Saturday, April 21, 2007

The News from Blacksburg, Virginia Is Real Bad

The news from Virginia Tech is real bad.  Some nut shot and killed thirty-three people - two in a dormitory, thirty in an engineering building and himself.  The whole nation is in mourning.  This is just one more in a long list of school shootings that include the University of Texas and Colombine High School.

The rumors that reached me unfolds the story this way.  This nut, whom I choose not to name, has a history of troubled behavior, including an involuntary commitment to a mental health facility.  Under Virginia law, this makes it illegal for him to purchase or to own a handgun.  Of course, this does not stop him: he buys at least two. His reportedly bizarre behavior has isolated him socially. His gruesome and very disturbing writings have gotten him kicked out of a creative writing class.

Now that the stage is set, he finds the girl that he fantasize is his girlfriend in bed with another student. At this point, he loses control and kills the girl and her lover. He returns to his room with a strong need to talk about what he just did and to justify it, citing rich students and immorality. He blames those around him for his actions: they "forced" him to act. He videotapes his explanation and sends this, along with other recordings and photographs, to NBC in New York. Now that, in his mind, he has justified his actions, he goes over to one of the engineering buildings and starts shooting. Finally, he turned the gun on himself.

When I read or hear about something like this, I am deeply saddened. We, as a society, failed him miserably. His bizarre behavior raised lots of red flags, but he still did not get the help he needed. I do not think that the problem first manifested itself while he was in college. I am almost certain that his teachers and fellow students saw it while he was in high school and probably before that. Nobody could, or was it that nobody would, force him to get help. The first should have been his parents. If they would not, then the school district should have provided help. Hillary Clinton said that it takes a village to raise a child, and she is right. The whole village is responsible for guiding, teaching, disciplining and caring for each of the children within it. They failed this troubled young man. Not only should his parents be ashamed, but his entire home town should be ashamed of them selves.

This brings up a larger point. There are always people who cannot fit, or choose not to fit, into society. This country has a genetic disposition toward non-conformance with societal norms. Most of our forebearers came to the "new world" because they could not fit into their native society. Of course, they cite other factors, such as economic opportunity and other reasons. The truth was: they came for the freedom to "opt out" of their society's norms. In the 1800's, many of them headed for the open spaces and the frontier.

Our forefathers have fought with authority since Colonial days. Look at the Boston Tea Party, the Minutemen, the Boston Massacre and the Battle of Concord. Since the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, the authority we battled was ourselves. Witness the Whiskey Rebellion, the Texas Revolution, the Civil War Draft Riots and the Civil War veterans' march on Washington, DC. The tradition continues through Prohibition, the civil rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, including the violence at Kent State University.

It is fair to say that violence is our national heritage. With that in mind, we know that our society will produce many more violence prone people than other societies. This is our nature, whether we like it or not. We need to be able to channel this violence into productive channels. In the 1700's and 1800's, that violence tamed the frontier and wrested farms out of prairie sod. In the 1900's, these opportunities had vanished and our tendency toward violence became more and more of a problem. Since most violence prone people can and do function well most of the time, we cannot simply lock them up for their own good (besides, there are just too many of them). We need a better way.

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