Potomac Confidential

Marc Fisher
Post Metro Columnist
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 12:00 PM

Potomac Confidential fills the midday lull with discussion by Metro columnist Marc Fisher of the latest news and a rigorous slicing and dicing of the issues that define who we are and where we live.

Fisher was online Thursday, April 19, at Noon ET to talk about the Virginia Tech shooting and the expanding list of people who knew something was deeply wrong with Cho Seung Hui. Plus: Adrian Fenty's first 100 days in office.

Today's Column: Heed Columbine's Lessons: Make Information Available, and Speak Out ( Post, April 19)

Check out Marc's blog, Raw Fisher.

In his weekly show, Fisher veers wildly from serious probing to silly prattle, and is open to topics local, national, personal and more.

Archives: Discussion Transcripts

A transcript follows.


Arlington, Va.: Marc:

I have to disagree with you that more should have been done to prevent the VT massacre. It certainly sounds like everything within reason was tried. He was even examined by a psychiatrist that reported he was neither a danger to himself or others.

It would be a far scarier world to live in when we can lock up people without solid evidence of mental problems. There are many out there who would abuse the process for financial and political reasons. We like to think that every time a tragedy occurs we should have been able to prevent it. Sometimes that's just not the case.

Marc Fisher: I don't think anyone is advocating locking up people "without solid evidence of mental problems," as you put it. Rather, what most folks I've spoken to crave is a turn away from a legalistic approach and back to a common sense policy in which we find ways to trust the cumulative realization by an entire community that someone is riding way off the rails. In nearly every one of these mass shootings, the killers made both their plans and their disconnect from reality quite clear to people around them.

The trick is to stop discouraging those people from coming forward or taking action. We're reading a great deal now about how the law prevents police, teachers, parents and others from acting on their clear conclusions that someone is dangerous. That's what has to change.


Marc Fisher: Welcome aboard.

There's much to talk about today. The Virginia Tech shootings will certainly dominate our hour together--now that the shock of the deaths is receding, thoughts and energies seem to be focusing not only on who the killer was and why he was allowed to develop his plot unchecked, but also what the obstacles are to good people taking action to stop people who are obviously a danger to themselves or others.

If you haven't taken the time to check out David Maraniss's reconstruction of the morning of the shooting in today's Post, you should. It's a riveting read.

Lots of comments and questions already in the queue about NBC's decision to air the shooter's video and we'll get into that.

In other news, we've hit the 100-day mark of the Adrian Fenty mayoralty and if we have time, I'll welcome your thoughts on how that's been going.

Quickly, the Yay and Nay of the Day:

Yay to U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina, who this week refused to put D.C. developer Doug Jemal in prison, despite the prosecutors' righteous contention that that's where Jemal belongs. In fact, as Urbina said, it's "inconceivable" that Jemal's arrogant but petty crimes could outweigh the extraordinary good he has done for the District and for any number of people of all walks of life. Jemal got probation and a fine.

Nay to the Smithsonian Institution executives who sought to force an accounting employee to doctor former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small's travel vouchers and trust fund account to make it look like he had told the truth to reporters about paying for an airplane trip with his own money. Actually, he had used taxpayer dollars. The Post's James Grimaldi's extraordinary stories documenting Small's abuses are worth a special trip to read. Smithsonian finance employee Ann Ruttle's decision to come forward to the Post is a brave and important stand on behalf of all American taxpayers.

Your turn begins right now....


Manassas, Va.: Mr. Fisher,

Thanks for a very powerful and moving column today.

With regards to lessons learned, I'm sure we'll agonize over gun control for a short time, then let the issue fade. Personally, I'm sick of the in-between solutions -- let's pick one end or the other and see what happens for a decade or so. Either no gun sales at all or everyone with a gun on their hip. Barring either outcome, let's just all accept, openly and completely, that these kinds of massacres are an acceptable risk we, as a society, want to take.

And having written that, I always come back to a question in my head: Why is the NRA, and its supporters, so opposed to steps that sound so sensible to many people? Take off the ideological blinders for a second, and the fears of a slippery slope, and just consider what can be given up to protect our people. Heed Columbine's Lessons: Make Information Available, and Speak Out ( Post, April 19)

Marc Fisher: Thanks.

