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A Reluctant Note on the Virginia Tech Shooting

Aside from the actual sadness of events such as this, I am additionally saddened by how they tend to play out in public. They become instant platforms for people with all sorts of motives to opine and rant against their pet targets — media, guns, mental illness, privacy, etc. — when in fact what happened was a tragedy and an anomaly that, in a perfect world, would be received with a greater measure of thoughtfulness (and perhaps simple silence, or mourning) and much less screaming. I find the media “introspection” the most distracting: CNN flagellates itself for using so much Cho footage, for instance, while elsewhere, NBC is praised for its judicious use of same.

The rush to say something — anything — in response to such an event inevitably produces responses like this one, which isn’t so much offensive (to my mind at least, though I’m on the fence) as simply valueless. But that’s just me. One person’s trash is another’s treasure.

Perhaps in writing this very post I am as guilty as anyone, and nothing but a hypocrite, but there were a few things of interest I wanted to pass along.

Many of you wrote in to ask for a Freakonomical take on the issue of Cho’s obtaining his guns and ammunition. FWIW, here is an article by Carl Bialik, the Wall Street Journal‘s “Numbers Guy,” on how various people are using various data to make arguments for or against gun control.

A smaller but more salient point here pertains to a discussion on this blog a few weeks ago about how a columnist for a newspaper in Roanoke, Va., posted a database of people in the area who had concealed-handgun permits. The comments on the blog were vigorous, touching on many of the points that keep the gun debate going in this country.

One point that wasn’t mentioned (unless I missed it in the comments) was that one function of a database of gun licensees is that the other agencies who maintain databases — court records, e.g., in which a person has been declared dangerous — could use it as a cross reference.

That’s the point of interest in the Cho scenario. According to this New York Times article, Cho “should have been prohibited from buying a gun after a Virginia court declared him to be a danger to himself in late 2005.” And he actually purchased one of his guns in Roanoke.

The other point of interest to me concerns this OpEd published in the New York Times the day after the shooting. That means it was written the day of the shooting. The author is Lucinda Roy, who teaches writing at Virginia Tech. The piece was beautifully written, a melancholy reflection on the discordant nature of tragedy striking in a serene place such as Blacksburg. Roy had just returned from a trip to Sierra Leone, and found the peace of Blacksburg much to her liking:

But Blacksburg isn’t a place of massacres – Blacksburg is my home in southwest Virginia. It’s boring – that’s why I like it. We are Virginia Tech, the fighting gobblers, the ones who wear the funny turkey hats and plant tasteless turkey sculptures all over town. We are not the stuff of massacres.

This was written before the killer’s identity was known. As it turned out, Lucinda Roy knew the killer well, as was made clear in this Times article a few days later:

Professor Lucinda Roy, who was the head of the English Department in the fall of 2005, chose to deal with Mr. Cho by removing him from a group class and tutoring him. She also passed along his writing, which she described as “angry,” to both the Virginia Tech police and the university counseling service.

In a subsequent Times article, there was more detail about Roy’s relationship with Cho, and her fear of him:

Lucinda Roy, then head of the English Department at Virginia Tech, began to tutor him privately. She, too, was unnerved. She brought him to the attention of the counseling service and the campus police because she thought he was so miserable he might kill himself.

During their private sessions, she arranged a code with her assistant. If she uttered the name of a dead professor, the assistant was to call security.

After reading this, I couldn’t help thinking: What was going through Roy’s mind when she wrote the OpEd, before Cho’s identity was revealed? Did she, in her heart of hearts, fear that this distraught young man was the killer?

When I was a kid, growing up in a rural area of upstate New York, I got scared every time I heard a distant fire siren: I was sure that it was my house on fire. It never was, but the fear never quite subsided. My fear, it turns out, was pretty much irrational. Lucinda Roy’s fear, it turns out, wasn’t. The ramifications of this horrible crime will play out for many years, in many people’s minds. I wouldn’t presume to know how, or along what contours. All I know is that I hope that the next time something this terrible happens, there is some time and space set aside for hard, quiet reflection and mourning, and less attention paid to the shouters of every stripe.