Not Every Tragedy Has a Solution

By Brian Michael Jenkins
The RAND Corporation

As shock gives way to blame, litigation and legislation are never far behind. The refrain is familiar: This must never happen again. But we too easily presume that we can prevent it.

We have no X-rays for a person's soul. We may never know what propelled Cho Seung Hui into a homicidal rampage at Virginia Tech. Perceived betrayal in a fantasy relationship, bullied in childhood, a brain tumor, some deep undiagnosed psychopathology, depression, despair, delusion? The clues are obvious, but only in retrospect.

A university campus is a public space inhabited by thousands of students who move through its classrooms, corridors and dormitories at all hours. Airport-style searches at the university perimeter would require surrounding walls. Metal detectors at hundreds of building entrances would make it impossible to change classes every 10 minutes. And would students and professors want their campuses transformed into neo-Medieval fortresses?

The Virginia Tech massacre was not an act of terrorism -- not the suicide bomber in the shopping mall we worry so much about. But like the sniper who killed ten in Northern Virginia five years ago, the attack has created terror, which in turn causes us to exaggerate the risk.

As we mourn the victims at Virginia Tech, it's important to remember that university campuses are safer than the streets that surround them. Statistically, a student is far more likely to die in a car accident driving to school than to be gunned down in class. Sadly, we are forced to confront the fact that not every tragedy has a solution.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

Posted by Michael Corones |  April 18, 2007; 1:41 PM ET
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"General District Court records show that a Montgomery County magistrate ordered Mr. Cho, 23, to undergo a mental evaluation in December 2005. The magistrate found probable cause that Mr. Cho was "mentally ill" and an "imminent danger to self and others" or is so seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for himself."

"What is known is that when Cho signed his application at the gun shop to buy a Glock 19 handgun and 50 rounds of ammunition, he left blank the question that asked whether he ever been treated or examined for mental illness. There was no registry giving the gun shop owner that information because a registry had been rejected in Congress by pro-gun supporters."

Posted by: C. Stevens | April 18, 2007 07:41 PM

C. Stevens: YOu don't know the law. The Federal statute on sale of guns forbids the slae to a person who has been found "mentally incompetent." What happened in that Virginia magistrate's office (not a court of record) was a few minutes hearing with probably a GP or similar person making a recommendation that he should be commited for an EVALUATION. That place that is checked in the form is merely a preliminary finding. The hearing is done with no transcript and the person who may be committed does not have a lawyer. Not exactly a full hearing and NOT a finding of "mental incmpetency" which requires a much more involved proceeding.

A temporary commitment is not a bar to buying a gun. It is not a real full hearing and decision by a court.

The mental hospital released him in about 24 hours on the grounds that while he was depressed, his thinking was coherent and he was not a danger to himself and not suicidal.

The records of temporary detentions for evaluation are NOT submitted into the database used for checking as to who can buy a gun. They are not an adjudication of "mental incompetence" as required by the gun laws but a sending someone for tests to see if they are really mentally ill and how ill.

Posted by: AnnS | April 18, 2007 11:45 PM

Tell the parents and firends and families at VT their children's and mothers and father's deaths were a statistical blip and not serious, like a terrorist's victims.

Here is a statistic for you Brian Michael Jenkins- 100 times more Americans have died in Iraq in the last 4 years fighting "terrorists" than at Virginia Tech- and there were no WMD.

And here is what you said about terrorism in the Boston Globe in May 2005

"Wars are determined by often unpredictable events. The military triumph proclaimed by the United States in May 2003 gave no clue of the mess in Iraq today. But neither do today's bloody images and briefing charts tell us where Iraq will be two years from now.

We only know that, for at least the short term, the fighting will continue."

Today in Iraq five times as many died as at Virginia Tech. That is where Iraq is two years from when you pontificated in another op-ed. Why should anyone keep listening to you fools and liars.

Posted by: meewv | April 19, 2007 12:21 AM

Is it too much to ask that we establish a national database for individuals who have been identified as a possible threat to himself or others that gun shops/shows must check against before selling weapons to a potential buyer? Does it not bother anyone else that no such database exists currently? Leaving policies and regulations up to individual states just doesn't make sense since all it would take is for someone to cross a state line to obtain weapons even if there are mentally disturbed. I just don't get why responsible gun owners would object to a waiting period to ensure that those who get their hands on weapons don't already have a pre-existing psychological condition.

