Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Resisting the easy conclusions

As you can imagine, since I work at a university, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the shootings at Virginia Tech. There have been at least three of four different links that I've finally decided not to post because they don't really add anything to the discussion.

In fact, I'm not terribly inclined to dive into deep discussion of the Virginia Tech shooting right now. Obviously, many people feel the need to make sense of this, to find something that went wrong, as is evidenced by the NYT's letters page, but I don't think that there are easy lessons. Is this an argument in favor of or against gun control? I think it's important that Cho Seung-Hui purchased his weapons legally, since that argues that current gun control laws aren't sufficient to prevent dangerous people from getting weapons, but it's nearly as valid to argue that VT's gun-free campus policies kept everyone from having weapons except Seung-Hui, who disregarded the regulations. Likewise, I don't find persuasive any of the arguments that cell phone text message warning systems, destigmatizing the pursuit of psychiatric counseling, or making character instruction part of school curricula would have made any difference on April 16. All reports are that Cho Seung-Hui was an individual that resisted all attempts at intervention, and, indeed, as much personal interaction as he possibly could. The only thing that could have prevented him from doing something like this would have been long term physical restraint, and as disturbing as his habits and writings appear to have been, I haven't seen anything that could justify institutionalizing or imprisoning him.

His plays for example. It's easy to read them and say that this was obviously a disturbed person and that it was irresponsible that nothing was done. The thing is, I've read worse. In fact, I shared a college playwriting course with an individual with a habit to writing disturbing and violent scenes and wearing a long black trenchcoat. He was quiet, and it could be difficult to interact with him. He was also one of the most creative people I had the chance to work with, and like many solitary, trench coat-wearing people I've known, he would never hurt a fly. I'm still not fond of the plays he wrote for that class, but I can state with certainty that he was no Cho Seung-Hui, and it would have been wrong to remove him from MSU for his writing.

There are no easy answers, and the frightening truth is that if someone is determined enough to hurt people, they'll find a way to do it. We should ask hard questions about what happened at Virgina Tech. What could have been done differently and what should be done differently in the future? We should, however, be prepared for there to be no easy answers.

I wish, with every fiber of my being, that it had never happened.

1 comment:

Tim said...

I think there are problems with drawing policy lessons from a single catastrophe. Generally, you need institutional/structural responses to institutional/structural problems -- not isolated ones. There are exceptions to this rule, but they're few and far between.

We have a problem with guns, legal and illegal. We have problems with our mental health system. University campuses and security have their own problems. But it's difficult to see what, beyond formulating new emergency response plans, anyone can do differently.