Tuesday, April 17, 2007
There is still a lot of fact finding to be reported about the tragedy on the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (“Virginia Tech” or VPI) at Blacksburg, VA.
Yes, there are a lot of questions about the two hour delay in acting, and right now it’s not productive to second guess the administration here. Some of the difficulties were evident in the news conference broadcast live last night around 7:45 PM.
I graduated from high school in 1961 from Washington-Lee in Arlington, VA (then one of the top ten public high schools in the nation) and headed down for William and Mary, leading to a long story told on other pages of these blogs and websites. My best friend when I was a high school senior went to VPI, which he insisted would be the only place he would apply. In those days, everyone went for ROTC (and VPI and VMI – Virginia Military Institute in Lexington) were often spoken of in the same breath. This was the time of the Berlin crisis, Sputnik, and Cold War, when, despite a more “liberal” Kennedy Administration taking office, patriotism and military service were looked upon as moral requirements by many. It was also the time that student deferments from the draft would start to become a moral controversy. This was to be a time, however dangerous (with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to come), when technology would advance quickly and lead to the kind of world we have today.
I also recall taking “Notehand” (a simplified shorthand – everyone in those pre-blackberry days was concerned about how to take college lecture notes) in summer school at Yorktown High School in that summer of 1961, and the teacher was a graduate of VPI. He would talk about the two contrasting history professors there at the time, one who emphasized learning facts (and lectured dressed in orange pants) and the other wanted students to learn long-term trends. I would find the same contrast between two professors at GW later. The school VPI, in the eyes of graduating high school seniors in Virginia, was a bit of a legend then. One of my parents’ best friends of that day (a life insurance agent) was a VPI graduate, and could tell stories of the hazing of the 1930s.
As some song from the 60s says, “so much has changed.” VPI now seems like a technology oriented university very much in the 21st Century business and academic cultural mainstream, it a bit conservative because of its Shenandoah Valley location, about 2000 feet above sea level, exposed to surprisingly cold winters despite its southerly location. Indeed, it was snowing during the news reports. I last visited the campus in on a cold windy December day in 1996, as I was returning from a trip doing a little research for my book.
One important part of the story is the way students used technology (sometimes with difficulties, as facilities were overwhelmed) to get in touch with families and parents. Facebook was used, as were special sites like Calling Care. This presents a new spin on the impact of social networking sites, a big controversy during the past two years.
One obvious question does occur with respect to the investigation. It is not absolutely clear as of this moment if the perpetrator was a student, and law enforcement is withholding its preliminary identification of the person. There are stories that the individual is a foreign national from Asia. But certainly some of the students are likely to have recognized him and to have considerable knowledge about, or at least impressions of him. The students would seem to be able to provide the clues as to what the person’s motives were. (That situation continues once the person is identified, as below.) The individual does sound, however, likely to be someone very alienated by the commercial and (sometimes sexually) competitive values of our society, which often get expressed at the expense of empathy. That observation may turn out to be more important than any political or religious ideology.
The latest CNN story is here. A press conference on April 17 identified the perpetrator of the mass event in the classroom as Korean resident alien Cho Seung-Hui.
I found the following blog quickly; it seems to be trying to connect the distant dots. Link. The Chicago Tribune has a detailed story by Aamer Madhani, here (4/17) that talks about a note that appears to show typical radical moralistic indignation about privilege, and mentions a temporary tattoo reading "Ismael Ax" (or "Ismail" -- the spelling "A Ishmael" was used as the sender of the "multimedia manifesto" to NBC) that could have religious connotations. The story mentions troubling writings turned in for an English "creative writing" class (apparently, from news reports, two screenplays (first mentioned by NBC "Dateline"); ABC Nightline showed some of the formatted text), both extremely violent and suggesting a history of past abuse. On previous blog posts, I have been especially concerned about "dreamcatching," a practice where the write "pretends" to have committed an illegal or antisocial act in order to prove a point; it remains to be seen if that is much of a factor here.
Late on Tuesday, AOL News bloggers posted copies (at least in part) of the screenplays ("Richard McBeef" and "Mr. Brownstone")here. They are graphic. There are also news reports about a novel and a "manifesto" (a pejorative since the days of Karl Marx).
The Washington Post Robert O'Harrow has an article (April 18 2007, p A10), "Gunman's Writings Out of a Nightmare; Classmates Feared Brooding Student," gives more here.
Picture: Meadow at 4500 feet below Mr. Rogers VA, in the southern VA Blue Ridge, the highest point in the state (at about 5700 feet).