BookReview: No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech
by Lucinda Roy, Harmony, March 31, 2009, 978-0307409638

Lucinda Roy was chair of the English dept at Virginia Tech before Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people before committing suicide. Roy pulled Cho from his creative writing class, because his writings and behavior were frightening students. Roy worked with Cho the 2005 Fall semester at which time she recommended he get counseling. Cho clearly was mentally unstable, and Roy did more than recommend he get counselling. She contacted various University agencies, all which failed to help Cho.

Yet, Roy does not have a specific agenda. She writes with skill and eloquence about all sides of the story: Cho, his family, the University's administration, other teachers, herself, etc. It's an incredibly moving and impressive book. Her goal is to explain and provoke questions, and she does that extremely well.

Clearly written, deeply thoughtful, and few conclusions make this book exceptional.

[k117] Then there are the counselors, therapists, police officers, and psychologists who know as well as anyone that there are too many troubled young people being funneled through a mental health system that purports to treat them but that does not have the capacity to do so. They understand that something wild is growing in our midst, something untamed and eager, some brooding energy we are afraid to acknowledge.

[k171] Causality is supposed to make the plot credible in a tragedy like this one. We are schooled to believe that an act of spontaneous evil is as unlikely as spontaneous combustion; we are trained to search for signs. The arc of the narrative becomes the slippery relationship between time and failure.

[k180] And the lucky ones who weren't in that location said, "How could this ugliness have happened over there, to them?" But in their hearts even the lucky people knew that this unfortunate question belonged to them as well. Because what happened over there could happen anywhere. Because "we" are always "they" in the end.

[k341] Early that afternoon I had received a call from an editor at the New York Times. Would I write an op-ed about how the tragedy had affected the community? It would appear in the next morning's paper. I agreed to do it. Over the years, I have trained myself to write my way through suffering--not to escape it, but instead to attempt to decipher my experience. I hadn't begun to understand the implications of the war in Sierra Leone until I had written a novel about it.

[k749] It's not simply that Seung seems to be so depressed; it is his anger that troubles me, particularly when I am never sure how he will react to my suggestions that he seek counseling. I am aware of the fact that, in some cultures, admitting you need to see a counselor can be viewed as weakness and can therefore be offensive, especially to young men. But I keep suggesting this option because I am convinced that he needs help.

[k763] One of the techniques I use to help students who have difficulty with writing is to cowrite work with them. Seung and I are writing a poem together, but it is a difficult process. I hope it will help me understand him better. The poem's title is "Seung," a title he chose, I believe--certainly one he agreed to. I ask him to describe himself. After many long pauses and follow-up questions, he calls himself a "secret." In response to my question about what makes him who he is, he tells me he is covered, silent, waiting. I ask him what he is waiting for. He shrugs. "I don't know," he says. He tells me he's so focused that it hurts him. It is a spontaneous offering--a sentence unexpectedly given. I write it down, make it a line in the poem.

[k975] I understand that it can be incredibly challenging to work in an understaffed facility, but the information that had been provided to the CCC should have alerted counselors to the seriousness of the situation. The Panel Report revealed that Cho had been repeatedly flagged--by female students he harassed, by his roommate who was worried about his state of mind, and by faculty in English who had taught him. But he still fell through the cracks.

[k986] On December 13, 2005, Cho's roommate (called a "suitemate" in the Panel Report because students in Harper Residence Hall shared a common sitting area) had reported that he had received an instant message from Cho threatening, "I might as well kill myself now." The roommate called the VTPD and Cho was taken to the police department and evaluated by someone from New River Valley Community Services (NRVCS). The prescreener concluded that Cho was "an imminent danger to self or others," an evaluation that was critical because it meant that a magistrate could issue a temporary detention order. Cho spent the night at Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital, known locally as "St. Albans."

[k997] The staff psychiatrist concluded in his evaluation summary at noon, "[T]here is no indication of psychosis, delusions, suicidal or homicidal ideation." Cho was released on the understanding that he would receive follow-up care from the CCC. Unfortunately, what the staff psychiatrist at Carilion St. Albans failed to take into account was an obstacle that I had encountered when I tried to get Seung-Hui Cho into counseling: The CCC did not see students unless they sought counseling voluntarily.

