Friday, April 20, 2007

The Lessons of Virginia Tech


Hundreds, no thousands, perhaps millions of people trying to untie the Gordian knot tied by one deeply disturbed young man. Everyone wants to try to figure out the meaning of this horrific, macabre painting left behind.

This is not the first small town to experience a massacre at the town school. In Bath, Michigan, an angry man took the lives of 44 people, mostly children. In Dunblane, Scotland, a man killed 16 little children and their teacher. Two spoiled rich kids slaughter their classmates in Colorado. Just last year a man shot 5 little girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania. Why schools? Why children? Why do these men go on killing rampages in schools instead of seeking help?

In this case the artist was cold and calculating and he went about his business as publicly as Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Instead of leaving cloth hanging about a park this boy left otherwise healthy bodies strewn dead about the halls of learning. He shattered the lives of the friends and relatives of his victims. He even put together and mailed a publicity package designed to make him a posthumous global demon. Of course the networks complied with his posthumous request. The television and movie industry loves to make money from violence, real or imaginary. Cho makes the characters played by Jack Nicholson or Kiefer Sutherland seem timid and less frightening by comparison. There is no doubt a Hollywood script writer is working on the Virginia Tech Massacre movie right now. People can always be counted on to watch.
Eastport Tug o' War 26821
In more than 35 years of photography I have learned to examine photographs closely. You develop a sense about what was streaming through the model's mind at the time the close-up photograph was taken. You carefully learn what to say to induce the expressions your client wants to see in the photographs. You can accurately read an image, if you know what to look for.

For a short period of time I worked in a camera store, operating the huge photo printing machine in the back. After you see thousands of people's snapshots go past there is little left to surprise you. People sometimes drop off film containing the most intimate moments of their lives. People from all parts of Asia take more pictures than people from any other part of the world. Hunters take pictures of each other with their guns and with their kills. Kids take pictures of each other with the strangest expressions on their faces. It is difficult to purge some images from your thoughts.

The person in these pictures, Mr Cho, displays very little emotion, other than hatred. Most of the photographs are clearly that of an empty mind. He is not thinking about girls or something he learned in class or his family. Mr. Cho appears to have taken self-pity to the most extreme limits. In the end there must have been very little going on in his mind other than rote repetition of scenes from a grotesque play for which only he knew the words and actions.


People get sick all the time. If we claim to be a society than we must be certain we all have social lives. When you are visiting friends or family do you just ignore someone's serious illness? Of course, not, you talk about the situation, in a polite manner, but you talk about whatever it is you see going wrong.

Hey I noticed you keep falling asleep, are you getting enough rest? Your eye looks badly swollen, have you seen a doctor for that? Excuse me but for months you have not said a word in my class or any other class or to any other person at this school, is everything OK?

Parents know more about their children than anyone else. If good parents see their child is deeply disturbed about something, totally withdrawn for months on end, do they ignore it? I realize teenagers are prone to all sorts of emotional outbursts and periods of silence but typically even these come in waves that soon pass. It is parents that know the difference between a mood swing and some deeper disturbance. Responsible parents would seek out help for their afflicted child as quickly as possible.


I once was a member of a jury for a trial about two teenagers that shot themselves. This tragedy occurred in the 1990's in Rockville, Maryland. Like the tragedy at Virginia Tech, many people were quick to state that they knew these two teenagers were out of step with society. The trial was even an attempt to throw blame at the school counselors who knew the two girls were unstable and considering suicide. The father knew, the neighbors knew, the friends knew, everybody had known about these two girls for a long time. The school even put them in a facility with all the other troubled kids. The parents did not have enough time to spend with the children. One of the parents kept a loaded handgun at home. You fill in the ending to that story.


In regards to firearms, the United States needs to carefully start learning from the rest of the world. The crimes committed with guns in this country leave us open to comparison with the tribal areas of Pakistan and Darfur in Sudan. European cities, not just London, but most of the continent experiences far fewer gun-related homicides than the U.S.. Hunting is still practiced by those that want to hunt in those places. Easily concealed semi-automatic handguns are simply not sold and not permitted without ample regulation and reason. In places as far ranging as Australia and India the penalty for just possessing illegal guns is many years in jail.

Arguments about protecting civil liberties taken from the U.S. Bill of Rights are valid. Please keep a musket or perhaps a rifle in your home if you feel that insecure about a possible revolution or invasion of your home. If you must carry a gun for business consider that there are alternatives to carrying large amounts of cash all around town. If you still need to be armed be certain to practice using your properly registered gun. Keep it stored safely when not in use, never fail to consider the consequences of tragedy it presents. It is a wonder so many people besides law enforcement officers even tolerate handguns in a family home.

