Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A plea for sanity

Like everyone else I've been following the story of the Virginia Tech shootings with equal parts horror, shock and disgust. Now the AP is reporting that the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, was an English major at VT whose writings (go here to read two of Cho's one-act plays) so disturbed the faculty that he was recommended for counseling:

Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university's English department, said she did not personally know the gunman. But she said she spoke with Lucinda Roy, the department's director of creative writing, who had Cho in one of her classes and described him as "troubled."

"There was some concern about him," Rude said. "Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it's creative or if they're describing things, if they're imagining things or just how real it might be. But we're all alert to not ignore things like this."

She said Cho was referred to the counseling service, but she said she did not know when, or what the outcome was. Rude refused to release any of his writings or his grades, citing privacy laws.
Obviously we cannot and should not rush to judgment until more facts are in. Nor should we penalize anyone for not having the correct amount of psychic ability to see into the future. My parents are professors at Penn State and believe me, I can understand and sympathize with the enormous challenge that managing and overseeing hundreds, if not thousands, of students every day presents.

However, it was a catastrophic and terrible decision on the part of the VT faculty to not address Seung-Hui's situation immediately and forcefully. There's no excuse for letting bureaucratic nonsense slow down a counseling process that should have begun quickly and ended definitively. Again, hindsight being what it is, it's unfair to direct blame at VT, however they may or may not have botched the situation, but this type of thing always has its warning signs. And that, unfortunately, is exactly the type of contradictory truth that these situations have in spades.

The photo above, it needs to be said, does not represent all writer-types who are quiet and like to be left alone and who write things that are occasionally wacky and a little fucked up. I write stuff like that all the time. According to my sister, I'm a little nuts. And I own guns -- I have since I was 14. But I've never, ever, ever picked one up and wanted to use it to hurt someone. Guns don't kill people. Crazy does. There's a line and I've always known exactly where it is. Most people do.

I drive through Blacksburg all the time. I've been on the VT campus more than once. In the spring of 2000 I visited a high-school friend who was attending VT, and at the time she was living in West Ambler Johnston Hall, the site of the first of the shootings. When this story first broke yesterday morning I felt a chill, because I've been there.

[UPDATE: And, sadly, as it turns out, I know one of the kids that was killed. His name was Jeremy Herbstritt. I grew up with him in rural Pennsylvania; we were in 4-H together for many years. He was a skinny, energetic, bighearted and crazy kid whom I loved to hang out with. This just keeps getting worse and worse.]

Lots of blaming and finger-pointing is going to fly around over this for a while. It will inevitably become someone else's fault that Cho Seung-Hui picked up a pair of 9mms and started blasting away, regardless of the simple fact that his was the only finger on the triggers. And as I said, there are also going to be a lot of contradictory truths flying around. People with major, major issues don't just blow their stacks apropos of nothing, but then again, events like this cannot, by their very nature, be predicted with any certainty. I can sympathize with a young man who's confused and angry and uses writing as an outlet to express dark fantasies, but I cannot condone the actions of someone who systematically murders 32 innocent people in the coldest of blood.

This is a terrible, terrible tragedy in the truest sense of the definition.

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