[k1015] During Cho's junior year at Virginia Tech, numerous incidents occurred that were clear warnings of mental instability. Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these incidents, the university did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots.

[k1049] From Tuesday, April 17, when the identity of the shooter was confirmed up until the time of writing this book, there has been no meaningful internal investigation with regards to specific incidents related to Seung-Hui Cho. As far as I can tell, apart from the development of some guidelines about how to evaluate and refer troubled students, Cho's history at Virginia Tech has been erased from the upper administration's collective memory. After tragedies like this, people clam up. They are warned that it is too dangerous to talk about the specifics of a case when lawyers are chomping at the bit, when the media is lying in wait like a lynch mob. But people also remain silent when they are worried that what they have to say could injure them somehow. In the days and weeks that followed the tragedy at Virginia Tech I was reminded of how much silence has to say to us if we listen with care.

[k1071] But silence is an impediment to understanding.

[k1079] In the next few months, until Governor Kaine issued Executive Order 53 on June 18, 2007, which allowed the review panel to look at Cho's academic and mental health records, the Tech administration would be obsessed with the right to privacy of a single individual. And that single individual whose rights the Tech administration would be so concerned about protecting was none other than Seung-Hui Cho.

I agree with her perspective that we should write actively. The "I" in content is not egostistical, rather I am more accountable if I write in the active voice.

[k1607] When the passive voice is used in sentence construction it is hard to pin down who the subject is. [...] The phrase "The Policy Group was informed," for example, begs the question of who did the informing. It seems by the end of the paragraph as though everyone is receiving all the information at the same time, but given how chaotic the situation must have been, this seems somewhat unlikely. Usually teachers of writing try to dissuade students from using the passive voice construction because it tends to result in accounts that lack specificity and removes a subject from his or her own actions, as it does in this case.

[k1624] For instance, what information do we release without causing a panic? We learned from the Morva incident last August that speculation and misinformation spread by individuals who do not have the facts cause panic.

When I panic I focus on the little things, that is, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when the boat is sinking. One of the things we work on at bivio is replacing the word "think" with "do". This is very difficult to accomplish in practice. We so much want to know our answer is perfect that we think too much. In real life answers are not perfect, because the information at hand is limited, and our extrapolations are almost certainly wrong. Decisions are made, especially during crises, out of fear, and usually the wrong fears.

[k1639] At that time of the morning, when thousands are in transit, what is the most effective and efficient way to convey the information to all faculty, staff, and students? If we decided to close the campus at that point, what would be the most effective process given the openness of a campus the size of Virginia Tech? How much time do we have until the next class change?

The following is disturbing on many levels, but the non-obvious feeling I had is about the use of "public". If the records were the public's to disclose, no settlement would be needed. The fact is that the administration, not the public, is the defendant. We often pretend that administrations are the body they administer, which is just false, and a dangerous assumption for the body being administered (ruled) to make.

[k1696] Although more material has been recently released in accordance with the settlement between the victims' families and the public, and it's possible that other documents will be released in the future, it would seem that those lobbying for full disclosure still have a long battle ahead of them.

[k1701] When times get tough, I recite Audre Lorde's words: "When I dare to be powerful--to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid." I like the idea that fear diminishes when we focus on serving our visions; I like to think that there is a type of empowerment we can cultivate within ourselves that is nurturing rather than acquisitive or destructive.

[k1772] There are organizations at Tech built around a common faith or ethnicity, the love of a sport or a career, and organizations focused on activities as varied as belly dancing, cigars, croquet, philosophy, and spying. But if Cho allowed himself to have fun with other students, to actually enjoy himself when he went out with them, to truly be their peer, how would they recognize his power? In the fall of 2005, when he grabbed a knife and stabbed it into the carpet as his roommates watched in surprise, he was emphasizing the fact that he would never be one of them.

