33 dead.

The Baltimore Sun

What does it mean?

Who is to blame?

The search for meaning seems to be rivaled as a fundamental human instinct only by the belief in cause and effect. These shift into high gear after an event of the enormity of last week's killings of 33 people on the Virginia Tech campus.

Immediately, we want to know what these killings say about our society, about our youth, about our colleges. How does this event speak to the issues of the day? It must have something important to say, we believe, simply because it was so horrific.

But too often such events are used not as a reason to ask honest, searching questions, but only as an excuse to bolster preconceived opinions.

Take one of the first ways people tried to give this act meaning, by placing it in the gun control debate.

Gun control advocates immediately saw it as proof that the country needs stronger regulation of firearms. Gun control opponents immediately responded that if some students had been armed, they could have fired back and saved lives.

But those who back gun control need to recognize that few, if any, gun control measures that have been proposed would have prevented the man identified by police as the killer, Cho Seung-Hui, from buying his guns. He had no criminal record. As a South Korean citizen, he had passed a security check to get a green card.

Perhaps Cho's previous brushes with the mental health establishment should have ruled out gun purchases, but that raises all sorts of issues of privacy and discrimination. The pro-gun-control argument seems to be a non-starter.

As for the view favored by some of those pushing gun rights, the vision of a campus full of armed students is not one that many Americans want to see. It's also a non-starter. Those favoring it should go to a country such as South Africa, where it seems everyone has a gun and the murder rate is astronomical. That said, there have undeniably been occasions when armed citizens stopped deadly criminal acts. But at what cost?

The point is, the shooting at Virginia Tech not only does not come down squarely on one side or the other of the gun control argument, it also probably did not change anyone's mind. It just reinforced long-held beliefs.

On a parallel path, we seek to pin responsibility on someone, something or some institution after such a heinous act. When an event of this magnitude occurs, we think there must be a reason.

But too often in doing this, we act like members of some African cultures who refuse to believe that a fatal lightning strike was simply a matter of chance and instead seek out the cause. That usually means going to a spiritualist for help in identifying a witch in their midst. That witch is often burned to death.

In the initial aftermath of the killings, the focus was on the reaction of university authorities. Why was the campus not shut down? Now it comes out that after the early morning dormitory shooting that left two dead, the police had a solid lead, the boyfriend of one of the victims. He lived off campus.

So, what were the authorities to do in the wake of a shooting at a dormitory apparently by someone who was off campus? Tell everyone to stay in their dorms or remain off campus? In hindsight, that would have been the perfect thing to do, keeping them from the classroom building that became a scene of carnage. But at the time, it made little sense.

The focus then turned to the mental health aspects of the case. There is no doubt that Cho Seung-Hui was a very troubled young man. Flags were raised all over the place, by fellow students and teachers.

The result: He was counseled at the university, he was committed to a mental health facility. About the only thing further that could have been done was the equivalent of an arrest, and he had not done anything that would have made that legal.

So where was the mistake? Where should the blame be placed? Where is the lesson that can be learned? If every weird and depressed college student were confined to a mental hospital, we would quickly run out of beds. The same goes for students who write disgustingly violent stories and plays.

Certainly it can be argued that Cho was an extreme case, but many people who seem much sicker are no danger to anyone. What, really, could and should have been done? In hindsight it seems clear, but at the time? How do you identify which troubled student is just going to mutter to himself in the corner of the computer lab and which is going to murder 32 people?

There are many other arguments that have, or will, be heard. Since Cho was Korean, there was a whimper of xenophobia, quickly slapped down as he has been in this country since he was a youngster and he comes from a solid family that produced a Princeton graduate daughter.

There will probably be some who point to the high-pressure world that many of the Asian and Asian-American students live in, pushed to excel at every stage of life, so much so that they now are the dominant ethnic group on many elite college campuses.

There have been meltdowns among Asian students at some top universities. But there have been similar meltdowns throughout history among youngsters who grow up with high expectations from all sorts of ethnic groups. And, the fact is that almost all of those pushed to excel simply do that - excel. A few fail miserably, perhaps as some form of rebellion. But Cho is the only one who has shot and killed 32 people. No lesson there.

Reports are that in Europe the reaction is that such things are to be expected in the gun-toting, violence-ridden United States. There might be some truth to that, but it is interesting hearing it coming from a continent that spent much of the first half of the 20th century slaughtering tens of millions of its citizens in bloody wars, with America bailing it out both times.

The point is that meaning and blame and explanations and such in the wake of incidents such as the Virginia Tech shooting are subjective. They vary with viewpoint. Take, for instance, the reaction to the killings at Columbine High School in 1999 that left 14 dead, including the two killers, high school students themselves.

What was to blame? Suburban ennui? Perhaps, but that is kind of ironic since most attention to violence in this country is focused on urban areas. How about violent video games and movies? Maybe, but why do millions of kids play those games and watch those movies and not turn into violent killers? Indeed, why has the nation's violent crime rate generally been trending down in the years since these games became popular? Maybe kids take their aggression out on the video characters and not on the street. Who knows?

Or look at reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. One of the earliest came from the TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, who said that it was God's wrath on America, blaming the liberals and feminists and homosexuals as fellow evangelist Pat Robertson voiced his approval. That did not get much backing, but it was one viewpoint.

For most, the attacks were a clear sign that the United States was now facing horrible forces of evil that needed to be tracked down and destroyed by our military. But others thought they showed only that a dozen or so people, maybe backed by a few hundred overseas, had managed to figure out a way through airline security and turn planes into deadly weapons. It was a crime, not an act of war.

Some saw it as evidence that the United States had become too aggressive in the world, creating enemies unnecessarily. But others saw it as proof that the United States was not aggressive enough. So, we invaded Iraq.

What was the meaning of Sept. 11? The jury is still out.

As for the Virginia Tech killings, there will be investigations and panels and hearings. Perhaps there will be a resignation or two. Someone has to be at fault. Maybe there will be some tinkering with campus mental health regulations and security procedures.

But odds are, at the end of the day, there will be no finding of cause and effect. And it will be difficult to ascribe any greater meaning to this horrible day of violence.

Bottom line: The Virginia Tech killings mean that one very sick young man took two handguns and shot up a college campus.

Nothing more. But certainly, nothing less.


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