You could blame the Blacksburg, Virginia massacre on many things. You could blame it on too many guns, or not enough guns. You could blame it on school security officials who, after two lay dead in a campus dormitory, failed to warn anyone that a murderous killer was on the prowl. You could blame it on the lonely misfit himself, that perennial sociological figure who carries around his heavy heart of darkness until he can’t keep it inside any longer.
You could also blame a legal juggernaut that adds up to paralysis in the face of the deranged and dangerous. Consider: Cho Seung-Hui was so clearly mentally disturbed that just about everyone who looked him in the eye all but ran screaming in the other direction. The twisted, blood-soaked essays he wrote for his English class scared the bejesus out of his fellow students—and remember that these are kids suckled on Grand Theft Auto and Reservoir Dogs. The poet Nikki Giovanni, one of Cho’s teachers, says that students were so terrified of him that many stopped coming to class. Classmates wondered aloud if he’d turn out to be a school-shooter; a professor called the campus police to tell them that they had a homicidal maniac on their beat. Another English teacher who decided to work alone with him was scared enough that she and her assistant devised a secret code in case she needed help.
He didn’t talk to his roommate. He didn’t talk to friends, but then he didn’t have any. He sat at his computer staring into space. According to the New York Post, some of his suitemates didn’t even know his name. The only “person” with whom he communicated was an imaginary girlfriend, “Jelly.” Nor were Virginia Techies alone in having a sense of foreboding about Cho. In December, 2005, after stalking two female students, Cho wound up in a district court in Montgomery County, Virginia, which declared him “mentally ill”—and “an imminent danger to self and others.”
These weren’t just the proverbial “warning signs”; more like a billboard hung around Cho’s neck with the words “Stop Me. Please,” in big rainbow letters. As Cho himself wrote in the manifesto he sent to NBC during a pause in the carnage: “You had a hundred billion chances and ways to avoid today . . .”
So what prevented anyone from taking this creature out of the dorms and off the streets? For starters, as the New York Times reported, privacy and antidiscrimination laws make it almost impossible for school officials to protect students from crazed classmates. If they try to expel a student from a dorm because they think he’s dangerous, they can be sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Recently, CUNY officials had to pay $65,000 to forestall a lawsuit by a student barred from her dormitory after her suicide attempt and hospitalization.
The only people who might be able to take some action when a student shows signs of trouble—family members—are kept deliberately out of the loop. A 1974 law, known as the Buckley Amendment in tribute to its architect, former senator James Buckley, makes it illegal for administrators to tell parents almost any details about their child’s college life—including serious medical problems—without the student’s permission. Some years ago, when my daughter was starting out at Amherst, the college president explained the terms of the Buckley Amendment to the parents of incoming freshmen. One parent asked in disbelief, “You mean, if my kid were to disappear to California with a drugged-out nut, you wouldn’t even tell me she was missing?” The president smiled with just a hint of condescension. “That’s right,” he said.
Mental-health experts also found themselves paralyzed by laws and bad ideas when faced with a dangerous psychotic. The psychologist at Carilion St. Albans Hospital got a pretty good look at Cho in 2005, yet released him the next day because, as he wrote, the young man “denies suicidal intentions” and “does not acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder.” Lay people may not find it surprising that a madman, if asked, would deny being a madman. But today’s psychiatrists, who have all but jettisoned the idea of the unconscious, use crude interviewing protocols that rely on superficial self-reports and resort to tautological diagnoses that tell little about any underlying disease. Further, unless someone has committed a crime, civil-liberties laws and limited hospital space make it exceedingly difficult to hospitalize someone, no matter how bizarrely dangerous his behavior.
Despite the magnitude of the tragedy in Blacksburg, it’s worth noting that in some ways the system worked better than it did at Columbine. When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris made violent videos and wrote bloody “creative” essays, everyone shrugged them off. This time around, people noticed—as they should have. Of course, there’s always the danger of overreaction. Years of zero-tolerance drug policies that lead schools to expel kids for carrying Tylenol in their backpacks have proved that.
But Cho wasn’t a marginal case. He was unhinged and deadly. His classmates knew it. His teachers knew it. Administrators probably knew it. A judge knew it.
And now, thanks to well-meaning but overscrupulous laws, the whole world knows it too.