The mass murders at Virginia Tech strike most of us as the human equivalent of tornadoes: random, terrifying and senseless. A killer like Cho Seung-Hui can be described but never fully understood. That's partly because we lead blessedly sheltered lives. On the day after Cho ran amok in Blacksburg, Va., more than 200 civilians were slaughtered by car bombs in Baghdad. Distracted by the carnage closer to home, many Americans hardly noticed.
Writing about the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell pointed out that atrocities are common in wartime on all sides. He speculated that many people fantasize about murderous rampages and that "war provides an opportunity of putting them into practice." The latter observation is no longer controversial. Much popular entertainment aimed at young men consists of hyper-violent revenge fantasies.
Whether blasting rival street gangs in Grand Theft Auto or slaughtering unbelievers in the Apocalyptic "Left Behind" video games, players can experience the vicarious thrill of homicide. Rappers boast about "capping" each other, and sometimes do. I'm fond of shoot-'em-up movies myself, preferably the ones with horses. I've seen Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales" several times.
Do murder fantasies cause or reflect the violence in American life? Will NBC's (and other networks') repeated airings of Cho's ranting stimulate "copycat" killers or teach us to be more alert to fragmenting personalities? Nobody knows. Yes, Cho and the Columbine killers craved a bizarre immortality. But then, so did Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth and Marcus Junius Brutus. What was NBC to do? Keep Cho's ravings secret?
Elsewhere, the usual idiots vented the usual idiocies. Rush Limbaugh decreed that left-wing professors undermined Cho's sanity. "You got a guy that hates the rich, you got a guy that thinks that American culture's debauched," he explained. "Who is it telling us all this…? It's the liberals."
After www.mediamatters.org expressed dismay, Limbaugh claimed he'd been joking, his customary dodge.
Newt Gingrich echoed the claim on ABC's "This Week." How this smug crackpot, who blamed Susan Smith's 1994 drowning of her children and the 1999 Columbine massacre on Democrats, can be spoken of as a legitimate presidential candidate escapes me.
Another GOP candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, said if students or faculty members had been packing heat, Cho's rampage might have been prevented — presumably after a Hollywood-style gun battle.
Heaven forbid we toughen laws making it easier for a disturbed person to buy a semi-automatic handgun than a six-pack. We mustn't inconvenience "varmint hunters," lest the nation be overrun by small, furry rodents. So powerful is the NRA gun cult in Washington that it's considered impractical to suggest otherwise.
But enough of that. For Cho's kind of evil to manifest itself on a university campus strikes us as more grotesque because we see them as idealized communities set apart from the rough and tumble of American life. Indeed, reading the delusional harangue he mailed to NBC between killings, I wondered if his psychosis (if that's what it was) might have been worsened by panic over the scary prospect of graduation.
As bizarre and isolated as he was, Virginia Tech tolerated Cho's eccentricities — tolerated them far too generously, it's tragically clear. He wasn't the stereotypical quiet serial killer next door. He'd exuded menace from childhood. Cho's relatives in Korea told The New York Times that his mother prayed for God to transform him almost since birth. Everybody at Tech who dealt with Cho understood that there was something grievously wrong.
Cho's creative-writing assignments struck his instructors as psychotic. He spoke hardly at all but did tell people he had a supermodel girlfriend named "Jelly" from outer space. He confided to a roommate that he'd spent spring break vacationing with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a childhood friend. After reading one of Cho's plays, one student told his own roommate "This is the kind of guy who is going to walk into a classroom and start shooting people."
Cho's last manifesto read: "You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience. You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off."
It's unclear whether he was addressing his victims or voices inside his head.
And yet, nothing could be done. Committed to a psychiatric hospital as a danger to himself and others, Cho was basically released on his own recognizance either to undergo outpatient treatment or not — as if he'd had the capacity to choose. And that's because the laws governing treatment of disturbed people like Cho reflect a romantic concern for their liberty and privacy completely at odds with everything we know about the compulsions that drive them.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.