The headlines on the report on the U.S. massacre at Virginia Tech got it wrong. But so did the report, which missed the point so spectacularly that had it been delivered at a shooting range, everyone would have been killed by their own weapons.
The school’s to blame.
“Virginia failures ‘must be fixed,’” the BBC reported. “Virginia Tech Criticized for Response to Shootings,” said MTV.com, which is a shame because young people actually read that and will be misled. The New York Times crept tortoise-like on its path to death by dullness with “Panel on Virginia Tech Shooting Issues Report,” a story that used the word “communication” twice in the first sentence, thus signalling to readers that nothing of worth or interest would follow.
Last April 16, Seung Hui Cho shot 37 people to death, wounded 17 and killed himself. Almost all of this took place inside one building, within 10 minutes.
This was not actually big news, so accustomed are Americans to school shootings. Since Charles Whitman started picking people off from a tower at the University of Texas in 1966, 163 people have been shot to death and 239 wounded in 42 American school killings.
The Virginia Tech report includes an appendix listing these incidents. The famed law firm Skadden Arps compiled them for free, which is fortunate for the school, as they are so badly listed that it is not clear in some cases how many actually died, nor are the figures added; the appendix, like the entire report, is rife with grammatical errors, including two in the Virginia Tech paragraph alone.
Neither does Skadden point out that the killings have accelerated, with 31 shootings taking place in the 12 years since 1995, and only 11 in the 29 years before that. That means clumping. That means, expect another killing soon.
You may say that, I can hear Skadden retorting, but we could not possibly comment. But why should I and Virginia Tech have to do the math? I presume that when Skadden, the third-highest-grossing law firm in the world, does work pro bono, you get iffy numbers and no advice. I’d avoid them if your divorce is going at all badly.
Not in the report
Skadden also politely excluded three incidents where police shot students, including Kent State in 1970. These were “incidents involving protests,” it says primly.
The whole report is prim. Take this sentence that sums up the fatuous stupidity of lawmakers’ passive-aggression in the face of gun violence in America today: “Mass fatality events present enormous challenges.”
No kidding. Tom Ridge, the first head of the Department of Homeland Security, helped write the report. He goes from strength to strength, that man.
The news is buried. And the news is this: Virginia Tech concludes that if the police had been smarter, the death toll could have been reduced.
For instance, Cho first shot a female student and the male student who came to rescue her. He then left for his mass killing. But police, told that the dead woman had had a loving boyfriend who had a gun, dismissed this as a “domestic,” even though a gunman killing two men near the school the previous year had resulted in a massive alert cross-campus.
The school didn’t send out its bland and reassuring e-mail alert until more than two hours after the first killings. But here’s the key sentence that follows: “But none of these measures would likely have averted a mass shooting altogether.”
In other words, if you want to kill a huge number of people and you can easily get hold of a gun, there is very little the campus staff or local police or SWAT teams can do to stop you. And the report got this right. It’s not just that the school and the police made a number of fast, bad decisions, it’s that a killer with a Walther handgun (bought online) and a Glock handgun (local gun shop) and 400 rounds of ammunition (Wal-Mart) in rapid-loading magazines is going to have his way.
When Cho shot himself, he still had half his ammo.
More casualties a certainty
The report quietly makes clear (and no, it does not say this in the final recommendations but slips it in midway though a recital of the gunman’s footsteps) that the question is not if-or-when another school shooting will take place, but how many casualties there will be.
Canadians are perhaps weary of Americans refusing to mention gun control, even as the coroner notes that one victim took nine bullets but most were blasted with fewer than three. Even the parents of the dead students don’t demand gun control. With 90 guns for every 100 people in the U.S., as a new study has just revealed, the mass killers on the way likely already have their weapons.
But there is an interesting parallel to Canada in the forms Cho was asked to fill out when he bought his guns. There are two forms, federal and state. The state form is cursory. The federal form asked Cho whether he had an adjudicated condition, meaning a court ruling declaring him mentally defective or committing him to an institution. Presumably that could be checked.
Cho allegedly answered no, but the panel wasn’t allowed to see the forms he filled out, which were destroyed within 30 days anyway, both restrictions courtesy of National Rifle Association lobbying. His psychiatric hospital history was not in the database, anyway, so Cho got away with it. And these checks aren’t mandatory in the first place.
The Canadian system is different, and better. Presumably the gun registration system was costly because it is admirably meticulous. Among many personal questions, it asks the buyer, crucially, whether he has suffered from depression, alcohol, drug or substance abuse, behavioural problems or emotional problems in the past five years.
In other words, they don’t merely seek an adjudicated illness, where a court or mental hospital has dealt with the illness. They ask whether you have these problems, even if you had the cunning to avoid the legal or medical establishment noticing it.
I’m proud that Canada does this. And the reason involves the one true hero in the months leading up to Cho’s slaughter. The poet Nikki Giovanni had Cho in her class and eventually told the school he was dangerous and she would quit if they didn’t get him out. We’ve all been in her situation. We’ve all had crazy co-workers. Who of us would speak up with such courage?
I won’t use polite or legal euphemisms here. Cho was insane. He scared students out of their wits; he stabbed carpets with knives; he called his classmates animals to be massacred in a butcher shop; he was abnormal. Colloquially speaking, he was nuts in the head. God forbid my being insensitive, but only Giovanni had the courage to be so.
Cho’s menace was apparent to almost everyone. And if he had walked into a gun shop in Canada, the shop owner would have been legally compelled to notice that the guy in front of him in the reflective glasses had long ago driven round the bend and right over the edge.
In the U.S., everyone was legally allowed not to care that a crazy guy was being given the means to kill hundreds.
Good for us and our system, but it’s tragic that this is even an issue.
I have long had a fondness for dereliction as portrayed in art, perhaps because I grew up in northern Canada where things don’t rot and collapse. It’s too cold for that and buildings are too precious. (If I have not done this before, let me direct you to a fascinating collection of photographs of ruination at www.derelictlondon.com.)
The Canadian photographer Greg Girard has produced a coffee table book called Phantom Shanghai. It’s a collection of beautiful, buckling, filthy buildings from old Shanghai, structures of poetry, all about to be bulldozed for glass condo towers. The Canadian writer William Gibson, author of the new Spook Country, has written the introduction. He’s in agony at the destruction of the landscape he envisioned as the setting for his novel Neuromancer. “And beyond the shattered matchstick fields of progress arise these shoals of cheap-ass concrete thunderheads,” he writes bitterly. He looks at Phantom Shanghai. “I look again, and again am struck silent.” It’s unnerving, deeply sad, but quite luminous.
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