by Izzy Kalman (May 2007)I had barely sent out my newsletter with an article commemorating the 8th anniversary of the Columbine shooting when an even more devastating Columbine copycat massacre was executed. On April 16, 2007, an angry young man, Cho Seung Hui, in a well-planned attack against his college, killed 32 people and himself. My heart goes out to all the victims and their families, and I hope that nothing I write will be seen as trivializing the horror and the pain.
As after Columbine, our country is wondering what we should learn from this event and how similar ones can be avoided. There is little new that I can clarify beyond what I wrote years ago for my website, the essay called “Columbine Made Simple.” I believe it is as relevant for the Virginia Tech shooting as it was for Columbine – though I must say that my writing style has changed a bit since I wrote it eight years ago. Feel free to read it, if you haven’t already done so.
Everyone with an agenda (I don’t exclude myself) sees the Virginia Tech shooting as supporting their cause. Security advocates call for tighter security on college campuses. Hindsight is 20/20, and there are things Virginia Tech security could have done to stop Cho from killing as many as he did. However, as so many commentators have said, securing huge college campuses is not easy. A bright person like Cho could easily find ways to successfully carry out horrible attacks despite school security.
Gun control advocates believe the Virginia Tech massacre is a clear call for stronger gun control. Perhaps, though I have heard convincing arguments presented by both pro- and anti-gun control activists. We need to recognize that even the tightest gun control policies could not stop someone determined to kill large numbers of people. The worst attack against civilians on U.S. soil – 9/11 – was carried out not with guns but with airplanes used as missiles. The worst massacre by U.S. citizens – the Oklahoma bombing of April 19, 1995 – was done not with guns, but with an inexpensive mixture of readily available fertilizers and chemicals.
Anti-violent-video-game activists believe the Virginia Tech massacre is proof that we need to ban violent video games. But let’s not forget that most of the horrific events in world history were committed before there ever were video games. Millions of kids play violent video games every day, but random school shootings are extremely rare. If anything, Cho killed not because he played fantasy video games, but because he was inspired by the real-life Columbine shooting. Real life events are far more influential motivators of human behavior than imaginary ones. Cho obviously knew an awful lot about Columbine and felt justified committing a similar action. He probably planned the attack for the Columbine anniversary, April 20, but for whatever reasons, couldn’t wait another few days. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebald, the Columbine killers, killed because they knew about Hitler, whose birthday – April 20 – was the day they staged their massacre. Similarly, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers, killed because they knew about the actions of Hitler. Their bombing took place one day shy of Hitler’s birthday. If we are to get rid of violent video games as a way of reducing violence, we should get rid of all violent news and history as well. Or perhaps we should delete the month of April from the calendar.
School anti-bullying activists believe that since Cho was a victim of bullying, anti-bullying programs should be intensified. But let’s not forget the dismal success rate of anti-bullying programs. Most have no benefit or make the problem worse. Cho was 15 years old when Columbine happened, and he was acutely aware that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebald were victims of bullying. In response to Columbine, schools all over the country have had anti-bullying campaigns and programs, yet Cho apparently continued to feel victimized. Does anyone think he wasn’t receiving society’s incessant messages of how terrible bullying is? Do you think he didn’t hear the new slogan, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words kill”? Do you think anti-bullying messages would make Cho think, “Oh, I’m being bullied. It’s no big deal.” If anything, he was thinking, “How dare kids bully me! They have no right to treat me that way! The experts tell me that words kill, so kids who insut me surely deserve to die!” If anything, society’s anti-bully lessons would have fed and legitimized his desires for revenge.
What, then, could have prevented Cho from committing his heinous act? That’s where my agenda comes in. The only thing I can imagine that would definitely have prevented this horrible event was for Cho to have been taught how to stop being a victim. If you read about him, you will see he had an absolute case of what I call a “victim mentality.” He believed no one has a right to treat him badly. He blamed everyone but himself for his problems. He didn’t trust people. He believed life is supposed to be fair. He felt he was a saint and everyone else was evil. He believed that those who abuse him deserve to be punished.
Had a guidance counselor come to Cho’s class any time during his school years to present something like a Bullies to Buddies lesson, perhaps he would have learned how to stop being bullied, and many people including himself would still be alive and whole. In more recent years Cho was referred to the mental health system, but none of the professionals he encountered had any understanding of his emotional state and how to help him stop feeling like a victim. In fact, most of the kids who committed school shootings had had some kind of mental health intervention, but none of the professionals knew how to effectively help them.
If we are to learn anything from Virginia Tech, it’s that it’s time society wake up and realize that the greatest danger facing us is not bullies, but people who think and feel like victims. We will never achieve a safer society as long as we focus on bullying as the problem rather than the victim mentality. We should be “victim-proofing” society rather than trying to “bully-proof” it. Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Our social scientists, in their obsession with protecting victims from bullies, continue to promote a victim mentality, and the danger facing us continues to grow.