News that a young man with two guns took 32 lives in a coldblooded rampage at a U.S. university has triggered shock and dismay around the world. Revelations about the life of Seung-Hui Cho that emerged after the killings have compounded fears and concerns and raised questions about immigrant dreams and the reality of life in the United States.
There is precious little that anyone can say with certainty about the horrific shooting of 32 people at Virginia Tech University last week. The profiles of the victims have been heartbreaking and the promise of those lives, cut agonizingly short, is an irreparable loss not only to their families and friends, but to entire communities.
Equally disturbing is the information available about the killer, Cho. He was an alienated and troubled young man. His personal history reveals that he was truly mentally unbalanced, having been hospitalized in a mental-care facility for observation. Acquaintances — no one who went to school with him say they really “knew” him — have said he rarely spoke and never showed emotion. He was a cipher who failed to find roots in his community or build a network of family and friends to cope with the adjustments of immigrant life, adolescence and college. The rant-filled videotape he made prior to his rampage is proof of a mind divorced from reality, eager to find enemies.
That Cho was a South Korean immigrant — he lived in the U.S. since the age of 8 — gives this tragedy another dimension. There have been outpourings of grief, sympathy and condolences from South Korea; President Roh Moo Hyun expressed his condolences four times and there have been candlelight vigils across that country. There have been reports of a collective sense of guilt for what happened and soul-searching over the Korean national obsession with education and advancement and its costs and consequences. While the sympathy is appreciated, the truth is these were the acts of an individual; this horrible episode says nothing about Koreans or Korea. All of us would do well to remember such sentiments when similar tragedies strike close to home.
There is no reassuring answer to the most important question — could the tragedy have been averted? Some argue that Cho’s detention by law enforcement for stalking two women and subsequent stay at a mental-health facility should have alerted authorities that he was a risk to others. That argument is undermined by the fact that he was released after being determined to be no threat. In addition, U.S. universities are prohibited by law from discriminating against individuals with mental problems. In Virginia, the governor last month signed a bill that prohibits state colleges from penalizing or expelling students “solely” for attempting suicide or seeking mental-health treatment for suicidal thoughts. The aim is to encourage them to get counseling. Similar thinking motivates mental-health counselors to hesitate before contacting a student’s family about a student’s problems; often the source of difficulties is the student’s home life. And when a university has 26,000 students, as does Virginia Tech, keeping track of them all is problematic.
Another, more compelling, argument is that this tragedy, like other incidents in the U.S., was facilitated by that nation’s gun culture and the easy access to handguns. The right to bear arms is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and many Americans view that right as inalienable, no matter how many lives are lost or how many horrific incidents occur. In fact, gun proponents argue that the best way to prevent such tragedies is more guns, not less. If more people had guns, they assert, then they could defend themselves better. In Japan, such logic is incomprehensible.
U.S. polls taken after the killings show that the rampage had no impact on public opinion. Views remain entrenched, with the country split almost exactly in half on the question of tighter gun control laws. It is not identified as a major national issue in surveys and there is no sign that Congress is prepared to battle the National Rifle Association, a pro-gun lobby that has been remarkably successful in preventing gun controls. This is despite data showing nearly one-fifth of respondents know someone who has been involved in gun-related crime.
There can be no comforting responses to what happened in Virginia. All those whose lives have been affected by the tragedy will ask why this horror occurred and if they could have done something to avert it. Any sensitive and thinking individual will wonder what tragedies might befall them in the future. The only thing we all can do is offer prayers and condolences to the victims, and live so that we have few regrets if and when such tragedies strike.
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