Letters To The Ethical Spectacle

Dear John,

Yours was a thought provoking article on Virginia Tech. Thanks for a responsible analysis of the incident that is missing from the popular media. A few notes, from my own well of personal experience.

Psychotic breaks can and do happen. A psychotic break is a mental condition where what we term "rational" (as agreed upon through our communal dialogue) suddenly seems to the psychotic to have about as much value as the wildest musings in the National Enquirer. The person having the break instead constructs an idea, perhaps that "People are nasty and it's because their pores aren't big enough. If I can just enlarge the pores and drain them of poison they'll stop being so bad to me" or "Swiss cheese is the ideal form for humanity." Whatever might justify putting lots of holes in people. He then acts on it, sometimes with anger, but certainly with a rationale that is completely beyond our collective human reasoning.

For all intents and purposes, a "monster," but a very explainable, if unpredictable, phenomenon, and also very human. If you'll note the story of Abraham, it is a similar process, excepting that God bade Abraham stay his hand. He had to be willing to kill his son though, for whatever bizarre reason. It is no accident that Cho compared himself to Christ, I think. I believe he may have thought himself "holy." Such concepts seem to occasionally lead to these ends.

But people who are capable of psychotic breaks, including folks like Abraham, should not be allowed to possess firearms. Period. It is too quick. God doesn't have enough time to drive you away from what you are about to do. Consider that Cho may have not intended to kill himself, but instead did so after realizing his terrible mistake. Perhaps after seeing that "draining people of poison by enlarging their pores" didn't work, the emergent violence upset whatever psychotic hysteria he had imagined with cold and bitter realities like screams and death.

Imagine the horror you would feel if a great idea you were certain would work resulted in such an unholy mess when acted upon. You would leave your room as God's anointed, and you would "wake up" in a charnel house. I've little sympathy for him, but this kind of thing *must* be preventable. Treatment is the key.

I agree with your point that America is going to have to accept some moderate, reasonable restrictions on the obtaining of guns, or accept this kind of thing as a rare, but certain, consequence. The human mind can go terribly wrong, rendering any of us no more than a poor confused monkey witlessly pumping bullets into other slightly less witless monkeys. That's the way "reality" works, and the ties that bind us are, in my opinion, far more tenuous than any of us would believe.

But treatment is possible, there are methods that work to curb the psychotic mind (neuroleptic drugs, for instance), and if we allow for psych evals that are meaningful, instead of the threat based interrogations that you described, a full test of the cognition and mindset of the subject, this kind of thing is eminently avoidable. At least we can get a black flag up on a Federal database and keep firearms from the person.

But we have to be willing to "stare into the abyss" and not be afraid of what "monster" might peer back at us. Usually, it's just a human being, lost and alone. In all cases, you should never give that person a gun! (or let them into the Reichstag for that matter).

Finally, I register my disgust with the news media in not terming Cho a "victim." He was a victim of his own gun as surely as the other 32 people he shot, and the media was guilty of the exact kind of dismissal he claimed was at the root of his shooting spree. A suicide victim is a victim, and there were thus 33 victims. I don't care if they needed to release a black balloon with all the white ones at the service, there should have been 33 balloons. No one is expendable.

I do think his rationalization was a convenient excuse, and his video a drama tailored for the masses, instead of his "true" voice, but we should not join him in debasing human life. His broken life was as valuable, and if we devalue it, we fail to learn the only lesson that will prevent another catastrophe.

No one should ever be discounted, because individuals have a tremendous power within them. Circumstances may prevent full attention, but it should not be a deliberate choice because we devalue others or are unwilling to help. Yes, we can call him "a monster," but only after the fact.

Thus, looking for monsters is a useless exercise. We only know a monster after the fact. Therefore, we have to let the monsters come to us, hopefully without guns and on neutral ground. A psych ward is an excellent place for such confrontations.

I know you did not use the word lightly, and I thought you used it wisely, but many people are now hunting for monsters, for whatever "reason" they can dream up. Monster hunting is the exact pastime that lead Cho to his sticky end. There will be more deaths if others continue his work.

We must not be afraid of monsters.


Russ Hansen

Dear Jonathan:

I enjoyed reading your piece "Virginia Tech." It was thoughtful, reasoned and measured, the kind of thing we need much more of these days. Still, I think there areas where you go wrong. Being a "Second Amendment type," I take exception to your remark that "the deaths of thirty two people at Virginia Tech is just the 'price we pay for liberty'." That word "just" makes it sound like people with a different opinion than yours would regard the Virginia Tech massacre as something trivial, and that just is not so.

I'm sure that you'd disagree if others proposed restricting free speech after some person caused death or injury by inciting to riot or by falsely crying "fire" in a crowded theater. I'd guess that you'd want to focus on the fact that what the person did was already an offense under current law and that further restrictions on free speech would be unjustified, and would not do anything to solve the problem. You might also say that not all problems have quick-fix solutions, and that the occasional, unpredictable violation is a price we pay for liberty, and saying that would not diminish the sympathy you had for the victims.

There are many prices we pay for liberty and some of them are measurable. The ratio of people who use firearms to prevent crimes against themselves versus the number of people who are killed in such massacres is on the order of 100,000 to 1. Personally, I recoil from making such numerical cost/benefit ratios; outwardly, it sounds so callous even though it's about the net number of lives saved. I assure you, it's neither callous nor trivial to the people who have saved themselves or some loved one by using a gun.

There are dangers in this society and, like it or not, a measure of self reliance is necessary to get through the day. You propose that very thing when you suggest that colleges should be able to take the initiative to expel dangerous students instead of idly waiting for the wheels of government to grind. Yes, it would be nice not to have to watch out for planes falling out of the sky, not to have to look both ways before crossing the street and not to feel the need to carry a firearm. But we don't live in utopia and, all in all, I'd rather carry a gun than have to live in someone else's utopia. That is definitely a price of liberty.

Bruce Clark

Dear Jonathan,

I was doing a bit of research on Mayor Giuliani's record, and googled "Giuliani + Amadu Diallo". Your piece first published in March of 2000 was the first thing up. Apparently it's been getting a lot of hits.

You may want to look at recasting it a bit and seeking a new forum.

J. Peter Timko

Mr. Wallace,

I just finished reading your article A State of Nature Oct. 98, online.

The question of why these people left Dr. Weathers to die alone has deeply troubled me, on and off for years. In particular, leaving him in what they assumed to be his last moments in this world alone when there was absolutely no danger to anyone else is unconscionable. I've read Krakauer's book, Weather's book with his wife's heartbreaking allusion to this, Bourkreev's book and just finished Dr. Ken Kamler's book 'Doctor on Everest'. He claims he was about to tell them someone should get in the sleeping bag with Weathers to warm him when he was told Weathers was coming around. He didn't check either. I appreciated your attempt to explain such total lack of compassion, but frankly, I still just don't get it. Why this ethical and moral lapse still makes me weep I don't know.

And why I felt the need to communicate this to you, or someone, I don't know, but I did.

Carol Huber