The hypocrisy involved in the positions and attitudes of the NRA and its ilk is evidence every time we have one of these incidents. The NRA goes silent for a bit, then responds with relatively gentle and quiet rhetoric about the sanctity of the Second Amendment. The gun nuts to the right of the NRA, however, were busy trying to work off this tragedy within the first few hours, arguing that this wouldn't have happened if everybody on the Virginia Tech campus were properly armed. Can you imagine the carnage we'd have seen then?


Wheaton, Md.: There isn't any place for psychologists, teachers, police, neighbors, etc., to share information about troubled individuals. They each only know their perspective. The alternative, creating a structure for monitoring so-called strange people, seems pretty frightening as well ...

Marc Fisher: The alternative to doing nothing does not have to be a vast new bureaucracy for tracking the mentally disturbed. Rather, a more informal and intimate approach would empower both mental health professionals and lay teachers and fellow students to take action to protect the larger community by referring especially troubled kids for counseling and then taking the next step, the one that wasn't take in the Cho case: Require follow-up and enforce it. The most appalling interview I've seen in this whole episode was the one with the Virginia court official who let Cho go. Asked what the follow-up was, the man said only that Cho was given a piece of paper telling him to get further care. Great.


Washington, D.C.: Posting early ... I know you will disagree, but for me NBC's decision to show the images glorifies and sensationalizes violence and sets the parameters for the next mass killing. (After all, he cited Columbine.) There actually is a way to report on the senseless violence at VTU without glorifying it. So far, no one has.

Marc Fisher: Does the Cho video glorify and sensationalize violence? Hard to see how anyone could argue otherwise. Does the video potentially encourage others to go ahead with similar attacks? That's conceivable too.

So how do I manage to support NBC's decision to air the video? Because journalists do not have the right to hide material that is so clearly essential to a full understanding of a major public issue. Journalists have both a right and a responsibility to display something like this in an appropriate fashion--at the right time of day and with the right excerpting so as to minimize the number of children likely to see the broadcast. And NBC should--and did--edit out parts that included profanity and other especially disturbing bits. But especially in a case as emotionally difficult as this one, the public has a right to see key evidence that helps us understand just how detached from reality this guy was, and just what kinds of social ills are reflected in his particular psychosis.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think of NBC's decision to air some of the gunman's footage? Is it wrong to reward the killer by giving publicity to his "manifesto"? Personally I feel that NBC did the right thing. It's not like the killer had some coherent political objective that is furthered by the airing of the tape. All the tape does is show how truly disturbed and divorced from reality he was. What are your thoughts?

Marc Fisher: I don't see how it's rewarding the killer to show the video. The killer is dead. The purpose of showing the video is to enlist the nation in trying to understand what these killers are all about, how they get to this point and how we as a society can think about effectively deterring or helping such folks in the future.


Washington, D.C.: Not one for censorship, but the TV media coverage of this event gives other delusional and angry kids the justification and platform to carry out their future rage in a similar manner. The fact that this is a 24-7 news story is breeding copycats. Before his manifesto was released and the pictures, I argued on the job that the media needs to stop covering these stories the way they do. It's a newsworthy story, but what good is there to find any and all kids remaining on campus and in essence have them speak of the FEAR. Now we have the customary days of placing the blame for what government did not do. All along we ignore the fundamental issue of what was wrong with Cho or why did he do it?

Marc Fisher: The copycat argument always carries some weight, because we all know in our guts just how powerful the emotional impact is of video and media generally. Already, we're hearing about highly violent Korean films that may have played a role in inspiring Cho's particular brand of violence.

But as I argued in today's column, looking at the Columbine aftermath is instructive: The parents of those who were killed in that shooting spree are deeply committed to getting the Klebold and Harris basement video tapes out where the public can see them. The parents, who have seen the tapes, believe it is a tragic and massive mistake for the federal court to have put all that material under seal. The parents argued to me that only by seeing the murderers spell out their plan can the public learn from that event and work out ways to prevent such horrors in the future. I find the parents' testimony on this to be quite persuasive.


