“It is an inconceivable number,” the Roanoke TV anchor was saying Monday afternoon. “Thirty-three lives.” As facts about Cho Seung-Hui emerge, we are all trying to make that number conceivable, sifting his playscripts, psychiatric referrals, stalking complaints and gun purchases for clues to his bizarre shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.
It will take time before anyone can say with certainty how Cho managed to get away with such a massacre. Independent law-enforcement professionals will evaluate Virginia Tech’s response and the tragically wrongheaded misreading of Cho’s initial shootings, which allowed him to roam campus without pursuit for two hours. University administrators around the country will doubtless ponder whether adequate mental-health services reach their most dangerously troubled students.
But in a sense the important thing now is how the story gets told and understood. The profoundly human yearning to impose a narrative line on chaotic tragedy leaves the meaning of an event like Virginia Tech up for grabs. Whether it is “impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering” (as President Bush told the VT convocation) is a question with deep consequences, open equally to dangerous political exploitation and to just as dangerous fatalism about prevention and accountability.
First and foremost, the narrative now is about the Virginia Tech victims, their families and their community. That itself is a complex and painful story, one that will change with time and must not get trumped by Cho’s bizarre videos and writings. But there are other narratives, too–other story lines that illuminate the Virginia Tech shootings in important ways.
One story line that Virginia Tech is emphatically not about is a unique American culture of violence. To tell it that way demeans other massacres by deranged gunmen over the past thirty years in Australia, Scotland, South Korea, Germany. Simply put, such mass shootings have occurred wherever in the world mentally ill and enraged loners had easy access to guns. This is neither a pro- nor antigun statement, just a fact. Of course, a gun is not the only route to an isolato‘s private cult of apocalyptic violence, as the Unabomber demonstrated so convincingly. But easy access to guns sets the bar very low.
The facts emerging about Cho fit into this particular story line in quite alarming ways. Long before his shooting rampage, Cho had been identified–by cops and courts, not just English teachers–as dangerous and ill. At least as early as 2005, female students were alarmed enough by Cho’s approaches to call campus police. On December 13, 2005, a Montgomery County magistrate issued a temporary-detention order deeming Cho mentally ill, in need of hospitalization and “an imminent danger to himself or others.” A second court concurred in the “imminent danger” diagnosis but did not seek a hospital commitment.
Despite this documented history of stalking, police referrals and court-identified serious mental illness, Cho was able to walk into Roanoke Firearms on Cove Road in Northwest Roanoke, lay down $571 and walk out with a Glock.
Again, it is not an antigun statement to point out that Virginia has one of the least-regulated gun markets in the country. No permit is required to purchase a handgun in Virginia. No waiting period on gun sales. No limits on the carrying of concealed handguns. No safety training. (Suing gun manufacturers? Forget about it; it’s forbidden by state law. Municipalities enacting their own gun ordinances? Likewise illegal. Just a few weeks ago, Virginia’s gun dealers spoofed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sponsoring a “Bloomberg Gun Giveaway”–a raffle for a $900 handgun–because Bloomberg has filed twenty-seven lawsuits trying to shut down bulk sales of handguns used in homicides and robberies up north.)