[k1938] HIGHER EDUCATION in the United States has changed over the past decade, and these changes have been felt most acutely at public institutions that rely on a steady infusion of state funds and at smaller private institutions that cannot draw upon hefty endowments to shore up their budgets. Nowadays, some of those in leadership positions at universities have little experience working with students and almost no experience in the classroom. It has become more important to hire administrators who know how to raise money than it is to hire those who know much about students.

[k2286] Moreover, in the process of trying to collect data from faculty in the English department who had taught Cho, the administration inadvertently attached one individual's private response to a survey seeking the location of university computers. When the administration was informed of this gaffe, it expressed surprise, not having known it had done so. The violation of privacy did little to reassure some of us that our hard drives would be secure. At a time when Seung-Hui Cho's privacy was being zealously guarded by the administration, the privacy of faculty and staff seemed to have no value.

[k2299] Ron Forehand made it clear that the punishment for non-compliance would be extreme: Employees who refuse access to Virginia Tech-owned electronic equipment for this data preservation project may be subject to a range of sanctions, to include discipline (including discharge) and denial of a defense by the Attorney General's office in the event litigation is filed as a result of April 16th. In the even [sic] an employee is not cooperative, I suggest that the university simply confiscate the equipment, take appropriate action in respect to copying, and then take appropriate personnel action against the resistant employee. I'd be happy to speak personally to any employee should that be necessary. Please know that you, the legal department, and the university have the full support of the Office of the Attorney General in your endeavors.

[k2309] Faculty in the English department who did not comply could lose everything--jobs, health care coverage (which is tied to employment), and legal representation, even though the university had not yet determined how it would safeguard the information it was seizing.

[k2326] IN THE section entitled "University Setting and Campus Security," the Panel Report concluded: Although the 2004 General Assembly directed the Virginia State Crime Commission to study campus safety at Virginia's institutions of higher education (HJR 122), the report issued December 31, 2005, did not reflect the need for urgent corrective actions. So far as the panel is aware, there was no outcry from parents, students, or faculty for improving VT campus security prior to April 16. Most people liked the relaxed and open atmosphere at Virginia Tech. Yet in 2005 several faculty members, including myself, had alerted various units to issues of campus security, vandalism, and troubled students. We had spoken with a number of people about our concerns, including representatives from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Student Affairs, the VTPD, Judicial Affairs, the Women's Center, and the Cook Counseling Center.

[k2481] THE PAST few years have taught me that, in many ways, I am a traditional, somewhat conservative teacher, even though my political leanings are liberal or independent. There are many books I do not include on my syllabus because I still believe--unfashionable though it has become to do so--that great literature is more than an obsession with a stark realism and raw verisimilitude, that the greatest work teaches us how to live with dignity, courage, and compassion. Experience has taught me that words are more powerful than we give them credit for, and that we have no way of knowing how sophisticated students may or may not be when they enter our classrooms. I therefore do not assume that all students are ready to devour all texts at the same time.

It would be easy to assert that Student A had no right to submit such disturbing material to his teachers, but, if we adhere to the spirit of the Constitution, he had every right, and still does, to say whatever he wants. What I would assert, however, is this: His teachers had every right to be appalled by what Student A had written and to react accordingly. [...]

Student A's teachers were absolutely right to confront him about his work and to demand that he not submit such disturbing material to class. As chair of the department at the time, I had every right to demand that he comply with those requests. At some point, people have to say no. That is what the English department did. That is what the officer who offered to help me also did. That is what Tom Brown--then serving as director of student life and advocacy--did when he met with the student himself. But the university lacked the mechanisms needed to react more appropriately to what became an urgent and distressing situation.

[k2539] But there are risks involved if we assume that thousands of students are potentially lethal. Administrators who are justifiably concerned about school safety could intercede aggressively, setting up punitive systems designed to detect any and all potential threats, however unlikely they may be, not realizing that some of the things we cherish most--young people's energy and imagination, for example--could be jeopardized in the process.

[k2601] One of the obvious drawbacks to the zero tolerance policies is the fact that students who are suspended or expelled have to go somewhere--they don't simply disappear. Who is supposed to educate them at that point? Do zero tolerance policies result in the transference of the student from one school system to another? If other schools are not open to them, are these students meant to simply roam the streets? If so, is this policy likely to make the community safer?

