More victims at VA. Tech

By James Alan Fox  |  August 31, 2007

THE MUCH-ANTICIPATED panel report released yesterday on the April 16 mass shooting at Virginia Tech by 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho is a classic example of Monday-morning quarterbacking. Despite the incredible detail packed into the nearly 250-page document, there is little new or surprising in its criticism of the friends, faculty, and family who missed telltale warning signs exhibited by a troubled student bent on vengeance; of the university officials who underreacted to the initial report of a double homicide in a dormitory room; and of flawed processes that permitted Cho to purchase two weapons for mass destruction.

The panel members - largely drawn from law enforcement and mental health fields - did not fully understand that predicting violent behavior is difficult and that the long list of warning signs only becomes crystal-clear through hindsight. The panel had months of time to delve deeply into every detail of the gunman's background. In practical terms, however, it would have been virtually impossible for those around Cho to distinguish the soon-to-be mass murderer from the large pool of other troubled students who desperately need attention and intervention.

In the days, months, and years leading up to the rampage at the sprawling and bucolic Blacksburg campus, the Korean-born massacrer was hardly unique in his obsession with murder, his delight in writing about violent themes, or even his fascination with the Columbine High mass shooting. College admissions counselors cannot, of course, screen applicants for mental health issues (low SAT scores, yes; but not worrisome Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory scores). Not surprisingly, therefore, college campuses are often convenient hiding places for withdrawn students.

Moreover, had some faculty member or administrator proactively and relentlessly confronted the young man about his disconcerting behavior, it is more than possible that he would have misinterpreted benevolence for persecution. Who knows? An aggressive approach to an aggressive man could have precipitated violence even sooner.

In the final analysis, the tragic episode last spring at Virginia Tech is an anomaly, and to the extreme. According to a database of campus homicides from 2001 to 2005 assembled from various government and news sources, fewer than 10 students, on average, are murdered each year on college campuses. Most of these involve interpersonal disputes among friends or acquaintances, not the unprecipitated act of a vengeful sniper. This incidence is particularly low in light of the more than 20 million students who attend our nation's colleges and universities.

In terms of risk, the likelihood of suicide on campus is 100 times greater than that of homicide, much less mass murder. So perhaps some of the same vigilance and greater investment in mental health services on campus recommended by the Virginia Tech panel report could actually have a far greater payoff in terms of suicide prevention. That would be a good result, even if inspired by something else.

Unfortunately and sadly, the fact that thousands of college students take their own lives every year does not generate the same level of concern and action as does a rarer than rare case of campus massacre. Surely, the grief of parents who mourn the loss of their sons and daughters after a suicide is no less than that of parents whose children were gunned down by a mass murderer.

Were Seung-Hui Cho alive today - had he not reserved his last bullet for himself - then the anger and communal sense of outrage would be directed squarely at the one responsible for the bloodbath. In his absence, we see the tendency to scapegoat others who arguably bear some responsibility, however limited. In attempting to find fault and lay blame, the panel report only widened the swath of victimization linked to the Virginia Tech massacre.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University.