Washington, D.C.: Marc, like many kids I had a very troubled junior high experience that left me furiously angry at "rich kids" and "phonies" and I loved early video games and action movies. But when I turned 14 I found punk rock which was authentic and not phony like heavy metal; it thumbed its nose at beauty standards, weight standards, style standards and most of all financial standards. I no longer cared if my parents wouldn't buy me Izod shirts like the "rich kids." I wanted 1950s suit jackets and skinny ties from the thrift store. What I also learned from punk rock was how to value and embrace people above all else. That society may throw people away, but they have real value. I had many stupid discussions with homeless people I mistook for philosophers, but overall I never ever took my impotent rage into anything hurtful -- I was too busy writing in teenage fanzines (the 1980s equivalent of blogs) and trying to form a band. By the time I was in college I had so created my own society that I had zero tolerance for other students who were angry but refused to channel it into anything productive. I knew people almost like this guy, who when you'd invite them to a party would either not talk to people or would talk about horror movies or porn and upset the guests. I mean, this kid had YouTube to put his thoughts out there and never even tried. I think my question is ... Is it possible for any peers to head off this kind of behavior through groups and hobbies like it was in the 1980s? It seems like peers were useless in this case, unlike Columbine, which was heavily-focused on high school dynamics.

Marc Fisher: Very interesting question. The peers we've all read about this week seemed to be either very scared of Cho or frustrated by their inability to connect with him in any way. His silence and distance were so off-putting that no one, apparently, was able to pierce them.

It would take an extraordinary soul to try to break through under those circumstances. Prof. Lucinda Roy, the poetry teacher who volunteered to tutor Cho, is one such remarkable soul, yet even she was not able to reach Cho.

So there are limits to what anyone can do. That's why it was necessary in this case to escalate to authorities empowered to take Cho out of the dorm and out of the community that he was so badly frightening. And for me the most appalling part of this aside from the deaths themselves is the inability of the system to make it possible for well-meaning, perceptive people to get guys like this out of general circulation.


McLean, Va.:

I am a Tech graduate and have concerns regarding discussions about the handling of the actual incident. It is simply not possible to have the type of lockdown in the timeframe the media and others have been suggesting.

The campus is more than 8 times the size of Central Park in NYC and has far too many access points for cars and pedestrians to have an adequate lockdown especially within the timeframes involved.

Has anyone thought of what kind of slaughter there would have been if all the dorms had been locked down or if the academic buildings had been closed? Someone of his mindset would have killed everyone in his dorm. There are more people in the dorms at 9 a.m. than in class.

The media really needs to stop fueling a fire that does not necessarily exist. A large majority of parents and students supported the response from the university and campus police. There will be an investigation and there may be well placed blame in the future (given that he was known to have problems prior to this incident) but that cannot be done until an investigation is complete. Any prejudgment is irresponsible and takes away focus from the two most important things right now, the investigation and the healing process for the families.

Marc Fisher: The lockdown concept has struck me as foolish from the start. It's not only impractical, as you describe, it's also pointless: Let's say people freeze in their classrooms and dorm rooms. That in no way reduces the number of potential victims for a roaming shooter; it only reduces the amount of movement around the campus.

So I agree that the criticism about a lockdown was silly from the beginning. But I do think the legitimate avenue of inquiry is the one that focuses on the extraordinary length of time that the university let go by before sending out the first email alert about a shooting on campus. By the school's own account, they thought the shooter in a domestic incident was on the loose; maybe they thought he had left campus, but so what? A killer on the loose is something that should be communicated to the community, no matter what the police theory may have been about where the murderer was headed.


Because journalists do not have the right to hide material that is so clearly essential to a full understanding of a major public issue: I wish I could believe that that is why NBC showed the footage, and not for "hits" on their and your Web site, not for, frankly, money. But I don't. I do not believe that is why they refrained from withholding the videos, the images. Otherwise, we'd see a helluva lot more images out of the real Iraq. Sorry, not buying it. At all.

Marc Fisher: I don't get your reasoning. By your theory, the networks would be chockablock with gory footage from Iraq--surely, that would draw massive ratings.

