Thursday, April 19, 2007

Like a cultural earthquake, the Virginia Tech massacre violently jolted all news and events to a halt. Or, rather, all non-massacre news and events. Massacre updates remain constant: the survivors’ ghastly stories, which are ghastly, the victims’ harrowing ends, which are harrowing, the campus authorities’ inexplicable actions, which are inexplicable. Is there anything more to learn?

True to compulsive American habit, we want to know why the crime occurred, what drove Cho Seung-Hui, a chronically maladjusted individual of irredeemable evil, to shoot 28 students and four professors to death on a chilly April morning — as though the secret still to be deciphered lies with him.

But even as the murderer’s life is scrutinized for a “motive,” we also come to understand there is no “reason” to explain this supremely irrational crime. So, liberals conclude insufficient gun control is at fault. If only Cho hadn’t been able to get his hands on handguns, the theory goes, this heinous mass murder — the worst school shooting in U.S. history — would never have happened.

But owning guns doesn’t mean killing people. And under even the strictest gun-control laws, Cho might well have taken a page from the black book of Andrew Kehoe, who, back in 1927, perpetrated the biggest school massacre in U.S. history when he used dynamite to blow up a Michigan school. The blast killed 38 children and seven teachers.

A conservative explanation of the crime points not to the existence of guns in society, but rather to the existence of evil in the killer — a man who, according to reports, left no fewer than three bullet wounds in each of his victims. But even evil is not enough to explain why this crime happened, or, rather, why this crime was virtually allowed to happen.

The fact is, Cho Seung-Hui wasn’t the “quiet man” you read about who one day “snapped.” He was notorious in his academic circle long before the heinous events of this week. Indeed, one former classmate, Ian MacFarlane, has written that on reading the twisted, violent plays Cho wrote for an English class, “we students were talking to each other with serious worry about when he could be a school shooter.”

Even faculty and administration members at Virginia Tech were reportedly well aware of Cho’s alarming work and behavior, whether it was teacher Nikki Giovanni, who told the Washington Post that her 2005 poetry class of 70 dwindled to seven over students’ fears of Cho, or unnamed university officials to whom faculty members say they turned for guidance about the troubling student.

According to press accounts, the poetry class case went up the academic chain of command. Agreeing that Cho’s writings were disturbing, the then-chairman of the English department, Lucinda Roy, “contacted campus police, counseling services, student affairs, and officials in her department,” the New York Times reported. But since Cho had made no “direct threats,” there was nothing they could do. And besides, according to the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser, there were concerns about Cho’s “free speech.”

So Cho exercised his free speech, but no one listening was permitted to respond to it. Cho set off all the alarm bells — and I haven’t even mentioned the stalking incidents and other psychopathic behavior — but evidently, as in a frustration nightmare, no one in authority did, or thought they could do much about it besides suggesting therapy. And even that was fruitless. “He wouldn’t say yes,” said Ms. Roy, “and unfortunately, I couldn’t force him to do it.”

Why in tarnation not? Why couldn’t Virginia Tech officials have “forced” Cho to seek counseling or else lose his affiliation with the college? Better still, why couldn’t the college have given Cho “F’s” for handing in psychopathic tirades instead of poetry and plays? The college could have expelled him even as it urgently recommended to his parents that he seek counseling. And since when do psychopathic tirades earn course credit, anyway?

Since for a long time. Since we, as a society, decided to abolish “normal,” effectively eliminating the parameters of, well, normal behavior. Since we, as a society, decided to rid ourselves of taboos, effectively disarming basic self-defense mechanisms, including good judgment. It is unlikely Cho realized any of this as he maniacally exploited society’s weaknesses. But it is crucial we understand our inaction on Cho’s warning signs as a consequence of political correctness and begin to reverse it. Otherwise, we won’t have even a hope of warding off such evil next time.

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