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A tragedy that didn't have to happen

April 27, 2007 | Page 5

ALAN MAASS looks at the many failures of the system that allowed the Virginia Tech nightmare to happen.

IN THE week after the murderous rampage by a Virginia Tech student that left 33 people dead, millions of people had a single question: How could this happen?

The terrible answer is: all too easily, in a society that fails the most basic tests of meeting the needs of people living in it.

The killings at Virginia Tech are the result of failures at many levels--the failure of school officials and police to put the safety of students and employees first, the failure of this country's mental health care system, the failure of those at the top of society who preach against violence while employing it themselves without mercy in pursuit of their own interests.

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AFTER A week of the mass media documenting each stage in the shooting spree, the behavior of university officials and campus police stands out as especially incompetent.

Cho Seung-Hui committed his first two murders early in the morning, but rather than close the campus or even cancel classes for the day--if not for security concerns, then out of respect for the victims--the administration waited several hours to send out a veiled e-mail that reached students minutes before the second stage of the massacre began.

School officials say they guessed wrong--despite having received two bomb threats in the preceding weeks, both apparently made by Cho--that the first killings were the result of a "domestic dispute." Left unstated was the high priority that administrators would have put on containing news of "domestic violence" in a school dorm, for fear of bad publicity.

After the killings began inside the Norris Hall classroom building, police arrived on the scene within minutes, but remained outside, taking cover, while Cho fired multiple bullets into virtually all his victims, reportedly sometimes returning to different rooms to do so.

When the officers finally entered the building and reached the victims, Cho had killed himself--and police spent the next minutes sticking guns in the faces of terrified students.

As Alexander Cockburn pointed out on CounterPunch, the police in Columbine, Colo. showed similar timidity in the school shooting eight years ago--they were on the scene while the two student killers claimed their victims in the library over a 15-minute period, but only entered two hours later.

These facts ought to undercut the predictable calls for police to be further armed to the teeth to prevent school shootings. The SWAT teams that stormed Norris Hall were well-enough armed, but of no use in saving the lives of Virginia Tech students.

The police once again proved that they are far less capable of protecting people from the real threats to their safety than they are of harassing and brutalizing the defenseless victims they target each and every day.

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IN DEFENDING the inaction on campus, State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty told the Washington Post, "No one knew Cho existed until he started shooting people."

That's simply not true. Cho's fellow students and his teachers at Virginia Tech had long recognized him as a threat to himself and others.

His murderous fantasies played out in assignments for writing classes, according to teachers. Poet Nikki Giovanni said that Cho's work for an introductory creative writing class was so alarming--as well as his routine of taking students' pictures with his cell phone camera--that at one point, only seven students out of 70 showed up to class. The rest, she was told, feared Cho.

But it was left to the head of the English Department, Lucinda Roy, to volunteer to teach Cho in private sessions. University officials were sympathetic, Roy said, but offered only police protection, not any extra effort in getting help for Cho.

When a fellow student and his family reported one of Cho's threats to commit suicide in 2005, a counselor at an off-campus mental health facility recommended voluntary commitment. Cho was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he was found to be mentally ill, but not an imminent threat to himself or others. So he was discharged, with a recommendation for outpatient treatment, which he apparently didn't attend.

Whatever the mistakes in this case, this is symptomatic of a mental health system overwhelmed by increasing numbers of people seeking help--but dwindling resources.

On college campuses, the Anxiey Disorders Association of America reports that one in eight students at major universities now use campus mental health services.

"We're well aware that problems are getting worse, but what hasn't happened is increasing funding for mental health services," Sherry Benton, a psychologist and assistant director of counseling services at Kansas State University, told the Associated Press. "Most centers are now overwhelmed. Business has gone up and up, but budgets have remained the same or been cut, and that's a huge problem."

In the University of California system, for example, after years of cutbacks, only $4.6 million is budgeted for mental health services--a far cry from what's needed, according to the administrator who co-chairs the system's Student Mental Health Committee. Michael Young says the system needs to spend eight or 10 times that much to make up for decades of underfunding.

