After two young men entered Columbine High School eight years ago, shooting teachers and fellow students before killing themselves, the nation struggled to understand such a senseless act. Where did they get their guns? How long had they planned it? What movies did they watch to get ideas? Why were they so angry? Who could have known this would happen?
In the wake of the recent shootings at Virginia Tech, we’ve rehashed these same old questions, trying to find that one thing that distinguishes a regular loner from a killer in the hopes of preventing another tragedy.
We’ve read his violent poetry and plays. We’ve listened as his classmates and professors have described his sullen demeanor, his high school “hit lists” and his harassing behavior. We’ve watched the disturbing videos where he held a gun to his head, blaming “you” for what he did.
And, in a twisted way, we’ve agreed with him. Many of his classmates and professors, faced with a personal tragedy most of us could never fully comprehend, have begun to blame themselves. They rationalize that, because they noticed how quiet he was or read his unsettling plays, they should have known that he would turn violent. They say that they should have done something.
But they did do something. When two young women reported that he was harassing them in 2005, Cho Seung-Hui underwent a psychiatric evaluation and was released. A few of his classmates tried to reach out to him without any success. His professors reported his disturbing work on numerous occasions to the counseling services, to the police and to the university. At least one professor even took him out of her class and tutored him individually to protect her uneasy students. But beyond a couple instances of harassment, he did not seem to be violent.
When his students expressed guilt for not foreseeing this tragedy, Professor Edward Falco, who taught Cho last semester, responded, “There was violence in Cho’s writing – but there is a huge difference between writing about violence and behaving violently. We could not have known what he would do.”
Falco was right. While it might be easy to see the warning signs after the fact, there are plenty of people who write violent prose or are sullen introverts, but never go on a killing spree. Eight years after Columbine, we’re still studying suicide notes to understand the distinction between the two.
In many ways, we’ve become proactive since Columbine, installing metal detectors in schools and enforcing zero-tolerance policies toward any hint of violent behavior. We’ve cringed when someone wears a black trench coat or reads “The Anarchist Cookbook.” But what now? Will teachers recommend any student who writes violent prose for psychiatric evaluation? Will people start shying away from South Korean loners? Will we blame Marilyn Manson again?
Through the constant media attention to every detail of Cho’s life leading up to this crime, we’ve shown off how much we know about him now. Two weeks too late. The news networks speculated on the warning signs long before even knowing the names of the victims. And as they’ve interviewed his classmates since that Monday morning, they’ve asked a thousand times, “What did you know about him?”
Unfortunately, short of extreme actions like overbearing gun control laws or the incarceration of anyone with a mental health issue, it is impossible to prevent such crimes. We can enumerate the warning signs until we think we understand, but these are not the 19th century days of phrenology. We know it’s ridiculous to measure a man’s skull to see if he’s a criminal, so why are we looking for another trait that can tell us that?
For me, the most unsettling part of the aftermath of this tragedy has been that Cho’s classmates at Virginia Tech feel somehow responsible for this horrifying massacre. In our struggle to make sense of this crime, we’ve almost convinced ourselves that it was a rational act, something that we can understand and prevent in the future. We’ve pointed out all those minute clues that, together, foreshadowed this event. And unintentionally, we’ve encouraged those at Virginia Tech to look at the warning signs and feel compelled to say, “I should have known.”
But “you” couldn’t have known.
Emmarie Huetteman is the summer associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.