What can be said about the Virginia Tech massacre? Very little. What should be said? Even less. The lives of 32 innocents, chosen randomly and without purpose, are extinguished most brutally by a deeply disturbed gunman. With an event such as this, consisting of nothing but suffering and tragedy, the only important questions are those of theodicy, of divine justice. Unfortunately, in today's supercharged political atmosphere, there is the inevitable rush to get ideological mileage out of the carnage.
It did not take long for the perennial debate about gun control to break out, preceded by the inevitable scolding and clucking abroad about America's lax gun laws.
It is true that with far stricter gun laws, Cho Seung Hui might have had a harder time getting the weapons and ammunition needed to kill so relentlessly. Nonetheless, we should have no illusions about what laws can do. There are other ways to kill in large numbers, as Timothy McVeigh demonstrated. Determined killers will obtain guns no matter how strict the laws. And stricter controls could also keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens using them in self-defense. The psychotic mass murder is rare; the armed household burglary is not.
If we are going to look for a political issue here, the more relevant is not gun control but psychosis control. We decided a half a century ago that our more eccentric and, indeed, crazy fellow citizens would not be easily locked in asylums. It was a humane decision, but with the inevitable consequence that some who really need quarantine are allowed to roam the streets.
It turns out that Cho's psychiatric impairment had been evident to many. He had been cited for stalking two women on campus. Virginia Tech police tried unsuccessfully to have him involuntarily committed. A teacher referred him to counseling, and even his fellow students saw signs of dangerous disturbance. " Cho's plays. . . had really twisted, macabre violence," writes former classmate Ian McFarlane. "Before Cho got to class that day [of reading plays], we students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter. I was even thinking of scenarios of what I would do in case he did come in with a gun."
In a previous age, such a troubled soul might have found himself at the state mental hospital rather than a state university. But in a trade-off that a decent and tolerant society makes with open eyes, we allow freedom from straitjackets to those on the psychic edge, knowing that such tolerance runs a very rare but very terrible risk.
It is inevitable, I suppose, that advocates of one social policy or another will try to use the Virginia Tech massacre to their advantage. But it is simply dismaying that a serious presidential candidate should use it as the ideological frame for his set-piece issues.
Politico columnist Ben Smith has brought attention to a speech that Barack Obama made in Milwaukee just hours after the massacre. It must be heard to be believed. After deploring and expressing grief about the shootings, he continues (my transcription): "I hope that it causes us to reflect a little bit more broadly on the degree to which we do accept violence in various forms. . . . There's also another kind of violence . . . it's not necessarily physical violence."
What kinds does he have in mind? First, "Imus and the verbal violence that was directed at young women [of Rutgers]. . . . For them to be degraded . . . that's a form of violence. It may be quiet. It may not surface to the same level of the tragedy we read about today and we mourn." Good to know that Don Imus's "violence" does not quite rise to the level of Cho's.
Second, outsourcing. Yes, outsourcing: "the violence of men and women who . . . suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them because their job has moved to another country."
Obama then cites bad schools and bad neighborhoods as forms of violence, before finishing with, for good measure, Darfur accusing America of conducting "foreign policy as if the children in Darfur are somehow less than the children here, and so we tolerate violence there." Is Obama, who proudly opposed overthrowing the premier mass murderer of our time, Saddam Hussein, suggesting an invasion of Sudan?
Who knows. This whole exercise in defining violence down to include shock-jock taunts and outsourcing would normally be mere intellectual slovenliness. Doing so in the shadow of the murder of 32 innocents still unburied is tasteless, bordering on the sacrilegious.
Perhaps in the spirit of Obama's much-heralded post-ideological politics we can agree to observe a decent interval of respectful silence before turning ineffable evil and unfathomable grief into political fodder.