Tuesday, Jan 25, 2022

False Alternatives

We need to go beyond the two camps of firearm fundamentalists, who refuse to look reality in the face, but are ready to fire from the hip. We don't need any more gun-control laws. What we need are fewer idiots. Virginia Tech Administration failed its

False Alternatives
False Alternatives

Dan Brown at the Huffington Post writes that there are only two ways to go on the Virginia Tech killings. ("Virginia Tech: Two Potential Paths, April 16) - either citizens will be encouraged to spy on each other and report suspicious behavior - the paranoid response, he calls it - or, we tighten up gun laws that allow people to get as many guns as they want whenever they want it.

Talk about false alternatives. Would you really have to have been paranoid to have stopped some one like Cho Seung-Hui?

Some left anarchists (as well as adherents of the old right, like Pat Buchanan) argue that you would just need to have been armed. In 2002 the Appalachian Law School shooting, also in Virginia, resulted in only three deaths because it was stopped by armed students.

Hmm. That's where ideology minus common sense gets you. Two camps of firearm fundamentalists, who refuse to look reality in the face, but are ready to fire from the hip.

However much we may support the second amendment, do we really want students packing heat in their book bags as filled with alcohol, drugs and partying as most campuses are today? Why does the-right- to-bear-arms-in-classrooms have to be part of a pro-gun position on this? I don't think it does.

Nor do we have to end up on the other side, trying ourselves up with even more regulation on something that is already as heavily regulated as guns are. If the campus faculty and staff had been doing their jobs, Cho would have in psychiatric care of some kind. And if the campus police had been doing theirs, the campus would been closed after the first shooting, without any further delay. This has nothing to do with gun control. It has to do with ignorance about mental illness and about university officials and security falling down on the job.

Look at this young man's history. The 23 year old English major had written two plays that disturbed his classmates and teachers so much that he had been referred to counseling. What he wrote was described as "morbid and grotesque."

His plays, Richard McBeef (replete with references to pedophilia, incest and chain saw murder) and Mr. Brownstone (scatological violence, and threats against teachers) - seem to reveal a disturbed sexual identity. Read them. I was a college English teacher once. I have read some pretty lurid stories from my students. But nothing that carried so much obvious personal freight. This is some one I would have definitely put on a watch list.

Poet Nikki Giovanni, one of his professors, had been worried enough to take him out of her class. Students had stopped coming to class because Cho was taking pictures of them on his cell phone camera; some students even speculated that he might commit a campus shooting.

By the way, the name Ismail Ax found marked on Cho's arm, is probably not a reference to any jihadi association as people might assume - it is very likely a reference to Ishmael, the bastard son of Abraham, (and progenitor of the Muslims) - a name often used as a symbol for the orphans, exiles and outcasts of a society (think, "Call me Ishmael" - the opening line of Moby Dick). In the Jewish and Christian tradition, the son whom Jahweh demands that Abraham sacrifice is Isaac; in the Muslim tradition, it is said to be Ishmael. I wonder - and here I am speculating - whether Cho's references to Ismail and the plot line of Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, indicate some very troubled feelings about his own father or some other authority figure in his life - whether grounded in reality or in his own disturbed imagination, remains to be seen. Not to color this with any homophobic sentiment, it is the case that Moby Dick also has distinctly homoerotic elements.

Campus police originally did not confirm it, but now students and police confirm that Cho had stalked female students and set fire to a dorm room. Cho is also said to have made suicide threats for which he was counseled reportedly and then finally sent to a nearby treatment center. That's about what we know now and remember, the authorities have every reason to gloss over the record of suspicious behavior to minimize their responsibility. These incidents - if they occurred - should have led to a police record. If Cho had had a police record, he never would have been able to purchase a gun, even under current laws. He even had time to post a warning on an online forum: "I'm going to kill people at vtech today".

But campus police at universities are notorious for covering up or minimizing these sorts of incidents. Why? Because campus crime statistics are bad for enrollment and they reflect poorly on campus police.

Notice, however, that campus security did manage to give Cho a ticket for speeding. Doesn't that figure! Ticketing students for minor traffic offenses, as anyone who's been on a campus knows, is the favorite pastime of campus police. It makes them money. And keeps them so busy, they don't have time to bother with the trivial matter of preventing deranged young men from arming themselves to the teeth and taking out the student body.

Now we learn that Cho also left a "disturbing" note in his dorm room which vented his rage at "rich kids," "deceitful charlatans" and "debauchery," adding "You caused me to do this."

Ravings like this are also the substance of the 1800 word multimedia promo package he posted to NBC in the two hour break he managed to wangle in the midst of his murderous spree. In the photos and videos in the package, he mentioned the Columbine killers, compared himself to the crucified Christ and struck Matrix-like poses, complete with black band around his head.

