The slaughter of 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech, by a deranged student who then killed himself, forces us to confront and reconsider certain disagreeable facts about American society today.
Luckily, a poll since the massacre indicates that 79 percent of those questioned dismiss the idea that all that was needed to prevent this tragedy was some stricter laws against guns. In a nation with an estimated 210 million guns in private hands, that notion surely deserves a prize for sheer stupidity.
But there are all sorts of more sensible considerations. The self-televised rants of the gunman, which he mailed off to NBC and which were broadcast extensively in the days following the event, clearly demonstrate that he was a seething mass of hatred for just about everything and everyone in his environment. Whether he was a psychotic, a psychopath, something else with a fancy technical name, or was simply a profoundly evil human being can be argued at any length that satisfies us. But the glaring fact is that he developed into a killer right under our noses, and the key question is whether this ought to have been perceived in advance and steps taken to head him off.
Silent and stealthy though he was, it appears that various symptoms of his trouble had been noticed in recent years, and a few efforts had been made to deal with them. He had stalked a couple of girls, who reported their fears, and had written various exercises as schoolwork whose hostility so alarmed his teachers that they referred him for psychiatric attention. But he managed to elude serious study and effective care, and carry out his grisly plans.
The basic reason he was able to do so is that symptoms of the sort he displayed exist in huge numbers in this nation of 300 million people. What's more, the trend in our society in recent decades has been to treat such "mental problems" with scrupulous consideration for those who have them, but with little or no thought for others who may be endangered. In Virginia, where this massacre occurred, it is actually against the law to notify even a student's parents about his or her psychological condition without the student's express permission.
But, unfortunately, not even the most draconian treatment of mentally disturbed individuals could prevent all tragedies of this sort. Even today, a person who is clinically diagnosed as a danger to himself or others can legally be restrained. But for every such person whose behavior gives him away, there are and will always be scores of others who are never discovered, and who will remain at large until, every now and then, it is too late.
The problem is made far worse by the general atmosphere of American society, which in recent decades, in deference to the First Amendment, has countenanced more and more depictions of violent behavior -- most notably on television.
Americans today would certainly not enjoy living in a severely structured society like (say) 19th-century Japan, where everyone knew his place and unconventional behavior was severely condemned. But the sort of "anything goes" mood dominant in America today carries with it, inevitably, the risk that occasionally unstable individuals will choose to go much too far.
So the unpalatable truth is that, as a practical matter, there is little we can do to prevent tragedies like Virginia Tech. By all means improve the observation, reporting and treatment of individuals who display dangerous psychological symptoms. And condemn and prevent (to the extent that the courts will permit it) the use of television and other means of communication to celebrate violence. But as long as we, as a nation, place the rights of the individual in the forefront of our concern, and relegate to a lesser status the protection of society, we will have to pay, from time to time, the price for our preference.