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Opening Arguments

The Lone Gunman

The blame game has shifted from "Why didn't officials at Virginia Tech lock the campus down after the first incident?" to "Why weren't the clear warning signs in Cho Seung-Hui's behavior heeded?"

The hostility in the videos was foreshadowed in 2005, when Mr. Cho's sullen and aggressive behavior culminated in an unsuccessful effort by the campus police to have him involuntarily committed to a mental institution in December.

For all the interventions by the police and faculty members, Mr. Cho was allowed to remain on campus and live with other students. There is no evidence that the police monitored him and no indication that the authorities or fellow students were aware of any incident that pushed him to his rampage.

But what could have been done, exactly? Profiling those with mental illness is just as fraught with peril as profiling racial minorities. You could find hundreds of people in Indiana with symptoms like Cho's, the vast majority of whom will not go on to become mass murderers. They will have lives of quiet agony, and some will end up killing themselves. If the signs were 100 percent accurate, such-and-such symptoms will always result in innocents being killed, the case could be made for just locking people up. If the accuracy rate were something like one-in-a-thousand, an incarceration solution would bring out the civil libertarian in all of us. But what about an accuracy rate of 90 percent, or 70?

Certainly the school could have just kicked him out, especially after the two stalking incidents, and maybe it should have. That would have protected Virginia Tech students, but a likely outcome would have been that 32 different people died in some other location. More intense counseling? An involuntary commitment for evaluation and treatment? Sneaking anti-depressants into his coffee? Anyone who has been around the mental-health field even a little bit knows how tricky all this is, conflicting opinions about what to do made even more difficult by myriad laws, regulations and protocols. It's more art than science, and every day, it seems, what you knew yesterday isn't true to day. Stop giving antidepressants to your children -- it will make them suicidal! Oh, wait; that's not exactly true.

Cho is obviously the kind of person who should not have access to guns -- I haven't heard even ardent Second Amendment supporters say otherwise this week. That may be an argument for better background checks -- not that a really determined person can't find a way to get a gun:

All background check systems work at the margin. They don't work perfectly. They may only prevent the prohibited person from buying at a dealer, causing him to look for a private seller. But any system that isn't hideously expensive--and still works at the margin--can be a good thing.

If 2% of prohibited persons, because they can't buy from a dealer, decide not to buy a gun, or need to spend more money or time to find a private seller, this can be a good thing.

All of this brings us to Cho's package to NBC, which included his video full of paranoid ramblings. There's already a huge discussion going on about the ethics of running the thing and the effect it might have on future alienated young people. A psychiatrist who is a consultant for ABC-TV News was on "Good Morning America" today and embarrassed them by begging the network to please stop showing the stuff:

If anybody cares about the victims in Blacksburg and if anybody cares about their children, stop showing this video now. Take it off the Internet. Let it be relegated to YouTube," Welner said. "This is a social catastrophe. Showing the video is a social catastrophe."

[. . .]

Welner believes that instead of offering insight, these videos merely offer validation of delusional behavior.

"I think that's very important for the viewing audience to understand. This is not him.These videos do not help us understand him. They distort him. He was meek. He was quiet. This is a PR tape of him trying to turn himself into a Quentin Tarantino character," Welner said. "This is precisely why this should not be released. Parents, you should cut the pictures out of the newspaper. Do not let your children see it. Take them out of the room when these videos are shown. Because he's paranoid and his agenda of blaming the rest of the world is unedited."

"There's nothing to learn from this except giving it validation."

We may all look back on this and wish NBC had just destroyed the package and not said anything about it. The First Amendment works best when those of us who rely on it take some responsibility for our actions and agree that we don't always have to do something just because we can. It's a lot like the Second Amendment in that respect.

Posted in: Current Affairs


Bob G.
Thu, 04/19/2007 - 6:16am

"The First Amendment works best when those of us who rely on it take some responsibility for our actions and agree that we don't always have to do something just because we can."

One word...AMEN!