April 19, 2007

April 19, 2007 | Commentary on

The evil men do

Words seem so very inadequate, but they are unfortunately often all we have to express the grief, outrage and sympathy that well up when tragedies like Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech strike. The heart just goes out to the students and their parents, who sustained the worst loss, the greatest pain that can hit a human being. The tragedy that struck the parents of the Virginia Tech students is the tragedy of the entire nation.

The insane shooting spree cut short the lives of more than 30 people, most of them young promising people, who were surely expecting nothing but an ordinary day of classes and undoubtedly looking forward to the end of the term. The boundless energy, potential, sense of fun and affection that characterize the time of life when young people get ready to face the world on their own, will in this case be no more than the memories that their families and friends recall over and over.

At a time when the United States is at war and deeply engaged militarily in Iraq, a comparison with the carnage that is a daily fact in the lives of Iraqi citizens presents itself. Only a few days ago, 60 people were killed when suicide bombers detonated explosive devices at a bus stop in Baghdad. Imagine our horror if the carnage at Virginia Tech were something that repeated itself in American cities day after day.

In such circumstances of tragic loss, it is natural to want to assign blame. We are creatures not just of emotion, but also of intellect that in the interest of finding meaning demands fairness and justice.

Unfortunately, in Virginia as in Baghdad, it often happens that the killer deprives his surviving victims, be they the wounded or the bereaved, of the satisfaction of seeing justice done. Mass murderers like the gunman at Virginia Tech tend to take their own lives rather than face the consequences of their actions. This obviously is also true of suicide bombers.

The killer has been identified as 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, a fourth-year English student, who hailed from this area. His family lives in Centreville and he graduated from high school in Chantilly in 2003. What possessed him to commit an act of pure evil like this will take time to unravel, if we ever get an answer.

What is clear though -- by definition -- is that a total lack of appreciation for human life is at work here, a lack of respect for the suffering of others. Whoever can kill on such a scale has to be entirely wrapped up in his personal ego, an ego void of the higher qualities of empathy, conscience and compassion.

Deprived of this still inadequate source of comfort that justice provides us, we are left to grasp at others to blame. The first reaction to the Virginia Tech massacre has been to point accusingly at the leadership of the university, which failed to notify students and faculty that two murders had taken place in the West Ambler Johnston dormitory at 7:15 am, where a male resident assistant and a female student were killed.

Though campus police shut down that building immediately, no general notification was made, and such an alarm might have helped stop the killer in his tracks and saved 30 lives. University President Charles Steger has said that the campus police believed he had fled the scene and was no longer on campus. That assumption was a fateful mistake. It was not till 9:50 am that an e-mail alert went out to the campus community that "a gunman is loose on campus." Only a few minutes later gunfire broke out in the classroom at Norris Hall, where the gunman trapped his victims in their classrooms.

Does blame attach itself to the actions of the university leadership? The decisions that were taken do indeed seem incomprehensible in the light of what followed. Further investigation is certainly warranted of those actions. This is a tragedy for the entire university community.

In terms of American foreign policy and Iraq, blame invariably attaches itself to the White House and the president whenever violence takes place. As the going has gotten tough in Iraq and sectarian violence escalated, the United States has tended to get blamed, rather than the perpetrators of the violence itself. 

As the nation grieves so many young lives being lost, it crucial that we recall who the real culprits are, those for whom fellow human lives mean absolutely nothing as they take their anger out on the world.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times