[k2670] The assumption that it is easy to identify potential threats is faulty; almost all the students who write about homicide have absolutely no intention of killing anyone. It should be acknowledged, however, that threat assessment teams will make mistakes.

[k2689] It's a shame that those whose focus is teaching and who are, I would propose, "the nurturers of new intelligence," are sometimes not considered to be as valuable to the research-based institution.

This is a new twist on those who can't do, teach. We have tremendous disrespect for teaching, and in the US, we hate bureaucracy even more. In CH, for example, people accept the need for teachers, buereaucrats, stone masons, and so on. Stratification in society occurs along different lines in CH (language, money, origin, ...).

[k2694] IT HAS always been difficult for administrators who are not regularly in the classroom to understand the challenges teachers face.

[k2765] Today in the United States, hordes of boys and girls are funneled through an unresponsive system that barely acknowledges their existence. They emerge at the other end often unable to read or write, or reading and writing at such a basic level that it can be hard for them to function. Their parents are often chronically absent from their lives, or so consumed by poverty that it can be hard to get from day to day. There has been a massive exodus of good teachers from teaching. This is a catastrophe that threatens to redefine the social landscape of the United States. In poor rural and tough urban districts there is a paucity of good teachers; those who try to remain are often treated like dirt and paid salaries that do not permit them to support their families. We acknowledge that this is happening, shake our heads, and move on, hoping that these wild young people will not encroach upon our neighborhoods. We are more likely to assume that a young person killed or injured in an environment like this one is less innocent than someone on a middle-class campus. The tragedy isn't considered to be as great when those who are lost have already been discarded.

[k2777] There are times when students yearn for boundaries. Seung-Hui Cho may have been willing to study with me because he knew what to expect, and he knew the parameters. For someone who had great difficulty controlling his emotions, and who eventually was subsumed by them, an environment of predictability and order may have been a welcome one.

[k2789] If some of our schools resemble detention centers, it is not surprising that students graduate without a clue about how to conduct themselves.

[k2823] There is a belief that those things that have not been addressed in the home environment will be addressed by teachers who function in loco parentis.

[k2626] Parents are either afraid to admit that they need help or unable to get the help they say they need for children who are spinning out of control.

[k2844] The "dumbing down" of the curriculum and grade inflation are realities in education, and, although there is a reluctance to admit it, student evaluations of teachers are partly to blame. I am not speaking as someone who is bitter about her own student evaluations; in fact, they have been a source of encouragement to me over the years.

[k3058] It is a life especially attractive to young men who yearn for freedom from responsibility. The only obligation is to one's art, and one's art is an expression of oneself, which makes writing a process akin to looking in the mirror commenting on your own reflection, warts and all.

[k3062] This does not mean that these students are deeply disturbed. In fact, only in very rare cases is that true. A significant number of students I have taught whose work is the most accomplished and resonant have suffered from a range of emotional problems, in part because of their acute sensitivity. We must not turn students like these away from writing. In fact, for their sake and for art's sake, we have an obligation to do the opposite. But we cannot automatically make the assumption that all students are equally prepared to make the same journeys at the same time.

This is unwise. We are all students. It's when we think we know it all, and are done being "formed" that real dangerous thought begins.

[k3084] In addition, the word student carries with it certain assumptions. Students are in the process of becoming adults. Even if they are adults, the word student admits that they are not yet fully formed.

[k3192] There is an ancient Indian saying that I try to live by: "Everything not given is lost." In other words, if we don't learn to give things away, if we don't learn to share who we are, then there is nothing but sadness and loss. So these words are my small gift to you.

[k3206] I sent him some poems and his lawyer told me he would deliver them and the letter to the young man. Later on I learned that he had opted to live and had accepted the plea bargain in the end. The lawyer wrote to me some time after that and told me that one of the young man's poems had been accepted for publication. I don't fool myself into believing that it was a letter from me that made the difference, especially as there was so much I was incapable of knowing about him. If anyone did make a difference it was his extraordinary and dedicated lawyer, who refused to give up on someone he believed had potential.

