Lessons from Blacksburg

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  • Lessons from Blacksburg

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Lessons from Blacksburg

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By Armin Rosen
PUBLISHED APRIL 19, 2007

It unfolded like a terrifying set-piece, and each new item of information seemed more trite and intuitive than the next: the killer had been a student. He had been a social outcast, homicidally contemptuous of the society that he felt had cast him out. The guns used had been purchased legally. And there had been warning signs that now seem to have stopped tantalizingly short of portending the coming carnage. "When this is all said and done," the online magazine Slate cited one blogger as writing a few hours after the shooting, "we will likely have an unhappy young person who probably had an unhealthy obsession with guns, violence, gory video games, and over the top blood-fest movies"-which means that, even in its horrifying randomness, the Virginia Tech shooting takes on a grim aspect of predictability.

But what should this predictability teach us? Since noted poet and Virginia Tech English professor Lucinda Roy found Cho Seung-Hui unstable enough to justify contacting campus counseling services over 18 months prior to the attack, it could be argued that universities and society in general should be more aggressive in administering psychological help to those who obviously need it. We Americans are great believers in therapy: with nearly one in four adults seeking professional help and Adderall alone bringing in over a quarter-billion dollars in annual revenue, we, arguably, have put more faith in the redemptive powers of the clinical or prescriptive than any other society on earth. But it would be a mistake to let this past week's events reinforce this notion that normalcy can be clinically prescribed, or, as some have recommended, clinically imposed. As author Deepak Chopra appropriately noted in an interview with CNN, psychologist Abraham Maslow maintains that love and belonging are as fundamental to human existence as food and shelter. And the professional concern of a therapist for her patient can't fill basic emotional or social voids any better than social relationships alone can cure mental illness.

Does this teach us that our society predisposes people to committing horrific killing sprees? I, for one, appreciate a certain irony in the fact that this event has ultimately strengthened the very community from which Cho felt so excluded. However, it is patently insensitive to blame the Virginia Tech community for excluding someone who was so invisible to it. And, by all accounts, Cho was not just invisible to those around him, but invisible to himself as well: by shaving off his weapons' serial numbers, carrying no identification, and committing suicide in a way that would obscure his most individual physical feature-his face-he argued against his own humanity and individuality. So if we are to blame the community as a whole for its exclusivity, then it would be disingenuous because we too fail to reach out to those in potential danger of lapsing into a permanent state of social and personal non-existence.

But is the existence of such people alone enough to teach us that our society is somehow structured to produce killing sprees like the one at Virginia Tech? In his seminal work, Suicide (1897), sociologist Emile Durkheim poses a similar question, and proceeds to argue that the social and historical consistency of the suicide rate proves the act to be an unalterable "social fact," built into the social structure. It's terrifying to think of the destructive confluence of mental instability, exclusion and a propensity for violence as one such "social fact." But reactions to the massacre suggest that that's exactly how a lot of people feel: for instance, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert blamed a "staggering amount of murders" on "feelings of inadequacy, psychosexual turmoil and the easy availability of guns." According to Herbert, the only item over which we, as a society, have conscious control is the last.

Yet, if we learn one thing from the Virginia Tech massacre, it should be the importance of using what sliver of control we do have. We can encourage people like Cho to seek the help they desperately need without expecting that help to be a cure-all. We can reach out to the socially alienated, and make an effort to acknowledge those people who we would usually ignore. We can also limit the availability of handguns. Most importantly, we can insist that this past Monday's event were not structural, and avoid lapsing into the kind of cynicism that might have made such an event possible in the first place.

Scores of Facebook groups have a name derived from the phrase "Today, we are all Hokies." The phrase was meant as a show of solidarity with a university suffering in ways none of us can imagine. But as long as we keep internalizing, tolerating, or even ignoring the factors that led to Monday's attack it, also functions as a cynical truth: we are all vulnerable. And in that respect, we are all Hokies.


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Photo By: Shana Rubin

Original Source: Columbia Spectator
<a href="http://www.columbiaspectator.com/node/24952">http://www.columbiaspectator.com/node/24952</a>

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Armin Rosen (Author)/Shana Rubin (Photo)

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2008-02-18

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Kacey Beddoes

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Tom Faure (tomfaure@gmail.com)

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eng

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Armin Rosen (Author)/Shana Rubin (Photo), "Lessons from Blacksburg," in The April 16 Archive, Item #1690, http://april16archive.org/items/show/1690 (accessed July 30, 2014).