Expatica news

Following a tragedy at home

Monday night I was online checking e-mail and reading blogs when I caught a headline on CNN’s site about a school shooting at Virginia Tech in America.

My nephew is a student there. My niece is a graduate. Virginia is my home state.

On Tuesday morning I learned my nephew was fine but the depth of my emotional stake and intellectual interest in the incident has surprised me.  From the moment the news broke, I’ve been relentlessly following the story.

I have a degree in journalism and worked as a news reporter early in my career before moving into publishing and later public relations. Like everyone else, I was riveted by the mystery, drama and impact of the story itself, but my academic and professional side was also analyzing the media coverage and the way the university was handling communications and “damage control” during the crisis.

I think my years of living outside the U.S. and observing American culture from a distance has sharpened my objectivity and given me a different perspective.  I was not surprised when early reports on the shootings focused on campus security and police response.

CNN and other news networks paraded a series of experts in front of the camera who commented on how a SWAT team should manage a school shooting and how a college campus can be made more secure. America has become obsessed with security issues since September 11.

As predictable as this news angle was, I was disappointed with it nonetheless. Defending against an attack is not nearly as important as understanding why someone would want to attack in the first place. Given the fact that the identities of the shooter and the victims had not been released, emergency response was all the media had to chew on initially and so it was discussed ad nauseum in the beginning.

With the security experts all offering their advice, the university came under criticism for not shutting down the campus immediately after the first shooting occurred. I was impressed with Virginia Tech’s response to its critics. The university president appeared before journalists time and time again and calmly and quietly defended the decision not to cancel classes based on the murder of two students in a residence hall earlier in the day.


He didn’t get blindly defensive, he didn’t get flustered.  Considering the loss the university and the community had suffered and the tremendous stress of the unfolding situation on campus, I think he did an admirable job of staying on message, remaining steady, keeping a proper tone, and saying the right thing at the right time. Personally, I think the university made the right decision based on the information they had.

No surprise that politicians and lobbyists jumped into the fray almost immediately, expressing their condolences and either dodging or confronting the gun issue head on. Frankly it was disturbing watching some of them seeking to gain political traction from the tragedy. It made their words ring hollow.

I had not heard Virginia Governor Tim Kaine speak until the convocation was broadcast live over the Internet on Tuesday. Let me just say my first impression of the man who will be my governor when I return to the U.S. was not a good one.

Kaine avoided the gun issue, but this was the element the international press pounced on. Some international leaders were measured in their remarks, some pointed, and some cruel in their assessment of the role U.S. gun policy played in the deaths of 33 students.

I saw the debates about security and gun policy as far less interesting and relevant than my main question: Why does someone methodically murder students at a school? What motivates them?  What is it in American culture and society that fuels this sort of behavior? I wanted to hear from psychologists, sociologists, criminologists.

When the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was identified as a socially inept, emotionally disturbed student with a history of mental illness, I wasn’t surprised. This is the profile that always seems to emerge in these cases.

However, I was stunned and sickened to learn that one professor in particular had repeatedly expressed concern over this troubled young man’s writing, mental state, and behavior. She had contacted university officials and the police about Cho more than once and was told there was nothing anyone could do because he wasn’t breaking any laws. She pulled Cho out of a creative writing class and worked with him one-on-one instead to protect the other students. She encouraged him time and time again to get counseling.  Cho’s roommate told police that Cho was suicidal and he supposedly received treatment for that.

Did he get counseling? Was he treated by a psychiatrist? Did he have mental health problems when he was admitted to Virginia Tech years ago? Was he treated as a child? What do you do if someone is obviously disturbed but refuses treatment? Students can’t be expelled for being angry, anti-social, and writing violent fiction.

Questions of safety and civil rights swirled through the discussion. Americans know that honoring personal liberties brings its own risks. We can’t be perfectly safe and perfectly free. People have the right to be “crazy” until they break the law. Unfortunately, the right to be crazy cost Virginia Tech 33 lives. 

April 18, 2007

Copyright 2007 Veronica McCabe Deschambault. All rights reserved.