Notes on a tragedy

More than a week after the Virginia Tech massacre, we still have more questions than answers
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 25, 2007

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Seung-Hui Cho got what he wanted: a whole nation is talking about him and his horrific killing spree on the Virginia Tech campus last week. But all that attention has hardly served to clarify, at least thus far.

Reactions to the tragedy have tended in either of two directions. At times, media commentators have tried to find a sole identifiable problem — gun-control laws, campus security, even immigration — that calls for a gratifying solution.

At other moments, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible act, they have avoided the difficult question of cause altogether, and focused instead on the aftermath: the victims, the survivors, and the admirable Hokie community spirit of courage, grief, and overcoming. Neither approach satisfies.

In the wake of the tragedy, the Phoenix reached out to some thoughtful people, experts in their fields, to help us formulate the questions we should be asking, even if the answers remain elusive. And we arrived at five themes, with layers of complexity, that might help account for the carnage: small towns and suburbs, bullying, mental illness, aggression toward women, and guns.

Small towns and suburbs
Mass school shootings appear to be a strictly suburban and rural phenomenon, despite the well-documented troubles that plague urban schools. Blacksburg, Virginia, now joins a sad list of victimized small towns that includes Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; Red Lake, Minnesota; Fort Gibson, Oklahoma; Littleton, Colorado; Springfield, Oregon; Jonesboro, Arkansas; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Pearl, Mississippi.

Why might small towns and suburbs be more apt to foster this heinous behavior?

Urban schools typically include such a diverse mix of students — not just racially but in style, interests, and behavior — that tolerance and acceptance may be far greater, says Michael Thompson, a Belmont psychologist and school consultant who has authored several books on emotionally troubled boys.

Small-town misfits run away to the city, not vice versa, after all; Green Day’s American Idiot, with its anthems of misfit isolation in suburbia, found millions of fans.

“I think these suburbs can be very lonely,” Thompson says.

That loneliness might be heightened by lack of regular interaction among the spread-out and secluded homes that make up suburban and exurban school districts — where parents, working long hours to afford their big houses, moved to keep their children safe from urban woes, Thompson points out. “When you are strangers and you know your parents will never meet, it’s easier to tease somebody,” Thompson says. “You have a freer hand.”

But others suggest that urban schools, where violence, weapons, and behavioral problems are more persistent, have simply become better equipped to prevent rampage before it happens. Metal detectors, bag searches, and locker searches are a fact of life in many city schools, along with a constant law-enforcement presence. Entering an urban campus with semi-automatic firearms is no simple task; neither is hiding suspicious activity. “In Brockton they have their own school police, which means more eyes and ears on the students,” says Plymouth County district attorney Tim Cruz. “As you work your way out to the suburbs, some of them have school police, and some don’t — and that’s a very dangerous situation.”

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