By the desensitizing standards of routine American gun violence, the shootings at Virginia Tech University were shocking only in their scale. Over more than 20 years, Americans have got grimly used to a ritual that plays out on the cable news every few months. The initial news is sketchy, reports of shots fired at a campus or in a schoolyard. Then, the first confused images of students running terrified from classrooms, black-clothed SWAT teams gingerly pressing into doorways; the press conference in which some dazed school principal or university president mutters the first incomplete details, with casualty estimates and emergency phone numbers for worried relatives to call.
It's so familiar you could write the script yourself. Only the names change. And the numbers.
The death toll of more than 30 handed Virginia Tech, a proud college with a strong academic record and a famous sporting pedigree, the unwanted title of worst shooting in U.S. history.
And the truth is that only an optimist would imagine Virginia Tech will hold the new record for very long. Surely in a year or two, the news networks will be replaying the same footage from another college, with only the numbers different.
Perhaps of all the elements of American exceptionalism - those factors, positive or negative, that make the U.S. such a different country, politically, socially, culturally, from the rest of the civilized world - it is the gun culture that foreigners find so hard to understand.
The country's religiosity, so at odds with the rest of the developed world these days; its economic system, which seems to tolerate vast disparities of income; even all those strange sports Americans enjoy - all of these can at least be understood by the rest of us, even if not shared.
But why, we ask, do Americans continue to tolerate gun laws and a culture that seems to condemn thousands of innocents to death every year, when, presumably, tougher restrictions, such as those in force in European countries, could at least reduce the number?
The truth is, not all Americans do oppose such measures. The U.S., of course, is a vast, federal nation, with different laws and cultures in different states. In Virginia, scene of Monday's shootings, they passed a law a few years ago that did indeed restrict gun purchases - to a maximum of one per week.
- The Times of London