As officials dissect the events leading up to the massacre at Virginia Tech that claimed 32 lives this week, an alarming number of prior warning signs are emerging: prior incidents of stalking, fire setting, hospitalization for mental health issues, a pattern of bizarre and violent writing severe enough to concern professors and counselors … any one of these should have been a wake-up call. But was anybody listening hard enough to take action? Was the fear of civil repercussion (lawsuits) floating under the surface. Who was connecting the dots? Anybody?
I have questions dancing in my head about the rising tide of shape-shifting information that is emerging. As a liberal, I grapple with issues of gun control (right to bear arms vs do we really need automatic weapons in every home?), rights to privacy (medical records, mental health records), and even the freedom of speech to write bizarre and violent scenarios (look at the crazy and horrific tales spun by best-selling authors Stephen King, John Saul, Dean Koontz and such, who seem a long way from killing anybody in real life) .
When I read that this young student, Cho Seung-Hui, was involved in stalking not one but two women on campus back in 2005, I want to know why he was allowed to remain an enrolled student living on campus. When I read that he was involved in setting a dorm fire, I want to know why he was still allowed to remain an enrolled student living on campus. When I read that teachers and counselors were concerned about the violence of his writing and his disconnect with people, I want to know what the Virginia Tech powers-that-be were waiting for to force intervention, or remove said student from campus. Do they have a zero-tolerance policy? Do they use it?
Granted, college students are “of legal age” and have “civil rights.” But at Virginia Tech, in the form of Cho Sueng-Hui, prior threats existed. Stalking is a crime. Setting fire to a building is a crime. Committing a crime should put one’s civil rights in jeopardy. Committing a crime has a price tag attached to it. Those events, the stalkings, the fire, were enough to warrant action long before this young man’s violent writings and other anti-social behaviors escalated to this week’s massacre.
The truth is, maybe nothing could have stopped this tragedy from unfolding. Someone absolutely determined to hate and kill (out of rage or mental delusion) may well find a way to achieve that horrific goal. It is irrevocably linked to the very freedoms we espouse. A Catch-22. A “caught between a rock and a hard place” scenario. We have access to the buying and selling of guns. We have the right to read and write freely. We have the right to be a little crazy, or even a lot crazy. We do not have the right to damage others with our craziness.
Imposing and sustaining zero tolerance standards, and taking action when threats are manifested (stalking, fire setting), are part of the protections I would expect of any school, business or system to which I entrust my loved ones.
Much is being said of “warning times” and “communication lapses” as this tragedy unfolded. The fact is that this horror began unfolding long before this week, but no one was listening. No one was ready or willing to take steps to intervene. Thirty-two students, the shooter included, and a multitude of emotionally and physically wounded, are paying the price for that inaction. I pray for them, and for those who will have to look back and ask the difficult question: Why didn’t I … ?