If you think having everyone toting an automatic weapon around is a solution to all crime you are badly mistaken. The proliferation of handguns more often leads to needless death than convenient protection from an impending threat.

If you consider yourself an informed citizen you should give a little more thought to gun ownership. Don't wait for the government to force a decision on you. Does it make sense for you to own a handgun? Do you have children in your home? If you must keep a gun how often do you practice using it?

Do you live in a rural area where the threat of animals or even other humans concerns you? I knew a man that lived on the edge of a desert in New Mexico. His handgun came in handy when the rattlesnakes got in the house but his rifle proved more accurate. When he got married and had children, his handguns were sold and the rifle was always kept on the highest rungs of the gun rack. He also moved out of the desert.

Clean up your gun situation if you have too many of them lying around the house. If you hunt be a safe hunter. These were not the causes of this situation but sloppy gun owners do contribute to the number of unnecessary gun-related deaths each year.


These young and old people lost their lives as a result of something that could have been prevented. The engineering professor or the German professor would have wanted everyone to learn something from their last moments alive. Their last act was to teach us all something but we do not get to ask questions in this class.

Deep down, Mr. Cho and other people knew there was something wrong with him. It does not make anyone right or wrong for not getting help. People can be quite sick and still remain ignorant of the severity of their illness. We all just need to react more quickly when we see the signs. It is too late if we simply wait until the kettle boils over.

Parents are on the front line in this struggle all of us face. Nobody wants to suffer a pointless death as a result of an errant child. Learn a little more about your child than you know now, is that so much to ask? When Mom and Dad work full-time the moments you do have together become more precious.

Technology may yet offer us all one more safety net. We all know the government is collecting every piece of data it can about all of us in some desperate attempt to root out a terrorist. Would it be so difficult to query a few databases and determine the registered gun owners that are receiving psychiatric treatment? Is it an invasion of privacy to intervene before your office or the neighborhood school becomes a firing range?

Get out in your world more often. Turn off the violent movies, television or video games. Meet the people that share the part of the planet you live on. If someone in your life seems withdrawn and sad, make a little more effort to open them up some. When you think you have done all you can to help someone or yourself, ask someone else for a their opinion. Oh that someone would have bothered to follow-up on the lost fellow in their midst just one more time.


There are no easy answers to the question "Why?". In some cases it almost seems that the killers are just seeking attention from the world around them. Why else did Cho send his package of videos and photographs to NBC? In some cases mass murderers seem to be sparked by the news coverage of other recent mass killings. A killer in Port Arthur, Tasmania seems to have been inspired by the killing six months earlier in Dunblane. Cho seems to have been at least partially inspired by the Columbine killers. He certainly would have heard about the Amish school killings just six months ago.

Mental health professionals can speculate all they want about the state of mind of these killers but even the uneducated can determine that these people were not thinking straight while plotting and carrying out these nefarious plots. Other people will look to their gods for answers but the existence of an all-powerful being that does not interfere with the killing of innocent little children causes doubt even among the most devout religious persons. In the end we must consider real world causes in order to stop the next demon from running loose in our schools.

Little changes like locks on classroom doors might be a start. Gun owners and manufacturers control the government in this country so, as usual, we can expect our government to do nothing about the proliferation of firearms not designed for normal hunting. After the killings in Blacksburg, Virginia and Killeen, Texas, gun owners immediately started shouting that people must be allowed to carry concealed weapons. Texas even legalized concealed weapons in response to the Luby Diner Massacre. Good idea, let our schools become the next OK Corral.

Better mental health treatment seems like a good idea but again, our government will not allow everyone to get health care. In this country you must be a financial success to get proper medical care, period, end of discussion.

Stop allowing our children to ingest a television, movie, and video game diet of violence. Unfortunately few parents are brave enough to go that far. Adults consume more sickening media content than children so the business of selling violence can only be expected to grow year after year, with our own money feeding the beast.

So our society is unwilling to restrict gun sales, unwilling to provide medical treatment for everyone, loves to watch violence, and eager to earn advertising dollars by selling weeks of coverage of these and other crimes. It sure looks like our nation just wants these kinds of mass murderers to be free to continue killing as they see fit. Soon a hundred thousand trained killers will be returning from the war for oil in the Middle East. We are already getting prepared for that by having the worst possible veterans health care system in-place when they arrive home. We call ourselves the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth but we end up looking as weak as the most poorly-run nations in the Third World.

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