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Virginia Tech

I'm writing this two days after the Virginia Tech tragedy, the worst "shooting rampage" in US history. Cho Seung Hui, a 23-year-old creative writing major who was just about to graduate from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, shot and killed a student and an RA in a dormitory and then walked across campus to an academic building, chained the doors shut, and shot and killed 31 other people in classrooms, including himself. A number of his victims are still in the hospital, some of them in critical condition.

In the United States, at least, one of the things that has made this unique is how much information was available immediately from people who were in the classrooms via blogs as well as cell phone text messages, videos, and photos. I find myself wondering if things might have been worse--both in terms of how many people were hurt or killed and in terms of psychological fallout--if people hadn't been able to communicate that way.

People are going to scramble to figure out why this happened. The most tempting thing to do will be to write Hui off as "crazy" or "evil." To make him Other. One of my students asked me today if Hui was "psycho;" someone else told me a profiler on an evening news program repeatedly referred to him as a "psychopath." (Neither term is used clinically, and the evidence seems to be pointing at a disorder like depression, not sociopathy, so it's just irresponsible to be throwing terms like that around on television.)

Rock music and violent video games and movies will get some blame. Some people will blame the "narcissism" they believe this generation of children has grown up with. There will be a lot of sensationalistic emphasis on the gory details. And in the end we'll have some kind of profile of the person who did this.

But try not to forget that it was a person who did this, and writing someone off as an anomalous monster keeps us from truly understanding how he felt and thought--and that is the most important why. If we truly understand how depressed or angry or sick he was, we can try to do a better job of intervening so this doesn't happen again. As one person wrote me this morning, so many people are now saying, "I wondered if [Hui] would show up in the newspaper some day morning for killing people," but they didn't really do anything. Or maybe they did do something and those they talked with didn't do enough in response.

Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold, responsible for the Columbine tragedy, gave every indication that they were dangerous. They were even in trouble for the kind of behavior that later led to the death of 13 people, but nobody did enough to prevent what happened. Hui did the same; he gave every indication that he intended to do something horrible, but nobody took him seriously enough, or acted strongly enough, to prevent what happened. Why aren't we learning when things like this happen? Sometimes I think it's because we demonize these people, so when we see or hear a perfectly real human being going down the same path, we minimize the reality that a perfectly real human being is always who does this sort of thing.

Now, no matter what illness someone who hurts other people might have (if they do have one), and no matter what their motivations, that neither excuses their behavior nor provides any type of consolation to those whose lives were affected, particularly those who knew and loved the victims. And just about anyone who hears about what happened is affected by how awful it was.

No matter how much pain someone is in, and no matter how distorted their perceptions of the world might be, taking someone else's life is inexcusable. Hurting others doesn't make your pain better; it makes it worse, because now others are suffering at least as much as you were, even if they're suffering in a different way. One of the things that bothers me most about our health-care system here in the States is that those perpetrators who do receive rehabilitation of some kind are often given more psychological care than those who are affected by what they did. No matter what happens to the perpetrator, survivors almost always have to pay for their own therapy, if they can even afford it. Those who were affected by what happened at Virginia Tech have access to free therapy right now, which is as it should be, but they can't be completely healed in a month, or six months, or a year. And how many people, who have experienced so many other tragedies, never receive any help at all?

And no amount of therapy in the world can "undo" what others have done to us. It's so excruciatingly unfair that survivors are left to pick up the pieces of their lives when they should never have been involved in the first place.The psychological fallout from human-orchestrated trauma is extraordinary. The idea that another thinking, conscious being would do something so awful overloads the brain. Human cruelty is more likely to cause Post-traumatic stress than anything else, no matter how bad. And the alcoholism and suicide rate for people who have PTSD is extremely high. The firefighter who appeared on the front of Time magazine carrying an infant out of the rubble of the Oklahoma City bombing later killed himself.

The survivors should always be who we think of first. But we should also think about Hui. We don't want to take away someone's freedoms because they might possibly be dangerous, but we also can't ignore or minimize someone's behavior when they're sending strong messages that they are.

It's okay to tell someone in authority you're worried that someone you know might hurt someone else. In therapy, we do a very thorough assessment when we hear those things. When we get indications that someone is dangerous, we act, and we'd rather overreact a bit than underreact a lot. There's even something in place in the US we refer to as the Tarasoff law, which means that if you hear someone talk serious about hurting someone else, you have a duty to warn that person s/he's in danger.

It's better to feel a little embarrassed or to have a friend or acquaintance never speak to you again than to let behavior like Hui's go. The guilt some people will feel for not acting will haunt them for the rest of their lives. And my experience with authorities, even before I became a psychologist, was that they want to know so they can intervene if necessary. You can also walk into any emergency room in this country with someone you believe is dangerous to himself or someone else and they will intervene.

There's concern that people will "copycat" what happened, which makes vigilance right now even more important. You don't need to jump every time someone says they'd rather shoot someone than go to another staff meeting, but when you hear it over and over, or when you see other disturbed behaviors with those remarks, it's best to act.

If you'd like more information or would like to do something to help, you can visit Virginia Tech's website or contribute to the Hokie Memorial Fund, which will be used to provide grief counseling, memorials, communication expenses, comfort expenses, and incidental needs to survivors.

If you've been affected profoundly in some way, for example because this brings back memories of something you've experienced, seek some support or counseling for yourself as well.


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