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Will tragedy lead to a more secure future?

Former FBI agent Clint Van Zandt explores lessons that can be learned from the Virginia Tech massacre.
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With the U.S. president and the Virginia governor sitting beside them, students, faculty, staff, friends and parents mourned the loss of 33 students and faculty members of Virginia Tech on Tuesday.  In that moment we were all “Hokies.” 

The message of hope was strong and clear at the convocation.  Hope was seen in our eyes and felt in our hearts only 28 hours after the largest mass murder by firearm took place on the scenic western Virginia college of 26,000 students.  The student body is composed of residents of 49 states and 36 foreign countries. Virginia Tech is truly an international center of study that represents the highest standard of both academics and athletics.  Beside their success in football and engineering, Virginia Tech will now be remembered in the same vein as Columbine High School, where classrooms became killing fields.  While on campus on Tuesday, I saw three female students run to each other and fall to the ground holding one another grateful just to be alive.  All of us who witnessed this moment cried with them.

Most now know that Seung-Hui Cho -- a 23-year-old Korean national and a senior majoring in English -- is now believed to be the lone gunmen responsible for this monstrous mass murder. This incident unfortunately dwarfs the October 1991 murder of 23 in a Killeen, Texas restaurant; the July 1984 murder of 21 in a San Ysidro, California McDonalds; the December 1987 murder of 16 in Russellville, Arkansas; and the August 1966 murder of 16 on the University of Texas campus.  The important question is why did Cho do this, and might his actions spawn similar actions on the part of other psychologically challenged individuals, so-called “copy cat” attacks?

Most of us know that life imitates “art” including violent movies, violent video games, and music that glorifies violence, but why would someone commit such a heinous act? 

Profile of a killer
In the case of Seung-Hui Cho, we are hearing about the suggested motives and background usually associated with such terrible acts:  the shooter was a loner; he wrote about or otherwise fantasized about violence with sexual overtones; he had poor social skills; his conflict resolution and anger management skills were lacking or simply non existent; he was depressed, he took medication that failed to control his emotional challenges; he cared little about others - antisocial-like in his behavior; he was haunted by psychological challenges and perhaps the accompanying mental demons, and he held others responsible for his problems, blaming their behavior and their attitudes for his terrible actions, “You made me do this.”

What would make someone kill in such a systematic fashion devoid of all apparent emotion?  His first two victims were in a college dorm room and his next 30 were across campus, where he entered an academic building walking between four classrooms shooting the students in each room and a stairwell before taking his own life.  The responding police crash through the doors that Cho had chained only minutes before going on this rampage.   This shows the level of pre-planning and the deep hatred of his victims.  In his twisted, sick mind the 32 innocent victims may have represented everything that he ranted and raged about in the incoherent note he left. 

Undoubtedly many questions will be raised concerning the college’s initial response to the shootings. Also many questions remain concerning the early identification of Cho as a person of risk, by an English professor who read his warped writings and called them to the attention of campus police and other officials.  We have learned that authorities told the professor nothing could be done about Cho because he had not really “threatened or hurt anyone, yet.”  As most graduating seniors spend their time and money on planning for their future, Cho spent his time planning out this murder spree and spent his money on a .22 caliber and 9 mm pistol.  The authorities are now tasked with piecing together this perverse puzzle. Reviewing Cho’s writings, not only for the context of a suggested “suicide note” but other writings including  plays known to have been written by him, will help develop the psychological autopsy that may explain  “why” this horrific crime was committed and help to prevent future incidents like this from occurring.

Lessons from the tragedy
What about the potential for copy cats? All schools and colleges need review their security plans after the Virginia Tech Massacre, and they should consider enhancements based on what we have learned.  There needs to be multiple levels of response and redundant levels of communication and notification of students, faculty and staff of a significant problem on campus. Mass e-mails, text messages, voice mails to dorm, home and cell phones, and sirens on campus can all be used to send notification of a “Code Red,” a natural or human disaster in the making and one in which all personnel should return to their dorm rooms and otherwise lock down campus.  Some suggest that there was an information void at Virginia Tech, one that might have contributed to the carnage while others believe that nothing else could have been done.  The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between.

What is clear from the Virginia Tech massacre is that incidents like this are a very rare occurrence anywhere in the country much less on a college campus, none the less, they can happen anywhere, at anytime.  There needs to be some good that comes from such a terrible tragic act. There needs to be hope of a better tomorrow, hope for a brighter future.  There needs to be some lessons learned so that schools and students are better prepared in the future.  The threat of potential copy cats will continue to exist, perhaps fueled by themes of violence in our films, fueled by the violent materials on the internet, in our literature and in our lyrics.  How determined are we to balance freedom of speech and human expression with our communities safety and security issues?  I hope this question of balancing freedom and security is an issue we as a society may be coming closer to answering.

The message of hope was strong and clear at the convocation on Tuesday afternoon.   Hope was seen in our eyes and felt in our hearts. I have hope for a brighter future.  I have hope for a better tomorrow born out of the tragedy of the past.  I have hope.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI Agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC Analyst.  His web site provides readers with the opportunity to obtain free security related information as well as a free copy of Clint’s DVD, “Protecting Children from Predators.”