Thoughts on Tragedy

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Written by Adam A. Donaldson

What strange bookends for the year that’s gone by, to begin and end our school term with a candlelight vigil and moment of silence for university brethren lost in a senseless school shooting. One at Montreal’s Dawson college in September and now on the campus of Virginia Tech nearly two weeks ago, and, of course, according to the natural laws of escalation, one was worse then the other.

But, why? That is the popular question being asked today and for the last week and probably on into the weeks to come as life gets back to “normal” for the students, faculty and staff of a small town university that was once one amongst the oh so many but now stands in a place of infamy alone.

The thing about the situation is there are so many things I want to say in this piece, so many different issues that this touches, that I don’t know where to begin beyond the opening remarks above. It just struck me that the year ended how it began: with bowed heads in silent reflection on a tragedy so similar to one recently observed. So here are my thoughts in no particular order.

  • Cho Sueng-hui was an obviously deeply disturbed young man, and not simply ‘evil’ as implied by Bill O’Reilly in a recent talking points memo. There was something wrong with him. Everybody saw it, even a few professors tried to take him under their wing and redirect his quiet frustration into appropriate channels. He was offered counseling, he was sent away for observation and a lot of classmates recognized him as ‘the weird kid’. What more could have been done? Could his Monday morning slaughter have truly been prognosticated? Somehow, I doubt it. I think in modern society we’ve trained ourselves to regard the so-called normal people with suspicion; think Jeffery Dahmer or Ted Bundy, people who, on the surface, you never would have guessed were cold-blooded killers. Not the odd ones that we knew were odd to begin with.
  • The power of Facebook cannot be denied. This how a lot of people found out about the shooting. The social networking service provided quick and easy notice to Va. Tech students that their safety was at risk, and was certainly a quicker response than anything the administration offered.
  • It’s not the media’s responsibility to protect people’s feelings. Although they certainly thought it was when they judiciously limited the amount of air they gave Cho’s press kit sent to NBC and then patted themselves on the back for their sensitivity. The fact of the matter is that his video, his pictures and his manifesto were all news; worthy of reporting and worthy of discussion. Vapid anchors sit at their desks and ask row after row of experts, “What made him do this?” Well, some possible answers are sitting in a file of the news director’s desk top, but he can’t run them lest Focus on the Family flood the network switchboards with a thousand “How dare yous” for trying to understand a situation better.

Not airing this material is like saying out of deference to Holocaust survivors that no film of Hitler will ever be shown again. Or no other messages from Osama bin Laden will ever be aired on the news out respect for the 9/11 victims’ families. These situations are vastly different, but the principle’s the same. In order to figure out what in this young man drove him to shoot nearly 70 of his classmates and profs, killing 32 of them, we cannot be bashful to look at the problem in its own two eyes. And the media should have learned the lessons of doing what’s popular over what’s appropriate when they played cheerleader to the Bush administration’s build-up to war. As Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz observed, sometimes the press has to do the unpopular thing.
  • In the aftermath of the tragedy, a number of people, including Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, said that now was not the time to politicize this shooting by broaching the subject of gun control. At least until the paper Conservative Voice came forward and endorsed the notion that law abiding citizens should be able to arm themselves in the name of self-defense should such an occurrence befall them. Further, that so-called “safe zones”, areas where under Virginia law you cannot wear a concealed weapon, should be abolished. Archie Bunker tested the same idea in the 70s by saying allowing armed passengers on airplanes would dissuade potential hijackers. Looking back, I think we can all agree that it was a good thing the principle was never adapted; you can’t even take an opened bottle of water on a plane now.

As we saw at Dawson, Canada’s comparatively stringent gun laws didn’t prevent the perpetrator from getting possession of a firearm, but then again there aren’t 10,000 gun murders in Canada yearly either. Cho walked into a store and bought both guns legally within a period of five weeks (he waited a month between purchases), despite the fact that just over a year earlier he’d been sent to hospital for psychiatric treatment. Why, because under Virginia law, mental health disqualifications only apply for someone who was “involuntarily committed” or ruled mentally “incapacitated”. In other words, Cho fell through a crack in the system and was able to buy, not one, but two guns without any red flags being raised.

If you can explain why any civilized country would allow such powerful weapons to be so easily procured, even by people who should have never been allowed with driving distance of a pistol in the first place, all in the name of freedom, then you’re smarter then I am. Otherwise you can listen to this guy: "Isn’t it interesting that Utah and Oregon are the only two states that allows faculty to carry guns on campus. And isn't it interesting that you haven’t read about any school or university shootings in Utah or Oregon? Why not? Because criminals don't like having their victims shoot back at them. That’s why the American people want an end to this ineffective gun ban." This was Larry Pratt, Executive Director of Gun Owners of America, clearly highlighting an example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, also once cleverly used by Homer Simpson in reference to the Bear Patrol. I trust that Mr. Pratt will issue a full retraction when a school shooting in either Oregon or Utah makes Rio Bravo look like West Side Story.

Closer to home, I’d like to acknowledge the some 500 students, staff and faculty that broke away from their routine to join the moment of silence, especially at the height of the exam period. If clothes make then man, then certainly people make the place and that’s one of the reasons I’m glad to call Guelph my home.

On the Cannon, we had a lot of laughs this year and we had some rather heated discussions on various topics too. I hope that when you read one of our articles you learned a little or otherwise clicked away feeling more informed then you were when you arrived. This was a rebuilding season for us and what reaction I’ve got says that we were successful for the most part in what we were trying to accomplish, which was to make this website as much a part of campus media as The Ontarion, the Peak and CFRU.

My thanks and appreciation go out to the CSA exec for 06/07: Chris, Becky, Bre, John and Jonathan as well as business office staff Lee Anne, Marita and of course Louise. Also to our tech whiz John Bonnar and our co-bosses at the Co-op Tom, Gen and Marty. Finally, I’d like thank out fine reporters May, Gonzalo and Scott as well as volunteers like Sammy, Jen, Jess, Stephen, Jeremy, Kasia, Gareth and Scott as well as Student Health Services, the Peak Collective and all our Gryphon Fiction participants. You guys, all of you, truly made a great year for the Cannon.

Best of luck Bob.

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