Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hindsight Seers (More On VA Tech)

[Posted by reader_iam]

[Note: I have put up yet another post: VA Tech Shooter Had A History, based on new information coming out.]

As most of you probably already know, the mass murderer at VA Tech was Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old senior English major at the university. (He has also been identified as a South Korean national, here as a "Resident Legal Alien." He came to the U.S. with his family when he was 8.)

I must bear down at work today. But I do want to highlight this:
Sources tell ABC News that Cho killed two people in a dorm room, returned to his own dorm room where he re-armed and left a "disturbing note" before entering a classroom building on the other side of campus to continue his rampage.[emphasis added]
Police say they believe Cho killed two people in a dormitory, West Ambler Johnston Hall, shortly after 7:00 a.m. Monday. Then, two hours later, he opened fire in Norris Hall, a classroom building across campus.

Two-Hour Gap Between Shootings

Reporters continued to ask today why administrators did not cancel classes after the first shooting, and why it took more than two hours to inform the university community via e-mail about the first incident. The first e-mail notifying students of the dorm shooting was not sent by the school until 9:24 a.m — by which time the second shooting was already over.

I still think we don't have all the information to judge whether and how derelict the administrators were. I think we're jumping to conclusions about what, when and how much police knew (of course, they themselves may very well have been jumping to conclusions about the "domestic," isolated nature of the first shooting; it depends on what they were told: again, we don't know enough yet). We don't know if they were worried about panic and more trouble (by the way, I'm not generally all that sympathetic to that sort of rationale, but still, it's something to look at).

But there's been a lot of talk about the notification, what should have been done. At the very least, people are saying, e-mails should have been sent out so that people could decide for themselves whether to attend class. Or classes should have been cancelled imediately. Of course, no one's really specifying what the exact time should have been for the e-mails: 7:16? 7:30? 7:45? But let's say those e-mails (and other notifications) went out at any of those times. Let's say that a significant number of students decided not to attend class, but instead went back to bed in their dorms or just gathered in excited groups to discuss what the heck was going on.

Let's say that the killer had had it in his mind to continue shooting people in dorms (remember, it's only after the fact that we know he had a classroom building in mind). That e-mail, then, in effect, would have meant more people in dorms! What would we all be screaming about now?

Well, you say, all the dorms would have been locked down to nonresidents of them. First, having lived in dorms and been a student, I know you can lock them down just so much, and control students just so much. Second, the guy was a dorm resident! He's even reported to have gone back to his dorm room! Ensuring that he couldn't get out of dorm wouldn't necessarily do much to help his dorm-mates. How to foresee and control for that?

About that visit back his dorm room (and who knows where else he went). We don't know the time of that visit, yet. But let's say, while he was there, he checked his e-mail. As a student, he would have been sent the notification e-mail along with everyone else, right? What's to say he wouldn't have read that and thought, "well, instead of shooting up the engineering building, I'll guess I'll have to settle for a dorm--or any place where a bunch of students are gathered to talk about what the heck is going on!" How to foresee and control for that? (And remember, at the time, police were supposedly under the impression that the first shooter was someone who was NOT a student, but rather from off-campus.) In that case, among the shooters victims would be people who, without that e-mail, might have been in class! What would we all be screaming about then?

Or maybe he wouldn't have gone back out yesterday. But remember, his identity was established based on that terrible massacre at the classroom building. As of now, police still, apparently, are having trouble tying him to the first shooting except for the ballistics comparison. There wouldn't have been such a comparison to make, absent the Norris Hall shooting. What's to say the shooter wouldn't have just waited for another day (remember, this appears to have been planned ahead of time) and then gone ahead?

Is this all speculation, all after-the-fact blather? Well, OF COURSE it is. But exactly no more so than much of what I'm hearing, seeing and reading elsewhere. And there is precious little broader thinking that I can see, precious little effort to look at things from a "what was known at the time mindset.

Sure, the police may have screwed up horribly, and with horrific circumstances. Same thing for administrators. But we don't know yet. We don't know enough. And if we're going to start yelling "should have, should have!", then we should sit down and think about the possible implications of the actions we think should have taken place. All of the possible implications.

There's a bit more discussion about this in the comments section of my The 2nd VA Tech Press Conference [Update At Bottom] post.

A terrible, terrible thing happened yesterday. People were slaughtered, families are devastated, a community has been ripped apart. Evil triumphed, and we are all so saddened and appalled by the tragedy. Of course we want to assume that it could have been prevented. I know I do. But the hardest thing is to consider that this assumption might not be well-founded: that we are not in control, that the collective power and controls of an entire community or even society cannot necessarily stop the rampages of people like Cho Seung-Hui.

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