Charles Krauthammer

WASHINGTON -- What can be said about the Virginia Tech massacre? Very little. What should be said? Even less. The lives of 32 innocents, chosen randomly and without purpose, are extinguished most brutally by a deeply disturbed gunman. With an event such as this, consisting of nothing but suffering and tragedy, the only important questions are those of theodicy, of divine justice. Unfortunately, in today's supercharged political atmosphere, there is the inevitable rush to get ideological mileage out of the carnage.

It did not take long for the perennial debate about gun control to break out, preceded by the inevitable scolding and clucking abroad about America's lax gun laws.

It is true that with far stricter gun laws, Cho Seung Hui might have had a more difficult time getting the weapons and ammunition needed to kill so relentlessly. Nonetheless, we should have no illusions about what the laws can do. There are other ways to kill in large numbers, as Timothy McVeigh demonstrated. Determined killers will obtain guns no matter how strict the laws. And stricter controls could also keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens using them in self-defense. After all, the psychotic mass murder is very rare; the armed household burglary is not.

If we are going to look for a political issue here, the more relevant is not gun control but psychosis control. We decided a half a century ago that our more eccentric and, indeed, crazy fellow citizens would not be easily locked up in asylums. It was a very humane decision, but with the inevitable consequence that some who really need protection and quarantine are allowed to roam the streets freely.

It turns out that Cho's psychiatric impairment had been evident to many. He'd been cited for stalking two women on campus. Virginia Tech police tried unsuccessfully to have him involuntarily committed. A teacher referred him to counseling and even his fellow students saw signs of dangerous disturbance. ``Cho's plays ... had really twisted, macabre violence,'' writes former classmate Ian McFarlane. ``Before Cho got to class that day (of reading plays), we students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter. I was even thinking of scenarios of what I would do in case he did come in with a gun.''

In a previous age, such a troubled soul might have found himself at the state mental hospital rather than a state university. But in a trade-off that a decent and tolerant society makes with open eyes, we allow freedom from straitjackets to those on the psychic edge, knowing that such tolerance runs very rare but very terrible risk.


Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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