[k3214] The writing process has become for me a process akin to grieving because it is the stubbornness of it that bludgeons you, the need to keep returning to the same travesty. What people like to call "the healing process" doesn't live up to its billing. Instead, it is an entry into different configurations of pain, a series of accommodations and reconciliations. I take the hard, knotty tumor of the word grief and chisel away at it until it attains its own stark beauty.

[k3371] After the Virginia Tech tragedy, cautious state politicians didn't want to mention the word gun. For this reason, they paid a lot of lip service to mental health reform and campus security--issues that suddenly caused them sleepless nights.

Cho did not buy weapons at a gun show. It is interesting that we can buy guns online like Cho did and other mass killers but we cannot buy alcohol online.

[k3378] Many people, including many moderate gun owners, agree that gun show purchases should come under the same jurisdiction as purchases made at other venues, but gun rights advocates mounted a fierce campaign.

[k3399] When it comes to buying ammo, there is a plethora of family-oriented outlets from which to choose. IF ALL of the attacks on schools we have suffered since the 1990s had been perpetrated by terrorists from other countries we would be in a much better state of preparedness. We would recognize at once that something needs to be done to address the issue, for school shootings are a form of domestic terrorism. But because the perpetrators are homegrown, there is a tendency to think of them in the same way as we think of "domestic violence," to perceive them as being less threatening.

[k3405] Mass killings are less than a quarter of 1 percent of U.S. homicides, which run at around 11,920 deaths per year, or 10.08 deaths for every 100,000 people. Although this is far higher than the homicide rate in France (4.93 deaths per 100,000) or England and Wales (0.31 deaths per 100,000) or even Switzerland (6.4 deaths per 100,000), it could be worse. The United States makes over $

[k3437] In the October 16, 2006, issue of the Chicago Sun-Times, Bill Dedman described what happened in Alaska when Evan Ramsey decided to punish fellow students and his principal: In their own words, the boys who have killed in America's schools offer a simple suggestion to prevent it from happening again: Listen to us. "I told everyone what I was going to do," said Evan Ramsey, 16, who killed his principal and a student in remote Bethel, Alaska, in 1997. He told so many students about his hit list that his friends crowded the library balcony to watch. One boy brought a camera. "You're not supposed to be up here," one girl told another. "You're on the list."

[k3448] These student-shooters are not in hiding; they are out in the open.

As a parent, I think it is my job to introduce kids to the world of violence slowly. The problem is that it is everywhere. I don't let my kids read the paper, because it is riddled with violent imagery of actual acts in a very sterilized way. No TV plays in our house except recently to allow a video game console without first person shooter games. Yet even the free games with that came with the console are cartoon violence. It may seem better for my sons to hit each other as proxy Lego characters instead of real life but I have my doubts. The acts of violence in video games are not painful nor are the acts of pulling the trigger on a 9mm Glock in real life. Pain is the body's feedback mechanism. When animals fight they both get hurt so there is a natural slowing to the action. With violence with weapons it removes this natural brake on the action. Modern violence needs mental controls that children don't have.

[k3455] But how would two teens know that the rules had changed? After all, adults manufacture terror all the time and feed it to the young for entertainment. Why shouldn't the young manufacture it for themselves and feed it to us for a laugh?

[k3472] Like a typical contemporary antihero, Seung-Hui Cho didn't need wisdom for a successful attack, or courage, or even a lot of money; what he needed was stealth, a constancy of purpose, a lot of ammo, and two reliable weapons. Two guns made him, in a sense, two men--all the more likely that he could outstrip the tally achieved by Harris and Klebold.

[k3477] To those who saw him in Norris Hall, he didn't seem filled with despair or rage. In fact, it was his calmness that was most horrifying, his ability to distance himself from the act of killing.

[k3521] In How the Mind Works, Pinker writes about the rampage phenomenon as it manifests itself in ancient cultures: "Amok is a Malay word for the homicidal sprees occasionally undertaken by lonely Indochinese men who have suffered a loss of love, a loss of memory, or a loss of face."

