparently left the campus and perhaps the state. (Perhaps the country, for that matter.) I don't mean to joke about something this serious, but who makes assumptions like this when no one has any idea what is going on? It is reminiscent of the "white-van/crazed-white-loner" idea promoted during the DC-area sniper spree in the fall of 2002. Inane "profiles", invented out of thin air by "experts", misdirected the police for days, while two non-crazed black assassins drove around in a nondescript sedan and shot several more people.
Virginia Tech officials finally sent an e-mail warning out on the school's network, two hours after the first murders - by which time Cho had re-entered the campus, chained the doors of a building, and started shooting dozens of trapped victims. University officials have defended their decision not to "lock down" the campus after the initial two killings. Their contention makes some sense. How can a 2600-acre rural campus be locked down? But is e-mail all we can do? Why no campus-wide loudspeaker system for emergencies? No siren or bell to warn students to reach pre-assigned, guarded places? For that matter, why didn't state police flood the campus quickly, seeking an armed killer who was still at large? Obviously, wisdom was elbowed aside by a strong official need to maintain that all was well. But all was not well.
Some people in the Virginia Tech community and the Blacksburg, VA, area might have had the wisdom to prevent or stop some of what happened. No doubt they have shed many tears of grief and frustration because their counsel was ignored, or because they were not summoned in time to stop the second round of shootings, or because arcane "privacy" concerns prevented timely disclosure of Cho's danger-signs to authorities who might have taken preventive action. Wisdom has no value if foolish people (or mindless bureaucracies) can block its application.
When I was a boy, my teachers taught me that the great thing to take away from a bad event is learning. Grief, closure, and a determination to continue on with life all have their places and particular values after a tragedy. But if you can learn something, you can gain understanding. And understanding (says the Bible) produces wisdom. (Teachers actually spoke in such ways not very long ago.)
We have a chance to learn from this horrible event, but we need to be discerning about what the lessons are. Some opportunistic politicians would have us believe that guns are the lesson. Guns are the problem. Guns are bad. Guns shouldn't exist. If there were no guns, we wouldn't have crime. We must limit access to guns. Perhaps we should outlaw guns entirely.
This is rubbish - no more useful than moves to abolish cars because they "cause" loss of life, injury and property damage. There is not the slightest possibility of eliminating guns or keeping "the wrong people" from getting them. Weapons are far too ubiquitous, and the country far too large for abolition or significant restriction to work. It has been shown repeatedly that more restrictions on legal access to weapons mean that only criminals possess them. But wherever legal access to weapons increases, crimes always decrease.
Virginia is a "must-issue" state - meaning that the state must issue a concealed-weapon permit to any (non-felon) adult of sound mind who requests one. This causes some to imagine that too many guns being carried caused this terrible crime. But the true reason is otherwise: Virginia Tech is a "gun-free zone". The college forbids bringing otherwise legal weapons on campus. Last year, liberal delegates blocked legislation that would have eliminated that prohibition and allowed permit-holding faculty, staff and students to be armed on the campus. Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker celebrated the legislation's defeat by proudly announcing: "I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus."
How safe do they feel this week? Cho easily brought weapons onto the campus and hid them in his room, but no one of good intent was armed. Had the rejected law been in place, an armed student or teacher might have intervened before Cho completed his grisly task. Two students did that at Appalachian College in Grundy, VA, in 2002. Upon hearing shots, they ran to their cars for weapons, then returned to subdue a student who had shot three people to death and wounded three others. (Most news organs reporting the incident failed to mention that the students who stopped the killer were armed.)
Speaking of wisdom - widely publishing photos and videos the killer sent to NBC shows a conspicuous lack of it. Affording notoriety to a disturbed young man who caused such grief and damage shows a terrible lack of proportion by network executives. Their slavish devotion to ratings seems almost lascivious. Except for Professor Liviu Librescu - the WWII holocaust survivor who died helping students escape during the shootings - I can't recall a single victim's name. But we all know Cho's name. He got his "fame". This only inspires other twisted minds to take a similar course.
We need to become wiser about these things. If this means putting a 24-hour (or 1-week or 1-month or 1-year) moratorium on background reports about mass killers, or publication of their names and pathetic life-stories, then so be it. This orgy of macabre prurience must stop.
Wisdom can be had from this terrible incident. But can we learn enough to obtain it? Most of all, will Americans blow the dust off the "old book" and start internalizing its teachings once again? Pray that it will be so.