By now, the students have returned to classes, the 24-hour news cycle has moved on, and, other than those directly impacted by the tragic events, most everyone’s sense of shock at the events in Blacksburg, VA has been replaced with their own concerns about their own lives. This is, in some way, to be expected as normal, since few of us have time or emotional stamina to drop the daily concerns of our lives and dwell on tragedies. At the same time, I wonder if it isn’t healthy for us to take a moment and consider what observations can be made or lessons can be learned from the Virginia Tech Massacre. In no particular order, here are a few that I have considered in the days since April 16.
First, journalism can be a shameless profession that can do better. There were, on the whole, many good examples of responsible journalism. However, they were drowned out, in my view by NBC and Geraldo Rivera. Frankly, I think NBC made an honest error in judgment to show excerpts of the video produced by Cho and sent to them DURING the morning of April 16. At the same time, I think they rushed their decision-making in order to boost ratings by beating the competition to airing the video. Of course, this means that most other news organizations would have done EXACTLY the same thing, which makes their chest-beating about NBC’s decision rather hypocritical in most cases.
Geraldo Rivera, on the other hand, crossed the line when, on April 17, just after the shooter was identified, said on the air that Cho should have done the world a favor and just shot himself. In my view, his actions were at best an example of speaking with raw emotion without filtering that speech with sound judgment. At worst, it was a heartless statement that showed total lack of compassion to the family of Cho, who may very well have seen or heard his comments on live TV. Of course, this is par for the course for the man who, with his lack of common sense, shared the location of the troops with which he was embedded on a live combat mission in Afghanistan. Words without thought can be harmful. Speaking of which, . . . .
Second, words matter. As news about Cho’s background began to surface, what seemed clear was that he had been ridiculed mercilessly at his high school for his ethnicity and his speech. This treatment by his peers helped contribute to his mental and emotional difficulties. We are reminded by this that we can never know the full impact of our words towards others, both to help and to harm. We must all be aware of the comments we make about others because words come from thoughts which come from beliefs while those same words can produce emotions which can lead to actions which one could never predict.
As an example, I heard an anecdotal story that one of the 9/11 hijackers had been a foreign exchange student at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina in the 1990’s. While there, he was mocked and had practical jokes played on him based on his beliefs. One of these jokes involved students throwing his shoes in the local pond when he left them outside his room while praying. In short order, in a matter of months, he stopped attending class at this college and started taking flying lessons. The rest is history. I doubt the students at this college ever thought that their actions towards this student helped lead to 9/11, but they did. I doubt that the students at Cho’s high school thought their actions would contribute to this tragedy, but they did. What if they same students who mocked and ridiculed accepted and encouraged instead. I believe our history would not be the same.
Third, we are living during a personal electronic communication revolution. Ten years ago, e-mail was cutting-edge technology. Today, with cell phones, wi-fi, bluetooth, and laptops, a technology that can send a message to virtually any computer in the world is so last year. Now text messages allow almost anyone to communicate with anyone anywhere anytime at the same time. How brilliant and prescient would it have been to have all students connected through a text message alert system that could have stopped every student, faculty, and staff member at Virginia Tech in their tracks? Text messages can be the intercoms and public address systems of the 21st century. Why not?
Fourth, there are no cookie-cutter solutions to mental illness. Mental illness is an extremely complex condition. It is impossible to fully know who is or is not at risk of engaging in destructive behavior. Looks can be deceiving in both directions. When a physician says there’s a 45% chance that a physical condition will be fatal, that means that there’s a 55% chance that it won’t be. How much more uncertain is mental illness or health? Medicine, whether physical of mental, is still an art. It isn’t cut-and-dried science. You just can’t know for sure that something like a rampage is about to happen. Warning signs are neither clear-cut nor absolute. It’s simply not that easy to tell who is having a bad turn in their lives and who is about to do irreparable harm to themselves and others. Even if there’s some way to put quantifiable risk factors on mental illness patients’ behavior, who is going to decide the threshold for taking a particular action? On that subject, . . .
Fifth, freedom isn’t free. While this phrase is most often associated with patriotism, the fact is that there are few, if any, solutions to violent loners that American society will or should accept. If the government has the power to screen individuals who simply make other people nervous or uncomfortable and then arrest or detain them, there would be enough invasions of personal privacy to keep the ACLU busy for the next 100 years. Ultimately, the risk of individuals taking unpredicted actions is the price society pays for the freedom that it cherishes.
None of these observations or opinions are meant in any way to exonerate Cho or justify the horror that manifested itself in Blacksburg, VA. At some level, each of us must take responsibility for the actions we choose to take with our lives. With that in mind, we should all take responsibility for finding what we can from within these events to bring something good out of something very bad and help keep something worse from happening in the future.