Benton says that students are more likely today to seek help, which is a good thing--but also that stress levels are greater than for previous generations, the result of higher work levels and the increased financial strain of attending college.

And the appalling truth is that colleges and universities have an interest in not treating troubled students--and finding ways to get rid of them instead.

According to an article on, universities that fear being held liable in cases of students committing suicide "are taking more drastic--and controversial--measures to head off legal trouble. Many schools are drafting or enforcing rigid withdrawal policies that could boot mentally ill students off campus at the first sign of worrisome behavior.

"Others, such as the University of Illinois and the University of Washington, are requiring students who even talk about suicide to meet with counselors or take medical leave. (In 2004, students from NYU and Columbia accused the schools of forcing them to take leave for seeking treatment for depression.) Some colleges, fearing malpractice lawsuits, have considered eliminating counseling services altogether."

One theme in the media coverage of the Virginia Tech killings was that campus officials might have done more for Cho, but were hampered by restrictive laws and policies protecting individuals from being compelled to get treatment.

But this tragedy shouldn't be an excuse for forgetting the dark past--and not-so-enlightened present--of mental health treatment in this country, in which patients' lives were ruined by an uncaring and punitive system, driven by prejudice, not science. The regulation of mental health services and confidentiality protections for individuals are the product of an outcry against this system--and organizing by its victims.

The solution to this problem is to devote all the funding and resources needed by the mental health care system, while openly challenging the superstitions and stigmas still attached to treatment. That is the only way we can hope that those who need help, however desperately, won't fear and reject it.

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SOME RIGHT-wingers--if they weren't wondering, like the execrable John Derbyshire of the National Review, why the victims hadn't "rushed" Cho as he was firing a semi-automatic handgun at them--seized on the killings to hold forth against laws that prohibit carrying a concealed weapon.

This, of course, would only encourage the already existing atmosphere of paranoia in U.S. society, directed especially at racial minorities demonized by the media as prone to violence. Innocent victims of vigilante injustice would far outnumber the cases--if any--of a mass murderer stopped in the act.

The more common response, especially among liberals and progressives, was to call for tighter restrictions on the sale of guns. But this is also misplaced--a response, and an ineffective one at that, to the symptom, rather than the disease.

Even a wholesale ban on guns couldn't stop weapons from getting into the hands of those planning to carry out violence--as Cho did methodically. And no gun control law has ever restricted the weapons in the hands of those most prone to use them--the police and other law enforcement officials.

The focus on gun control always deflects attention from the causes of crimes committed with guns--and, in this case, the breakdown of any system for recognizing the threat Cho posed, and getting help for a tortured individual before he started shopping for weapons.

Cho's shooting spree is seen as an act of individual madness, but if that's true, than the U.S. government clearly suffers from a far worse form of insanity.

Overseas, the U.S. government is engaged in a barbaric war on Iraq that has claimed the lives of well over half a million people since the invasion four years ago. With the civil war stoked by the U.S. reaching new levels of carnage, 33 dead would qualify as an especially quiet day in Iraq today.

At home, the government's repressive laws and policies, justified as the way to protect ordinary people, are targeted not at the real threats to our safety and wellbeing, but at oppressed scapegoats and the most vulnerable of society's have-nots.

The pain and suffering Cho caused at Virginia Tech are beyond words, but why is the incomparably greater toll of violence inflicted by the U.S. government--carried out in the interests of imperialism and Corporate America--never recognized as an unspeakable crime?

In the light of all this, George Bush's words at the convocation at Virginia Tech are especially infuriating. "It's impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering," he said.

But the government he presides over--like the system it upholds--is built on violence.

That violence comes in many forms. There is the violence of war, visited on the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. There is the violence of poverty, felt around the world and within the U.S., the richest country on earth. And there are the terrible acts of individual violence, whose causes are no less rooted in the injustices of this society.

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