[k3549] Cho could have made an accurate diagnosis. If we assume for a moment that the "amok man" exists, however, and that an idea can be the catalyst for a rampage, this would suggest that rampages can be counteracted by ideas, too.

[k3577] Why are girls willing to break the code of silence and alert people to a potential attack? In part, Newman and her coauthors conclude, it is due to the strength of their social ties; Amylee Bowman felt close to a teacher she was afraid would be targeted. It is encouraging to know that there are young women who will go up against a group as strong as New Bedford's Trench Coat Mafia, a group that espoused Nazi ideology.

[k3592] Grossman's central claim is that certain kinds of programming and brainwashing techniques are remarkably successful in creating a more lethal soldier, and that similar techniques have been imported into American and Western popular cultures. Grossman charts the recent dramatic increase in aggravated assault in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Scandinavia, and other European countries. He draws upon his own military experience as well as his multiyear investigation of conditioning and desensitization. Although he believes that, from a military point of view, this kind of programming can be important when war is waged, he sees its indiscriminate application on the young, in first-person-shooter video games in particular, as extremely dangerous--so dangerous, in fact, that he thinks it threatens the fabric of society. School shootings to Grossman are a manifestation of the altered psychology of conditioned youth. In spite of the controversy surrounding Grossman's conclusions, claiming that all these attacks on schools and universities are aberrations ignores an obvious trend.

[k3623] It is time to remove the guns from Seung-Hui Cho's cold, dead hands for good.

[k3838] Grief is greedy. Its dominant theme--the primacy of memorial-- cannot countenance forgetfulness. That is why, if life is to progress into the future tense, grief has to be coaxed to a place of reconciliation.

This is why I find most hip-hop and rap disturbing. African Americans are providing fuel for racism against African Americans.

[k4002] Without caricature, it is impossible to effectively promulgate racism.

[k4176] The lack of supervision is a distinct advantage for students who make friends relatively easy and are proactive about their education; they revel in their newfound freedom. But for others, a large campus environment can be a recipe for disaster.

There has always been a gap between kids and adults. Socrates talked negatively about the youth of his day. This trivializes the problem of inter-generational communication. I don't find talking with my children easy, but I know I bear more than 50% of the responsibility for miscommunications. I am the adult, and they are the kids. I brought them into this world. It's my responsibility to make sure they can cope in it. For some reason we assume this should be easy, but every generation has their Jack the Rippers. We need to make sure they get help before they hurt anybody (physically or psychologically).

[k4189] Many of our kids, for good or ill, have been leased to special interest groups--the cell phone companies, the malls, the video game industry.

[k4257] In spite of all the demands of parenting, there is one sure method of discovering a young person's voice, and that involves finding ways to learn and laugh together. This one parenting skill supersedes all others. It is what my mother did for me. Her contagious sense of humor and her insatiable intellectual curiosity allowed me to thrive.

[k4367] I have friends who believe that Cho was a monster, and friends who believe that he was simply a very sick young man in need of help, a victim of his own illness. My conclusions are less cut-and-dried. I believe he was easily hurt,

[k4371] There are more Chos, more Klebolds and Harrises, more Kinkels, and more Woodhams in our schools than people like to believe, just as there are in society as a whole. Schools don'

[k4392] The Virginia legislature failed to close the gun show loophole when two Democratic senators voted in favor of retaining it. Anyone eighteen years or older can purchase a gun at any gun show in Virginia without undergoing a background check. "Just say no to guns," we tell Virginia's children. "Please don't forget to leave your weapons in the parking lot when you drive to school during hunting season."

[k4416] We routinely underestimate the potency of technology, its ability to reshape attitudes and behavior. Our statistical data often reflect our provincialism. Attacks are rarely connected in meaningful ways, even though television, movies, and the Internet have enabled a kind of ideological miscegenation (for want of a better term) that has changed the cultural dynamic forever and is redefining national identity. Viruses go global swiftly. A young man in Finland can watch the videos posted by a young man in Virginia; a young man in Virginia can be inspired by two boys in Colorado.

Via Rob 04/20/2009