Posted by: RLee | April 19, 2007 01:16 AM

The quote" Statistically, a student is far more likely to die in a car accident driving to school than to be gunned down in class." has an implication that any reasonable person would dispute-that one should not try to solve problems that kill fewer people and adopt an attitude of resignation about the apparently less lethal problems.....I doubt if Mr.Jenkins would be pleased if his doctor treated him only for the more lethal illnesses. Get real!

Posted by: corvuscorax | April 19, 2007 05:58 AM

RLee's post shows the logical conclusion of making guns freely available. In order to reduce the resulting death and mayhem, we must then regulate speech (so as not to offend high strung gun owners) and people (his idea of a national database of dangerous people). The choice is clear: either a fee society with no guns or a highly policed society where guns are freely available.

Posted by: Larry | April 19, 2007 10:59 AM

Until Vietnam all our news reports, movies were sanitized. Graphic depiction of violence was taboo. Visualization of violence was not a sick choice of our Media. Violence broke into our houses with Vietnam. That is when the age of innocence ended.
Think about Abu-Graib pictures, rape, torture and killing of civilians in Iraq. Our only defense is that these atrocities do not reflect fundamental values of our society and that they are isolated criminal acts committed by abnormal individuals. We resort to violence abroad; we sell violence as entertainment at home. Why should we wonder than that in the society addicted to violence a sociopath would be addicted to?
In the environment worshiping force and addicted to violence as an entertainment there are of course degrees of deviations:
A well-educated, mentally balanced, deeply religious politician preferred military solution to diplomatic dialog.
A less refined and more stressed serviceman or a woman may violate military code by torturing prisoners, killing foreign civilians, but he would do no harm to his own comrades.
Even more stressed with signs of marginality person may even enjoy torturing foreign prisoners to the point that he/she would be taking pictures, videos to share with friends.
A marginal sociopath with serious personality disorder may do what Cho did at Virginia Tech.
Violence begets violence. We wage a war as one politician put it in order to keep away the war from our homes. But it comes back to our homes, in a different form, sick and devastating violence.

Posted by: Yachob7 | April 19, 2007 11:17 AM

RLee writes:
"Is it too much to ask that we establish a national database for individuals who have been identified as a possible threat to himself or others that gun shops/shows must check against before selling weapons to a potential buyer? Does it not bother anyone else that no such database exists currently?"

The problem of misuse/abuse of such a data base is high enough for it to be meaningless. Who decides or identifies a person as a"possible threat"? What if an unfriendly neighbor of yours reports what he/she perceives to be your "wild" or "threatening" or "irrational" behavior? IMHO, smacks of McCarthyism, and very likely unconstitutional.

Posted by: GK Stewart | April 19, 2007 11:39 AM


Yup, the question is can you have a free society with freely available guns? for gun-lovers, freedom to own guns surpasses all other freedoms: speech, association, you name it.

Posted by: Larry | April 19, 2007 11:46 AM

Life imitates fiction? The similarity cant escape peoples attention. Before and after photos, the striking difference how Cho looked as if characters from films like Taxi Driver and The Matrix. First Cho looks meek and anonymous then his drastic change to that of a commando brandishing various weapons, radically changes his appearance when he seemingly sets out on a mission, like those film characters Cho rails against the worlds moral corruption and rich peoples hedonism. It was a stunning twist in the Cho story, with his manifesto Cho mirrors The Matrix story line of fighting against the system that enslave us all. I wonder if Cho was influenced in any way by such films.

Posted by: siberiafire | April 20, 2007 12:55 AM

Free society with freely available guns?

Switzerland doesn't look too bad to me. Yet widespread ownership of fully-automatic rifles there (which are pretty much impossible for US citizens to legally own) isn't causing any problems with freedom of association or speech.

Posted by: Swede | April 30, 2007 02:46 PM

These posts in toto supply evidence that it's impossible for metro area residents to think clearly. Rambling, thoughtless, angry, etc., with an orthodox liberal tinge to make it seem palatable.

Come to think of it, our Senate and House leaders fit this schema.

Posted by: JohnR (VA) | April 30, 2007 03:24 PM

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