Issues Raised By The Blacksburg, VA Massacre

"Oh Crap!" was about all I could manage when I heard about the mass murders at Virginia Tech two days ago. I had been upset about a personal issue and sort of lost in my head ruminating but the news brought me back down to earth quickly. Nothing like someone else's tragedy to give you perspective. There is always someone else worse off than you.

Anyway, though news events such as this massacre touch news consumers such as you and I in personal ways, the events are separate from how they affect us as semi-detached recipients. While this event has had an effect on me, and likely on you, the event is not about us.

Any one intimate with the way news works in America could have predicted the series of stories that would be reported in the wake of this sort of massacre. There would have to be the factual stories running down the details of the murders, stories looking to point blame at some institutional officer or process for failing to predict, and then failing to contain the violence, stories about the grieving families and victims, stories that describe where the violence comes from (probably also blaming video games and violent media), stories more generally focused on the difficulty in predicting violence, and of course, the obligatory story about how the killer was a "quiet man who kept to himself". Aren't they always?

I've been thinking about these standard post-shooting story themes, and these paragraphs below represent my take on them.

Could they have predicted and stopped these killings in advance? Well – maybe, but only if we're willing as a society to pay some very high prices I'm not at all sure are worth paying.

Like other recent school-based shootings (see my essay "Warning Signs" concerning the 2005 events involving Jeffrey Weise) today's killer was a "quiet man", and an angry and rageful one. There were warning signs in the form of a violently imagined creative writing pieces. These warning signs were noted and action was taken in the form of a counseling referral. The news I've got is unclear on the facts, but it appears that the killer may have been on psychiatric medication as well. It was not un-noted that he was having problems.

Is it possible to go from noting someone's murderous references in art works to making accurate predictions about who will actually go on to be a threat to others and who will not? It's rather easy to figure out who is consumed with angry thoughts and violent images. It is incredibly difficult to predict with any accuracy who is going to become violent and who will not. The problem is that the false positive rate is very high. Murderous rampages of the sort that occurred in Blacksburg on Monday are low frequency events. I don't know what the actual number is, but (pulling a few out of the air for demonstrative purposes) there might be 10 or 100 or 1000 cases where there are warning signs that violence is a possibility for every one case where actual murderous actions take place. How do you get a handle on that sort of thing? Imprison all of them?

As a society, we can work to manage the problem by identifying and monitoring (and jailing?) all of those potential violence cases early on, but there are significant costs to incur if we do that.

The first cost is to civil liberties (e.g., freedom) while the second cost concerns the ability of anyone to trust that people will not make them into criminal suspects simply because they are angry. To the best of my knowledge, the majority of people who make threats of violence do not carry them out and are ultimately not a threat. But there is no reliable way to easily distinguish between someone who will carry out a threat and someone who is just venting. You'd have to put all of the potentially violent people under surveillance, most of whom will be innocent. That might be acceptable, but consider that surveillance doesn't necessarily prevent someone from acting violently. Only incarceration can do that. If you really want to be safe, you have to lock them all up; a price that I hope most of us would agree is too high, both in terms of personal freedoms, and in terms of raw money (who is going to pay for it?).

There are already limits to free speech regarding warning signs signaling impending violence. For example, there are laws and ethical codes that require therapists to break confidentiality and report to authorities and police when they have a client who they think might be a threat to others. The decision to report a potentially violent patient to authorities is a judgment call that therapists must make based on the evidence their client presents. They must make this call very carefully. If they report every random violent fantasy that a client has, they will likely put someone who is not a threat into the cross-hairs of criminal justice, and worse, will likely destroy those clients' ability to trust in the therapy process, or perhaps in the idea of sharing their feelings with others. Such sharing is not merely a luxury item; it is part and parcel of the reality testing process whereby angry people get to air their grievances and receive feedback about how those grievances will affect others and themselves and also receive input concerning alternative ways to manage the anger. If angry people will not talk about their anger for fear of being locked up, then it stays bottled up inside them, does not come into contact with reality, and maybe gets worse. I'm thinking that at least some potential violent events are averted because of the ability of the angry people to talk out their violent ideas in an anger management forum and figure out that there are better ways to cope with their rage.

