SAN FRANCISCO--Most Americans are shocked by school shootings. Not me. I'm amazed they don't happen more often.
Schools' cultures of rigid conformity create pressure-cooker atmospheres apparently designed to push alienated, mentally fragile individuals over the edge. Students and alumni of Virginia Tech repeatedly wondered why Sueng-Hui Cho had slaughtered 32 people on the school's bucolic western Virginia campus. Yet what was wrong was plain to see on national TV.
The post-massacre memorial-cum-pep-rally, held weeks too early in order to maximize media interest, wallowed in the creepy corporatized sentimentality of "go Hokies" chants, school logos and cheap rhetoric about the school's inevitable, though eventual, recovery. Little was said about the lost lives of the victims, who were being autopsied at the time.
The president of the United States, or at least the guy who plays him on TV, rushed to the scene of a tragedy where (unlike Katrina) most of the victims were white. Cameras swept over a sea of VT sweats.
Black sweatshirts must have been deemed too formal. You know it's a bad scene when George W. Bush is the most dignified person in the room.
I won't jump on the gun control bandwagon here. No one needs guns in the United States, especially not automatic weapons--not now, anyway. But the Second Amendment is still relevant. It's for the period, three days or 300 years from today, after the U.S. government collapses, and the Constitution no longer remains in force. Residents of some future failed post-American state will thank the gun nuts who created a market for the mass production of assault rifles.
Still, isn't it weird that a green-card holder--a noncitizen--can buy a gun legally?
As occurred after Columbine High School, the news media is already laying the groundwork for the next explosion of violence by a disturbed young man. The juvenile insults and catchphrases used to describe Cho (loser, loner, wimp) were similarly applied to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Today, the Columbine shooters are heroes to thousands of disaffected kids who fantasize, like Cho, about unleashing the Mother of All Revenges of the Nerds upon their better-heeled, blonder and more athletic classmates.
The more the media calls Cho names, the more it abets his twisted dream of immortality and inspires his future disciples. Since actual understanding may be too much to expect from Americans, can we settle for laying off the jock talk?
The final ingredient in the recipe for school massacres is administrators' excessive concern for the rights of the deranged at the expense of other students. Sadly, these institutions don't have much choice. Beginning in the 1970s, the federal government reacted to the abuse of involuntary committals (a tactic used by husbands seeking to unload perfectly sane wives by dumping them in asylums) with legislation that has, in the typical American way, gone to an opposite extreme.
Two years before Cho shot up Virginia Tech, the troubled student had received outpatient psychiatric care for suicidal tendencies. Virginia Tech officials say they had no choice but to readmit him. "I know that we followed all of our policies correctly, and we acted on information that we had at the time," commented Edward Spencer, associate vice president for student affairs. "He had broken no law at the time," added Christopher Flynn, director of the school's counseling service.
Well-intentioned laws have transformed campuses into collection points for deranged students.
During my four years at Columbia, two of my classmates leaped in front of subway trains. A woman jumped out her dorm's sixth-floor window, landing on a spiked fence. More notable and more common were the loons who didn't "act out"--but easily might have.
George (not his real name) was a classic case. Now a full-grown man, he'd gotten hit by a limousine years before. He'd suffered injuries that required him to wear a colostomy bag under a pair of loose, frequently soiled, sweats. As part of his settlement, the limo company agreed to foot the bill for housing and tuition as long as he remained enrolled in a four-year college or university.
It was a bad deal. Because the limo guys' lawyer had neglected to insert a clause setting a time limit for George to obtain a degree, he enrolled in a single class each semester. George, who often babbled about being persecuted by mysterious enemies, had previously attended nine educational institutions in the New York area in nine years--Fordham, NYU, Brooklyn Polytechnic, City College, you name it--all on the car company's dime.
George's incomprehensible all-work-and-no-play-makes-Jack-a-dull-boy rants, single-spaced, minus margins and banged out on a manual typewriter, were legendary among university officials. His file filled a full-length metal drawer. But it was in class--his one class, physics--that George's madness manifested itself most spectacularly.
Whenever George felt neglected, insulted or otherwise trespassed against--events that occurred at random and without provocation--he would rise and unleash his walrus-like bellow until class had been so thoroughly disrupted that kids got up and left when he started up. On one memorable occasion, George detached his colostomy bag and announced his intent to aerially disburse its contents across the assembled scholars.
George remained at Columbia after I graduated (taking one class) and after I found a job working in the admissions office. "Can't we expel this psycho?" I asked the dean. "Of course not," she replied, as if to an idiot, "he has a 4.0 GPA. I know, in one class per term. Still, he hasn't committed a crime."
I pointed out the colostomy incident. She just shrugged.
George was scary. He was insane. He was disruptive. But Columbia couldn't get rid of him.
I fully expected George to enter some class, guns blazing, before being cut down by the NYPD. The hell of it is, I--and the dean--would have had to pretend we were surprised.