The unspeakable happened at Virginia Tech University, on April 16, 2007, reminding us all that murder at school has "graduated" from the campuses of high school to the hallowed halls of university. Thirty-two students went to school to get educated and, instead, got executed. The shooter, one Cho Seung-Hui, shared his pain and suffering, purportedly from being jilted by his girlfriend. He employed two handguns, one a 9mm semi-automatic, to kill 32 other students on the campus of one of the nation's notable universities. There are no logical answers for why an adult university student would suddenly go berserk and plan and vent his outrage by randomly killing innocent people all around him, picking them off like they were plastic, rotating ducks at the country fair. The questions we have, and the ones that are yet to come, are almost more than we can bear. They assault the mind relentlessly; they come randomly yet with reason. Why didn't he simply move on after the relationship soured? In what manner did his girlfriend allegedly end their affair? Was he a batterer? How long had he owned the handguns? Did he buy them after his girlfriend jilted him and, specifically, to vent his rage upon others in murderous pre-meditated acts? How could one person kill so many people with just a couple of handguns?
It is this last question that hits us between the eyes and sends us reeling. The shooter's 9mm semi-automatic handgun apparently (according to some high school-age gangbangers incarcerated for homicide and other violent acts in a juvenile jail to which I give my time monthly) had a "banana clip" capable of holding up to 36 bullets. With such sustained firepower, he was in for the long haul. For good measure, he had ammunition belts strapped on. That he mercilessly killed 32 innocent people tells us yet another awful truth: Our gun technology far exceeds our technology for making us better, compassionate, understanding, more loving and forgiving human beings. The perpetrator of this unspeakable carnage apparently planned his acts, acquired "full capacity" firepower, chain-locked his students in separate hallways at different campus locations, one-quarter of a mile apart, and, with the precision of an assassin, committed his demonic deeds. Why didn't he invest similar efforts in patching up his differences with his girlfriend? Why didn't he seek immediate counseling for the raging anger taking over his life? Why didn't somebody notice his change in mood and other telltale signs? Why was he able to methodically kill his first set of victims, then wait for the lapse in security that lifted the campus lockdown and march to the other side of the university and slay his second set of victims? Why? Why? Why?
Unable to tolerate being rejected in love, he decided to make war--and to hell with the human-victim collateral damages. The desire to wantonly kill is such a drastically extreme decision, and yet it is this apparently well-planned and methodically-executed "triumph" that compels our attention. I have spent years in state youth prisons interviewing males and females who have killed. All of them told me the act was not as difficult as they first thought it would be. With simple planning, they got the job done. And that's where part of the problem lies. We perhaps think, especially at the university level, that taking the life of another is too difficult-either emotionally-wrenching or physically-arduous-to accomplish and, therefore, impossible to achieve. Yet, students who are otherwise mentally sound, but swept off by their emotional, perfect storms, manage to conceive of effective, deadly ways to vent their rage and frustration, and take a whole lot of people down with them in a blaze of gunfire. Remember the Columbine High School shooters? How do we identify and isolate such people without making the school campus a locked-down armed and occupied detention camp for the rest of the student body? That is a question that faces us as we systematically attempt to re-evaluate and make more secure our campuses nationwide, without making prisons of our universities, the exception being that the latter award advanced degrees.
Media pundits are spending lots of air-time brainstorming about whether the "good students" (their term, to thus differentiate them from the bad Mr. Cho) should have had guns with which to face-off Cho. That presents a unique set of other problems. Let's consider some of them: Who, among us, is able to adjudge a student "good" and therefore worthy of carrying a loaded gun on campus? Which of the "good" students can be adjudged "better" than other merely-good students for withstanding the various stressors of university life (homework assignments, exams, lab projects, late tuition, late rent, love-life stresses, parent and other family problems) without resorting to acts of violence? Which of the "good" students is both astute and courageous enough to know when his time has come to thwart and vanquish evil on campus-and do all that without injuring other students, good and otherwise? We must remember that "good" police officers, in the pitch of gun battle, have accidentally shot a fellow officer. And let us not forget that the military coined the term "friendly fire" to differentiate those rare but horrific occasions when a soldier dies from a bullet fired by a comrade. The idea of "good" students with guns is just as ludicrous as Santa Claus sitting in the White House as President. How would the "good" students track down, identify, or otherwise "know" the student who, because of "suspicious" behavior, needs to be reigned in? And just what is "suspicious behavior" on campus? Hanging out alone? Writing dark and moody poems? Coming to class drunk a few times a week? Uttering a curse word or two while sauntering through the commissary? I see no clear reason why "good" students (whoever they are) ought to be entrusted with the 40-ton weight on their backs of providing additional security on campus.
