Beyond Reason

By Eugene Robinson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 18/04/07):

Don't try to make sense of the horrific killings at Virginia Tech, at least not yet. Don't try to make those involved into archetypes -- the gun-wielding loner, the valiant young heroes, the dithering college officials -- and fit them into a familiar, comfortable narrative. Don't rush to draw lessons about guns or alienation or funding for mental health services. Not yet.

This shattered community hasn't even had time to learn what happened, let alone why. It's understandable that authorities would be cautious in releasing the names of the 32 students and faculty members slaughtered by Cho Seung Hui, but the result is that every student I've talked to has spent hours calling around and taking an inventory of friends.

Students appear dazed and unbelieving. Unlike outsiders, they don't enjoy the luxury of being able to look at the Big Picture. They have to live in the here and now.

Monday night, student Philip Kempton was working his bellhop shift at the Inn at Virginia Tech, part of a sprawling conference and alumni center complex that has been given over to crisis management.

The alumni wing had been converted into a teeming media center; scores of satellite trucks filled the parking lots. Another part of the complex was being used for grief counseling, and a steady flow of students streamed in to talk about what they had seen.

Kempton lives in West Ambler Johnston, the dormitory where the first shooting took place. "I was just waking up, and I looked and the place was surrounded by cop cars," said Kempton, who is from Columbia, S.C. "I don't know. I don't even know who in my dorm got hurt."

He knew of one friend who had been wounded at Norris Hall, the second and bloodier crime scene, but the injury was not serious. "It's just unbelievable," he said. "I don't know how somebody could do that. Blacksburg is a safe place. And to have Virginia Tech known as the university that had a massacre, that's, that's painful, too."

Brad Johnson, a sophomore from Leesburg, stopped me yesterday morning as I was walking across campus to take a look at Norris Hall. He said "friends of friends" had been killed in Cho's rampage, but no one he knew personally. He said he had written a few words that might be appropriate for someone to read at the convocation that afternoon, and he wanted to know if I could point him to the right people to talk to. I was sorry, but I couldn't.

"It's probably too late, anyway," he said.

The event was three hours away, President Bush was coming, anyone with authority was unreachable. I had to tell him that, yes, I thought it was too late, but I encouraged him to attend the service, anyway.

Norris Hall, a Gothic-looking classroom building near the center of campus, was sealed off by a perimeter of yellow police tape that fluttered like ribbon in the stiff breeze.

Near Harper Hall, the dormitory where Cho lived, freshman Timothy Johnson was surrounded by a swarm of reporters and camera crews. When Johnson, who also lived in Harper, disclosed that he remembered Cho, the swarm became a self-replenishing horde.

The horde wanted to know what Cho was like, whether he had friends, whether there was anything odd or strange about him. Johnson, who is from Annandale, told them that Cho was just a guy he used to see in the hallway. As one group of reporters finished their interrogation and wandered away, another group pushed to the front and asked the same questions, to which Johnson patiently gave the same answers: just a guy who lived in the dorm.

That's not a satisfying answer, because it doesn't advance the story we're so anxious to tell ourselves. We want this tragedy to prove something. We want it to fit some recognizable template. We want it to make sense because, if there is logic to what Cho Seung Hui did, there should be a logical way to keep such a thing from ever happening again.

An element of randomness and unpredictability is part of any event. What if university officials had shut down the campus after the first murders at West Ambler Johnston? Would Cho have been caught? Or would he have gone off campus to a mall or a school and found others to kill?

One reporter kept pressing Johnson. Was there anything, anything at all, that was unusual about Cho?

Johnson deadpanned that anyone who would gun down dozens of people in cold blood was obviously unusual.