Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Cho's Madness

April 18, 2007

The mass murder at Virginia Tech is the kind of traumatic event that unleashes a torrent of pop sociology and national psychoanalysis, so allow us to weigh in with a more fundamental explanation: There are evil and psychotic people in this world willing to do great harm to others if they aren't stopped. The dilemma in a free society is how to stop them.

Cho Seung-Hui seems to fit the profile of a social misfit who snapped. Like many other mass killers, the 23-year-old is being described by acquaintances as a "loner," given to bursts of hostility and other antisocial behavior. We will learn more in the coming days, but our guess is that those who knew him will conclude that they saw the warning signs.

The calculation of his murder spree also suggests some deeper evil at work -- if we can use that word in liberal company. Cho used chain locks to bar students from escaping, lined some up against a wall, and emptied his clips with brutal resolve. "There wasn't a shooting victim that didn't have less than three bullet wounds in them," one of the doctors on the scene told CNN. This was a malevolent soul.

How can a society that wants to maintain its own individual freedoms stop such a man? The reflexive answer in some quarters, especially overseas, is to blame any killing on America's "lax" guns laws. Reading a summary of European editorials yesterday, we couldn't help but wonder if they all got the same New York Times memo, so uniform was their cultural disdain and their demand for new gun restrictions.

Yet Virginia Tech had banned guns on campus, using a provision in Virginia law allowing universities to become exceptions to the state's concealed carry pistol permits. Virginia is also known for its strict enforcement of gun violations, having implemented a program known as Project Exile that has imposed stiffer penalties and expedited gun cases.

In any case, there is no connection between recent mass murder events and gun restrictions. As Quebec economist Pierre Lemieux noted yesterday, "Mass killings were rare when guns were easily available, while they have been increasing as guns have become more controlled." The 1996 murders in the Scottish town of Dunblane -- 17 killed -- occurred despite far more restrictive gun laws than America's.

You could more persuasively argue, as David Kopel does nearby, that the presence of more guns on campus might have stopped Cho sooner. But as a general rule we are not among those who think college students, of all people, should be advised to add guns to the books in their backpacks.

Any gun control crusade is doomed to fail anyway in a country like the U.S. with some 200 million weapons already in private hands. While New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg seems ready to stump for gun restrictions, we doubt many Democrats will join him. They did so after Columbine in 1999, only to lose the 2000 election in part because of the cultural backlash in America's rural and hunting counties. We'll concede that this political reality has changed only when New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton decide once again to pick up the gun control cause.

A better response than gun control would be to restore some of the cultural taboos that once served as restraints on antisocial behavior. These columns long ago noted the collapse of such social and moral restraints in a widely debated editorial called "No Guardrails." Instead, after Columbine, there was a rush to blame violent videogames. But videogames or other larger media influences don't inspire mass murder when there are countervailing restraints and values instilled by families, teachers, coaches and pastors. Two generations ago, colleges felt an obligation to act in loco parentis. Today, the concept is considered as archaic as the Latin -- and would probably inspire a lawsuit.

However, even those benevolent influences -- were it possible to restore them -- might not have made a difference in the case of Cho Seung-Hui, whose madness can't be explained by reason.

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