Friday, April 20, 2007

The search for answers

I hadn't planned on writing anything about the Virginia Tech massacre. What kind of insight could I provide, after all? What could I say about the horrible event that hasn't already been said by somebody else?

But, in the wall-to-wall media frenzy that has followed this tragedy, one particular and oft-repeated phrase has caught my attention: "the search for answers." People, naturally, want an explanation for Monday's events. What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? How could it have been prevented?

The "what" part is really very simple: an angry, lonely sociopath purchased a couple of guns, went on a rampage, and murdered 32 people. It's the search for the deeper explanations - the "how" and the "why" - that has, over the course of the week, become the focus of national discussion. Why wasn't the killer, whose disturbing writings had caused at least one professor to remove him from her class and who was, at one point, detained for a psychiatric assessment, deemed a threat and removed from campus? Why was the killer allowed to purchase firearms even though he had been detained as a psychiatric risk? Was the police response to the shooting adequate? Everyone - experts, analysts, professors, pundits, pop psychologists, editorialists and next-door neighbors alike - is offering up their own take on "what really happened." Over the next several months and perhaps even years, a flurry of investigations will take place to determine the "why"" and "how" behind this horrific event: to get the answers everybody seeks, to assign blame, if any, and to make recommendations aimed at preventing a further tragedy of this type from occurring.

But what if, after all the investigations and analyses take place, "the search for answers" comes up empty? What if it is determined that the psychiatric evaluation that allowed the killer to remain on the Virginia Tech campus was handled correctly, that the system of background checks that allowed the killer to legally purchase his firearms worked exactly as it was designed and that no reasonable restrictions on handgun ownership would have prevented this tragedy (after all, the killer could conceivably have killed just as many people if he had gone on a stabbing spree instead of a shooting spree), or that the police response to the shootings was appropriate relative to what the authorities knew at the time? What if Monday's tragedy was, essentially, nothing more than "an angry, lonely sociopath purchased a couple of guns and went on a rampage" - a random, isolated act of violence that could not have reasonably been foreseen or prevented? What if there is nothing or nobody to blame, other than the killer himself?

Today I came across a story about the families of the Columbine victims who, eight years to the day after that massacre, are still "searching for answers." It's human nature to want to make sense out of the senseless, to understand the incomprehensible. This is especially true for the friends and families of the victims: "because a guy went crazy and decided to shoot people" probably isn't a satisfactory answer for people trying to understand why their child or their best friend - be they a student at Columbine or Virginia Tech - was gunned down while he or she innocently sat in a classroom. But, at the end of the day, it might be the only explanation: there are crazy people amongst us, and sometimes they do crazy, violent things, and sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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