Virginia Tech: What is the Lesson?

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As always when the unimaginable happens, we struggle to find the lesson here: Could it have been prevented by more gun control? Tighter campus security? Better law enforcement? But the more we learn about this tragedy and its perpetrator, the more it seems to defy any big answer. I was struck by this wise essay in the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini. Its author Andrew Mason, who was in sixth grade when the shooting at Columbine happened, writes:

No matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to prevent these random acts of violence. Most of us will grasp at straws for the next few weeks while we come to the realization that more metal detectors won’t make us feel any safer (not that we have the money to buy them anyway). In our quiet despair, we’ll be distracted by the typically angry gun-control debate and platitudes about how our schools should be the safest and most productive in the world. We will commit to making them such and then have these commitments forgotten with the next news cycle chock full of the latest from a cranky radio host.

So he concludes:

What happened yesterday was a cruel reminder that life should not be taken for granted, because what happened yesterday reminded us that, in our uncertain world, you just never know. Call your mom. I did.

UPDATE: Andy from Maine, seconded by other commenters, wants to know:

Lessons learned Karen? How about treating behavioral health issues as if they were organic medical issues?

Let’s see if we can destigmatize “mental health” issues and help troubled people get treatment.

Certainly Cho needed some kind of intervention, as members of the VT faculty thought so. Will our society learn to make no distinction between a damaged heart and a damaged mind?

Indeed, we now know that he did in fact receive some mental health treatment. (Obviously, however, those who treated him missed whatever signals there may have been to more serious issues.) But that raises another question: In Virginia, a person may not legally buy a
gun if he or she has been “adjudicated legally incompetent,
mentally incapacitated, or been involuntarily committed to a mental
institution.” Why, then, didn’t this show up on the background check when Cho bought his weapons? A state official tells me that Cho was under a court-ordered “temporary detainment order,” which is not the same as “involuntary commitment.” He was subjected to three days of evaluation and then released. This would not have put any kind of flag on his background check–a lapse that had tragic consequences.