In early 21st-century America, what do you do when you encounter a severely mentally ill person?
Anyone who lives in the city knows the answer to that question — you step around him on the sidewalk, you hope he doesn't hassle you, and maybe you give him some money if he's panhandling.
The authorities at Virginia Tech did their own version of this urban shuffle in their handling of Cho Seung-Hui. It's obviously much easier to realize that someone is dangerously deranged after he has killed 32 people than when dealing with uncertain knowledge in an environment where any wrong (or even correct) move means a lawsuit. But Virginia Tech often tiptoed around Cho's mental disturbance.
When his "poetry" was read aloud in a class, it was so terrifying that at the next meeting of the class only seven of 70 students showed up. Cho was removed from that class, and another professor began to tutor him one-on-one, but only after establishing a secret code word with her assistant to signal when she should call security.
Another alarmed professor went to her dean with worries about Cho. She was told that nothing could be done, so he was simply placed off to the side of the seminar, where he said nothing and his disturbing writings weren't read aloud. This is a microcosm of how we've handled many of the mentally ill during the great deinstitutionalization of the past 30 years, when they have been left to their own devices — and often to the streets or prison — rather than treated.
There are many reasons for this — the rise of psychotropic drugs, budget cuts, expanded conceptions of civil rights — but one intellectual current behind the trend was a moral disempowerment of sanity. One of the most influential academics of the late 20th century, Michel Foucault, argued that attempts to label and treat madness were inherently arbitrary and repressive. Academia has been celebrating "transgression" ever since.
Any attempt to romanticize madness has an incontrovertible answer in Cho Seung-Hui. This is what madness truly is: lonely, painful, shattering, and potentially murderous. After seeing the sick trail of misery left by such transgression, can we expend some of the same intellectual energy honoring wholesome normality?
Behind some of the plaints of Virginia Tech staff that nothing could be done about Cho, you can hear the undercurrent: Who were we to judge? Of course, if he had occasionally uttered racial slurs rather than frightening those around him with bizarre behavior, the full apparatus of administrative power at Virginia Tech would have been brought down on him.
But Virginia Tech also had to cope with an extremely strict state commitment law that requires that someone represent an "imminent danger" to himself or others before he can be compelled to seek treatment. A judge ruled in 2005 that Cho met this standard, but nothing much came of it (although he reportedly was on an antidepressant). Virginia hasn't caught up to other states that have begun to recover from the excesses of deinstitutionalization and have made it easier to compel treatment.
According to an extensive survey in the New York Times a few years ago, about half of rampage killings are committed by mentally ill people, a much higher percentage than the roughly five percent that commit all murders. Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, president of the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center , believes there has been a rise in such killings in the past 20 years, which coincides with the period when we have dumped many severely mental ill people out into society without treating them.
There is, of course, a balance to be struck between civil liberties and treating the mentally ill. But that balance is now badly off-kilter. Cho Seung-Hui was basically abandoned to his private mental hell at Virginia Tech. While he hatched his lunatic and hateful plot, everyone tried to ignore the scary guy in class behind the sunglasses.