While we are planning and strategizing to make our schools safer, we can start now by building into all our curricula-from middle school to university-required courses in non-violent social behavior grounded in law and ethics, as well as courses that engage the mind in problem-solving of cases designed around personal, psychological, and social conflicts and consequences. Students, from middle school to college, need violence education and prevention courses, focusing on their personal responsibilities, the same focus propelling the Driver's Education and Training courses they gleefully took, to qualify for their drivers' licenses before entering university. "Driving" one's life through its infinite, complex highways is as important as driving one's motor vehicle safely, without accident or injury to self or others. If we can have driver's education courses, then we also must have violence education and prevention courses. Using this driver education/life education example, let's look at the stark behavioral contrast: One student meticulously plans a vacation after final exams to drive for days through the beautiful countryside to visit family and friends downstate. Excitement builds as the days of the country fair, rodeo classic, and country music shindigs approach. Square dancing steps are dutifully practiced so a missed call won't invite the scold, "You been upstate in school too long." Another student (Cho) plans with equal meticulousness his own pre-summer "event." He buys two different handguns, waits out the registration period, gets cleared, and completes the purchase and picks them up. Enamored of hyperbole and gross exaggeration in the English language, he writes a manifesto condemning "rich country club kids," who are "living off their trust funds" and engaging in "acts of debauchery." Then he rants and raves it is they who have created him; and proclaims they, therefore, must stand in judgment and receive their just punishment. This punishment must be meted out by him. Part of his meticulous planning includes producing a graphic, almost obscene, video clip and mailing it to a major news organization in New York City. His hope is that they will air it on the nightly news and thus facilitate his goal to go out in a blaze of glory. The news organization airs the tape. Cho Seung-Hui killed himself at Virginia Tech after he had already massacred 32 others. In his highly-demented mind, he became a "tragic hero." I am saddened that, while he felt his cause legitimate enough to inform a news organization about, he never sought out anybody on campus who might have helped him; he never explored the feelings or situations of others; he never contributed himself, his talent, tithe and treasure to helping anybody else. Perhaps he did; the current evidence, however, suggests otherwise. What I am getting at is that he lived alone and died lonely.
Last week, I was threatened, attacked, and injured by a ward of the court school where I give my twenty days a month. Paramedics rushed me to the hospital and informed me that I had lost a lot of blood, from crashing to the cement floor, and coaxed me to keep my eyes open until we arrived at the emergency ward. As doctors began stitching together my badly damaged jaw, onlookers kept asking if I would return to the juvenile jail, and if I was going to file a criminal complaint against the youth who attacked me. As an expert witness who testifies on gangs, juvenile violence/homicide, and school safety, I cannot vote to prosecute a youth simply because, in his deranged way, he thought he was correcting part of his life by "re-arranging" part of mine (my face). Yes, working in a court school is often a thankless job. The wards would rather ridicule teachers there to serve them than express gratitude for the talents many of us bring to the jail. I have already said I am not interested in pursuing the state youth prison for this kid. The powers-that-be and I are negotiating, deliberating, communicating-painstakingly doing a ballet without stepping on each other's shoes-positively and earnestly. I only wish that the 32 Virginia Tech students slain by Cho Seung-hui had the opportunity to negotiate, deliberate, and communicate positively and earnestly with whatever power that seized him on that fateful Monday, April 16, 2007. Though I was unconscious for a period of time, I came back. Each day, I am getting stronger. I cry silently when I think those unfortunate students didn't. They can't and they won't. Let us remember their commitment to get an education and make the world a better place.
Dr. James E. Shaw teaches law in the Police Sciences curriculum at El Camino Community College, California's largest community college. He is a member of the Panel of Experts of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Foltz Criminal Justice Center. He is an Expert Witness who enjoys a large media profile on NBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, and FOX News, as a result of his nationally-acclaimed book, Jack and Jill, Why They Kill, used in colleges and universities nationwide. A Superior Court-certified expert, his expertise is in Gangs; Street Terrorism; School Safety; and Juvenile Violence/Personal Injury. He works nationwide and has provided opinion and testimony in a federal court gang bank heist cast; a U.S. Navy court-martial gang case; a triple murder death penalty gang case; a prison parolee school assault case; weapons cases; and numerous school safety personal injury and gang-related cases. He was one of the keynote speakers at the Columbine High School memorial ceremonies honoring the slain students. He is also the author of a violence prevention and education curriculum, B.R.A.V.E. ("Be Resilient Avoid Violence Everywhere") and a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
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