Could the damage have been mitigated? Well, sure. Effective gun control might have mitigated this damage. This guy was able to legally buy hand guns. If it had been more difficult for him to get access to deadly weapons designed for killing people like said guns he might still have vented his rage, but in a less dangerous way and affecting fewer people. No way he would have killed 33 people with a homemade spear or knife, or even a bow and arrow. Wishing that guns were harder to get access to in America is like wishing that money was free, however. It ain't gonna happen. I know that repeated waves of legislation have made it more difficult (at least in some states) for people to purchase weapons without a "cooling off period" occurring. I know it is more difficult than ever to get legal access to weapons. However, it is still very easy, and with the powerful NRA lobby which so prolifically opposes substantial gun control, I expect only incremental reform to be in our future. There are many guns floating around out there, and there will always be a black market for them, even if legal markets for them are further limited. Gun control is a great idea and one that should be pursued as a matter of public health but it is not a cure-all. We'd just be better off making it as difficult as possible for people who don't need weapons for their work to get a hold of weapons is all. Not everyone will agree with this statement, I know.

Could the campus authorities have warned people better? Yes, but even so it might not have made a difference. There was a time period of some 2 hours between the first two killings and the later, larger group of killings that occurred at Blacksburg. If the right technologies were brought to bear (loud speakers broadcasting a warning across the campus? Text messages sent to cell phones?) they could have perhaps provided an opportunity to do some warning. But not everyone would be reached no matter how sophisticated the warning network. Also, it is not enough to warn. A plan needs to be supplied as well. What should people do with their warning? Should they try to leave campus? Stay where they are? How can you know in advance what is best? As it turns out, it would have been better if people had not gone into classrooms that morning, but in past shooting sprees, such as Charles Whitman's classic 1966 Austin Texas clock tower climb-and-snipe, it was students who were walking outside who were targets. How can you know what are the best warnings and instructions to provide in advance?

What caused this person to become violent? Who can say at this time? I'm sure that as details of this fellow's personal history come out, it will become clear that there were incidents in his life that increased the chances that he would act out in this murderous and suicidal way. I haven't seen any personal accounts yet, so anything said is pure speculation, but who would be surprised to find out that this fellow had been abused or violently bullied as a youngster; was raised in a very strict household that damaged him in some manner; had previous experience with weapons; played first-person-shooter video games all the time; was a loner and social outcast or had some developmentally significant social adjustment problems in his history, or had childhood attachment difficulties, or showed signs of conduct disorder or antisocial personality? It is the past that best predicts the future. It is very likely that there were substantial events in this kid's life that were violent or which would provoke anger and rage in a normal person.

There is a suggestion in my newspaper that the shooter may have been on psychiatric medication, which, if true, would suggest that he was being treated for some sort of mental disorder. Without further information, it is not possible to comment on what disorder. What can and should be said, however, is that mental disorders do not typically cause people to become violent mass murderers. Psychotic people can become violent when they are feeling particularly paranoid, for instance, as can paranoid demented people. But the violence that comes out of these conditions tends to be impulsive, poorly planned and not often deadly. This is entirely different sort of thing than buying guns and door chains and using them to trap and then hunt down and kill multiple peers and professors at your university. You need to premeditate that sort of thing; it's planned and not spontaneous. You need your wits about you.

No one has said anything about video games being the cause of this yet that I'm aware, but I'm waiting for it to happen. It's part of this script that they complain about video games causing violence.

There are about a bazillion people out there in their twenties who regularly play first person shooter video games featuring stalker scenarios where you hunt down demons or other people and those demons and people bleed realistically when "killed". I don't doubt that our shooter was familiar with a few of these games. Does that suggest that video games could have caused the rampage? Not necessarily. Though there may turn out to be a correlation, as we know, correlation does not imply causation.

When I was coming up as a young teenager, video games were in their infancy and done in text mode. There were little little symbols on the screen. I think '*' represented dragons and '%' represented treasures or food or health utilities. Video games were simply not yet on the radar screens of people who were looking for reasons why "kids today" were all messed up. The villain in those days was role-playing games, specifically, Dungeons and Dragons. Book/movies like Mazes and Monsters promoted the idea that role playing games led kids to become Satan-worshiping, violent psychotics. This accusation wasn't particularly true back then and I doubt that the similar accusations regarding video games today are any more accurate. This is not to say that such games have no effect at all. Whatever effect they might actually have, IMHO, I would expect to be rather weak.

I stated at the beginning of this little essay that terrible news events like the mass murders at Blacksburg are not about us (though we react to them). I'll say now in closing that they are also not ultimately about the issues I've discussed and which will be discussed in other venues by other talking heads for the fifteen minutes alloted to this tragedy. Talking about the issues is important, sure, as are people's personal reactions to the event, but ultimately, events like this are about (will be about) those people who have been personally affected and impacted by this terrible loss of life; the victims who were killed and wounded, the families who have lost loved ones and the students whose Just Worlds have been punctured. The survivors of this event – those who have experienced it personally - are the ones who will continue to deal with it long after the rest of us are distracted by the latest tragedy. My heart goes out to those who have suffered.

They printed the list of the dead in the paper today, and I all but cried. Very sad.