How did Virginia Tech not know what this young man was thinking? He was in a creative writing class, churning out pages and pages of this sort of thing - the faculty should have been keeping tabs on him and following up on his counseling. Now the university excuses itself by saying that they could not follow up, because they were afraid of litigation. Oh, that makes sense - the laws prevented them from doing what they ought to have done - and now they want more laws?

As everyone knows, university administrations are big, hamstrung departments that spend most of their energy on bureaucratic nonsense and covering their behinds. And that's all these excuses are. I will bet you, that right now university lawyers know that Virginia Tech is in big, big trouble and they are getting ready for the mother of all law suits, as Tech parents finally realize that the high price-tag of schooling today doesn't come with any minimal safety guarantees of their kids' lives.

A bomb threat note was reportedly found next to Cho's body and the bodies of some victims, "directed at engineering school department buildings." That ties Cho directly to the bomb threats that the school received in the three weeks (April 3 and April13) preceding the massacre. With Cho's history of stalking, arson and violent talk, why had there been no earlier investigation of whether he was connected to the bomb threats? Who did the university think was behind them - the IRA?

We also know that Cho was being treated for depression. Was he taking medication? How come he was still able to buy a gun?

The chairman of the English department from where a teacher had referred him to counseling, did not follow up and find out the results. Why not? What was the sense of referring him to counseling and then not finding out what the counselor had to say about his mental condition?

The university said it misjudged the 7.15 killings, believing that one of the victims was the killer; that's why they didn't bother to warn students to keep off the campus. What business had the university to indulge in dangerous and unwarranted speculation about where or who the killer was? Common sense should have told them to quit playing Sherlock Holmes and just warn everyone off campus. What was the downside? Losing one day of classes? Look at what was in balance on the other side - dozens of lives. Shame on anyone who even suggests this was a valid excuse.

Yet, this is how Virginia Tech president Stegerd excuses himself: he says that he believed the shooting at the dorm was a "domestic dispute" and "mistakenly thought the gunman had fled the campus."

Now, which is it? Did the university think the killer died or that he fled? Why two contradictory explanations?

Did they first think one thing and then change their minds? Or haven't they got their excuses straight in time for public consumption?

Steger told Fox's Geraldo Rivera that "we closed that building immediately, surrounded it with security guards, cordoned off the street, notified all the students in the building." He added that police expressed the opinion that the incident was confined to that one building. "

Now, why in the world would the police leap to that conclusion, when they'd had two bomb threats a few weeks earlier, specifically targeting the engineering buildings - not the residence hall, where the 7.15 killings took place. Wouldn't the normal reaction be to assume that more was to follow at the threatened sites? Shouldn't they at least have warned students off the engineering buildings?

Though no weapons were found in the dormitory, the police seems to have taken some time to figure out what that meant - that the killer had fled.

Steger claims he spent part of Monday morning "trying to figure out what was going on." and only learned from radio reports that "there were multiple fatalities, another shooting incident was underway."

So there you have it - the university only got alarmed after dozens of people were massacred - a paltry two deaths weren't enough to do it for them! Are these idiotic statements symptoms of complete confusion or are officials covering up here?

"We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur," said Steger. Oh yeah? Why not?

Murderers at large (William Morva, earlier in the school year), arson, stalking, bomb threats, two killings..that wouldn't be a reason to suspect any other incident, oh nooooo..

The first two killings took place at 7.15 in the morning at Ambler Johnston dormitory, but the school's first email to students went out more than 2 hours later, after the massacre at Norris Hall had taken place. What was the reason for this frightful delay that delivered a death sentence to dozens of people?

We don't need any more gun-control laws. What we need are fewer idiots.

Post Script:

I have been getting mail telling me that Virginia Tech’s decision not to close off the engineering buildings…or shut down the campus.. was quite understandable and defensible, and that hindsight from journalists is easy. Here is my response: If hindsight is easy, why didn’t Virginia Tech benefit from it? Why is it that authorities were able to shut down the campus…and the whole town… when William Morva, a survivalist and alleged murderer, was on the loose in the neighborhood last year, but could do precious little this year? 

"The shooting was the second in the past year that forced officials to lock down the campus. In August of 2006, an escaped jail inmate shot and killed a deputy sheriff and an unarmed security guard at a nearby hospital before the police caught him in the woods near the university. The capture ended a manhunt that led to the cancellation of the first day of classes at Virginia Tech and shut down most businesses and municipal buildings in Blacksburg. The accused gunman, William Morva, is facing capital murder charges." (NY Times - "Virginia Tech Shooting Leaves 33 Dead," April 16, 2007).

Question: If they could lock down the campus for that, why not for this? Was that because in the Morva incident, the victims were police and security?

I hate to put it that way, but I feel compelled to. I do understand that the killing of policemen tends to be regarded as more heinous for a variety of reasons, some of which might be defensible, but it goes to show that Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who will guard the guardians) is always a relevant question.

Lila Rajiva is the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005) and the co-author, with best-selling financial author Bill Bonner, of Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (Wiley, September 2007). She welcomes comments on her blog


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