- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Our city streets, in good neighborhoods and bad, abound with all kinds of unstable souls.

They are the ones who can be seen holding conversations with no one in particular. They are the ones who hang out in front of empty storefronts and ask for spare change. They are the ones who carry their life’s possessions in a grocery cart. They are the ones who are shouting at the world.

But they don’t really pose a threat to anyone. They usually keep to themselves. They meander up and down some of the busiest thoroughfares in the city each day, while the workaday world goes about its business.

Some appear to be mentally incompetent. Others are trolling for their fix of the day. Still others have alcohol issues. So what do we do? We mostly ignore them. We mostly put them out of our mind, because it is easy, and really, what can we do?

That undoubtedly was part of the sentiment that aided and abetted the Virginia Tech shooter. He was an odd bird, even eerie. But what could anyone do? He posed no apparent threat to anyone until he went on his shooting rampage.

That is the deal with all these sick people. There is a certain familiarity in how they are portrayed. They are inevitably quiet. They inevitably stay to themselves. And they do not bother anyone in a significant way, until one day they do the incomprehensible.

There is a growing view in Virginia’s political circles that somehow the system failed to prevent the massacre. But until Seung-hui Cho went on his shooting rampage, the worst that could be said of him was that he was creepy, anti-social and perhaps posed a danger to himself.

The latter was the opinion of a psychiatrist who evaluated him. And that opinion could have been accurate at the time of the evaluation. Here’s the rub: Plenty of tortured humans fit Cho’s profile. They are among us every day. That is not to say any of them ever will harm us. In fact, most probably will wallow in their self-inflicted misery, and that will be it.

To be honest, the police do not have time for these people. They are nuisances, if that, and nothing more.

They are not breaking the law, because there is no law that prohibits one from having an animated conversation with an imaginary being. And there is no law against being creepy or anti-social. And there is no law against being mentally unstable.

If there were, our city streets would be a whole lot more hospitable.

It has been said that Cho set off all kinds of warnings. But they were warnings of what? That he would find inspiration from the Columbine shooters and turn a college campus into a killing field? Or were they the warnings of a harmless weirdo?

We now know the answer after the fact, too late for the 32 dead.

The system, imperfect as it is, comes down on the side of a person’s rights.

And Cho had a right to be as freaky as he wanted to be, even if professors and classmates sometimes found his behavior upsetting.

The governor of Virginia is now seeking to strengthen the state’s mental-health database that gun dealers must peruse before selling a firearm. Cho’s stint as a mental-health outpatient did not appear on the database because it was voluntary.

The urge of legislators to do something, anything, is understandable, with the hope that it can prevent a next time.

But there is always a next time. There is always another lone gunman who kills family members or storms his place of employment and takes out colleagues. There is always the next quiet guy who kept to himself and never bothered anyone in the neighborhood until the day he acted on the evil lurking inside him.

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