- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

In the aftermath of the horrific massacre at Virginia Tech, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine issued a wise warning that we would do well to heed: “For people who attempt to make this tragedy their political hobbyhorse, I have nothing but loathing. We need to let the community grieve.”

But human nature at its most fearful dictates that we search for reason and for blame and for reassurance that such a gruesome and random tragedy, which ended so many promising lives, will never happen again.

Our hearts are heavy and we grieve for the individual losses as well as the collective loss of a sense of safety and civility in public places. At the same time, we demand that someone, anyone, be sent to the public pillory, especially when the perpetrator cannot be punished.

As with other mass murders, especially those involving disturbed young assassins, the finger-pointing in this case follows a familiar trajectory. We lash out at the irresponsible entertainment industry, the press, the gun lobby, politicians, parents, educators, medical professionals and law-enforcement officials.

Each contributes its part to the cause and the effect. Each must join hands to find solutions to heal the inner sickness that threatens to destroy our nation — in time. There is still a lot of explaining to be done. Vigorous investigations undoubtedly will ensue.

Right now, on this day declared as Virginia Tech Day by the governor, we must honor our victims and give a proper burial to the dead. We must walk in sympathy alongside the path that is every parent’s worst nightmare.

Granting degrees to the deceased students posthumously at next month’s graduation ceremonies is a grand start; a permanent memorial is another.

There will be plenty of time for facing head-on the hard task of searching for solutions for unthinkable crimes committed by a mad gunman, who may have been suffering from undetected or untreated mental illness.

Highlighting the lack of mental health services and improving treatment for patients may be one positive change to grow out of this carnage.

Tamara Jackson, a psychologist in private practice in the Washington area specializing in anxiety, depression and transitional issues, was a staff member on a U.S. Senate committee that worked on improving community-based mental health services.

Ms. Jackson, who completed her postdoctoral training at Yale University School of Medicine, said she hopes that the predictable debate about gun control does not eclipse the necessary debate about mental health services in the wake of this disaster.

“Personally, I believe the mental health issue is bigger than the gun-control issue,” she said. “The number of services is woefully inadequate to meet the needs.” She suggested that the need for more services is manifested at the community level with the rise of youth violence, teen pregnancy, alcoholism and substance abuse.

Ms. Jackson agrees with me that in certain ethnic communities, mental illness is viewed as a character defect, rather than an illness, and the topic is considered taboo. Public-awareness programs are beginning to change that perception, especially among blacks, but “we still have a long way to go,” she said. The important thing to remember, Ms. Jackson said, is that with proper treatment, mental health disorders are manageable. But the legal and confidentially issues still present “a conundrum” wherein adult patients cannot be forced to continue their treatment or their medication.

Cho Seung-hui evidently exhibited signs of mental illness, said two English teachers at Virginia Tech. He also was held by psychiatric professionals at least once in 2005 after sending harassing messages, according to reports. A roommate told university police that Cho might be suicidal.

“I understand that this young man set off several red flags,” Ms. Jackson added, “but violent behavior is hard to predict, especially if there hasn’t been a [criminal] history of it.”

“Why, why, why?” we ask over and over. The unspeakable more self-serving question is, “How?” How can I keep this carnage from happening to me and mine? Yes, we will get around to loud debates about the easy accessibility of personal arsenals when the time for the country’s soul-searching is ripe. Yes, we will try to bolt more doors, lock more windows, hire more security guards and devise more sophisticated alarm systems.

But what will we do to attack the deeper issue of mind over matter that the Virginia Tech tragedy symbolizes? No doubt all manner of knee-jerk legislation will be filed in the General Assembly halls and argued with righteous indignation.

Already, one local paper reports that state legislators are considering introducing a bill that will require counseling for some distressed students.

Oh, if only that medical quagmire were able to be breached so easily. Could authorities, and even his own parents, have been able to intervene and get the deeply disturbed Cho help before he went on his rampage?

Better that this heinous crime causes Virginia Tech authorities and academics on other campuses to revisit their student-disciplinary and intervention policies.

Even so, the talk is all in 20/20 hindsight. We react rabidly. In our rush to harsh judgment, we never seem to hold tight to the potential of lessons learned that could help prevent the copycat or the repeat offender. We often skip out on the opportunities these teaching moments offer.

First, we are reminded that life is fragile, and we cannot take our next breath or our loved ones for granted. Second, we are reminded that violence is an equal-opportunity killer; it doesn’t discriminate. Third, we become anxiously aware that nothing and no one can predict or prevent the deeds of a demented and determined killer.

Still, with a variety of interventions, we could lessen the blow.

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