Story Lines at Virginia Tech

Story Lines at Virginia Tech

The desire to impose a narrative on chaotic events leaves the meaning of the Virginia Tech shootings up for grabs.


“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.)

Would more rigorous laws have made a difference? Who knows. Cho was determined to carry out his plan, so he might have found his route to weapons under any circumstances. Yet it is undeniable that in many other states, Cho would never have walked out of the store with that Glock. The cumulative impact of waiting periods, deeper background checks, safety training, on and on, would have set the bar higher, could have picked up his police and mental-illness records and might have discouraged someone who could barely tolerate speaking to another person from following through. This story line is about what happens when deranged rage and paranoid fantasies of apocalyptic revenge meet with easy access to weapons–and easy access was unquestionably the case.

There are other facts, other story lines. The earliest precursors of Cho’s spree reported so far seem to be those young women’s stalking complaints to the police. Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum said on April 18 that those women decided not to press charges. It is hard to know what that means; the willingness of students to follow through has a lot to do with whether a particular campus sends the message that stalking and threats are serious. The fact is that the murderous potential in sexualized threats to women, and more broadly of date rape and other intimate violence, remains underplayed by many police departments and courts–not to mention on college campuses.

A couple of weeks before the Virginia Tech shootings, a man named James Rowan–a British immigrant–walked into the architecture department at the University of Washington in Seattle, across campus from my office. Rowan shot and killed his long-estranged girlfriend, Rebecca Griego, a UW graduate and employeee, who had taken out restraining orders against him. Then he shot himself. UW police, it turns out, had ignored routine procedures designed to protect employees and students who report threats.

Did this story line come into play in Blacksburg? Would different presumptions about stalking and threats and intimate violence have made a difference? Again, who knows?

Other story lines will emerge in the coming days–from witnesses, survivors, family members, police. There will be questions for police, for the university; the media will be questioned about its handling of victims and of Cho’s videos.

There are also global story lines. It is not a distraction or a footnote but rather a matter of respecting the universal suffering of the victims of random violence to point out that when a local news anchor in Virginia remarks on air that thirty-three deaths is an inconceivable number, she is right, but she is also speaking at a time when that many or more die almost daily in marketplace bombings in Baghdad.

The point is not that any one story line is right. With so much horror, such extreme mental illness and so many victims, no single story line can be. But it is important to ask whether more robust responses to stalking and mental illness would have made a difference and whether laissez-faire gun policies cost thirty-three lives. It matters, in other words, to ask whether the Virginia Tech killings were inevitable–or whether the failure to connect the dots about Cho reflects a broader failure to connect the dots about what makes a safe society. The President’s invocation that “it is impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering” must not mean an end to the search for accountability. The facts matter.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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