Students and teachers at Virginia Tech began returning to their classrooms a week after Seung-hui Cho murdered thirty-two and killed himself, but presumptions and speculation--about Cho, about the actions of officials, about the role of the media--only escalate. The result, as those who have studied Columbine and other such mass killings understand all too well, is the creation of a national mythology of violence and closure rather than a sober assessment of what happened and what it all means. So as the initial shock and horror of the shootings pass, a few questions deserve close scrutiny.
What was wrong with Cho? Arguments about his precise diagnosis will probably occupy forensic psychiatrists and profilers for years. It is not idle speculation, but for most of us Cho's diagnosis is almost irrelevant. More urgent: Could a more robust mental health safety net have deterred his rampage? To attempt to answer this question honestly would mean confronting the nation's long, shameful abandonment of the seriously mentally ill, beginning with the dumping of patients from state psychiatric hospitals into neighborhoods lacking community services in the 1970s, to Ronald Reagan's campaign to deny them Social Security and legal aid, to today's warehousing of the mentally ill in prisons.
Is this about guns? Within a few hours of the Blacksburg shootings, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine was declaring the gun issue irrelevant and any discussion of it an act of political exploitation. Ever since, the gun lobby has been ginning up its listservs along the same lines. Yet as facts emerge, it is clear that the politics of handgun laws have everything to do with the killings.
Let's start with the most basic. No permit is required to purchase a handgun in Virginia. There is no waiting period on gun sales. In more than a dozen states, those simple requirements would have slowed Cho down. More important, Virginia does not count serious mental illness in the cursory instant background checks run before handgun sales, except for the tiny minority of those actually hospitalized. Yes, the federal Brady background-check law prohibits sales to the "mentally defective," a standard that would seem to prevent someone like Cho--found an "imminent danger" by two separate judges--from buying a weapon. But the federal law, incredibly, leaves it up to the states to gather and report statistics. No Virginia data collection, no federal stop. This single contradiction reveals just why the long bargain between the gun lobby and the states' rights movement is so dangerous.
Could a mass shooting in the heart of Virginia turn into the Hurricane Katrina of the handgun debate? There is some evidence that the gun lobby is worried; the NRA has reportedly been talking to gun-friendly Congressional Democrats about closing up a few background-check loopholes as a way of forestalling more sweeping legislation. Governor Kaine himself is now talking about "a way to tighten this and to get more data onto the system." Will the argument go further? So far the evidence suggests that the NRA can relax. Most Democrats believe that embracing gun-law reform would damage their electoral prospects and land them back in Michael Dukakisville.
How could TV networks have aired Cho's videos? Criticism of NBC's decision to air selections from Cho's video package, and the decision of other networks to follow suit, came from two directions: those who warned that it could breed copycats and those who argued that it was disrespectful to Cho's victims. Yet on balance, it must be said that the broadcast had a salutary effect: The bizarre images and soundtrack showed Cho's rampage vividly as the product of mental illness. There's been no debate on declining social values, a culture of violence or any other explanation beyond Cho's insanity. What's more, had NBC suppressed the images, conspiracy theories would no doubt have arisen to take their place, poisoning the discourse as surely as the suppressed details of 9/11 have bred the corrosive "truth movement." So while the Blacksburg media circus undoubtedly had more than its share of ethical offenders, the news value of the videos was significant, at least in limited doses--a nuance the networks seemed to grasp, ending rebroadcasts after less than twenty-four hours.
Why didn't anyone stop him? As facts emerge about Cho's long record of troubling encounters with teachers, police and the courts, it is the inevitable and essential question to ask of those institutions. Why didn't Virginia Tech heed the warnings of Cho's worried teachers? Why didn't the school follow up, formally or informally, after his psychiatric commitments? Why wasn't his stalking of women properly understood as a potential gateway to more serious illness and violence? The point is not to excoriate an individual university president or police officer or judge but to ask: Why didn't any of you connect the dots? That is an issue of social ethics as much as of specific policies; it is what unites the failure of gun laws and the failure of the mental health system. It reflects an ideology divorced from consequence as surely as the Iraq War or the betrayal of New Orleans. The demand the Virginia Tech massacre places on the school, on Virginia, on all of us, is simple: Only connect.