As for the Cho video, if NBC were primarily concerned with ratings and money, they would not have made the video available to all of their competitors.

Sure, the TV news departments are heavily driven by show biz interests. They hype and they sensationalize and they use inflammatory language and lurid headlines and preposterously over the top music and so on. But when a big, serious story like this comes along, they generally revert to fairly reasonable journalistic standards, if only because they know that the naturally powerful emotional punch of the story will carry itself.


N.Y., N.Y.: Since this tragedy happened, I've noticed that the media has implicitly acted like vultures to boost ratings. This may be due to the non-element of surprise, since Columbine. Disrespect for those lives lost is rampant. Oprah's interview was inhumane as she questioned the mother and sister of the professor with three small children and a wife. My question is, do you think the media should have held off with the horrible, disrespect (to the dead and their families) via mainstream television?

Marc Fisher: I haven't seen any particularly intrusive interviews, though I wouldn't doubt that they are happening. But it seems to me that anyone who decides to take the free air tickets and limo rides and other goodies that the networks and Oprah give out knows what they're getting into. There's no secret about the emotional games that those shows play; those who want a piece of that action go for it. Those who don't either say nothing or talk to reporters they can trust to handle their stories with grace and understanding.


NBC: I have no problem with NBC and its outlets showing the video and photos. How they got them and their contents was real news. I do take issue with the fact that they've become video wallpaper. Last night on Olbermann's show, for example, they just played the stuff over and over again while reporters were talking. It was like saying "Look at the cool stuff we got"!

Marc Fisher: The desperate quest for visuals is the bane of the 24/7 cable news phenomenon. In many cases, if you were to turn away from the pictures and just listen to those channels, you'd have a much better impression, or at least you'd realize that all you were listening to was warmed-over conventional wisdom from so-called experts.


Washington, D.C.: I am pretty skeptical that the committee appointed by Governor Tim Kaine to examine the Virginia Tech shootings will do a thorough and honest job. The governor, state director of public safety and state attorney general have already closed ranks behind the Virginia Tech president and chief of police. Will this committee have subpoena powers? Will testimony be taken under oath? Is the retired superintendent of the state police up to the task?

Marc Fisher: Gov. Kaine will have a press conference at 3 p.m. today at which I imagine exactly those questions will be raised. Your skepticism is well-founded: In Colorado, it took years before a full state investigation into the Columbine killings came out, and even then, the parents of the victims felt compelled to sue to force the deposition of the killers' parents and to bring out the existence of quite a number of contacts between law enforcement and the killers before the attack took place.


Leesburg, Va.: I applaud NBC's decision to air the Cho material, and their restraint in how they aired it. But I don't believe that they did share it with their competitors. And Chris Matthews on MSNBC often seemed to be gloating that the material was sent to NBC and not anyone else.

Marc Fisher: I saw the video on ABC and on Fox, so it was indeed shared.


Former Hokie: As someone who was a graduate student in engineering at VT -- receiving news that a shooting had occurred at a dorm, even that the killer may still be on the loose, would not have stopped my from going to class/the library/work. Until this week who would have believed how bad it could get? I have spoken to my former classmates, many of whom are still in Blacksburg, and they agree. We would have thought of it as strange but not much more.

Marc Fisher: That strikes me as exactly right--some folks would have decided to stick in their rooms, some would have gone about their business, and some would have been drawn to go search for the crime scene. That's true no matter what kind of warning you send out, but that doesn't relieve the university of its responsibility to share its knowledge and alert the community. What people then do with the info is up to them.


Baltimore, Md.: Marc: Would you care to give the over and under, as they say in wagering, on when the first lawsuits will be filed by parents of dead kids in the Va. Tech killings? As more and more information comes out about Cho and all the flares he sent up(didn't he also set a dorm room on fire?), it becomes obvious that he could have been expelled from school. True, that might have not stopped him from coming back with his guns, but it would at least have been a genuine action -- and one that might have given the school a legal shield it does not now have. (I am not a lawyer, nor am I advocating lawsuits, but I see them as inevitable.)

Marc Fisher: They are inevitable. They happen in nearly every one of these incidents. A mother of a student who was killed at Columbine, Dawn Anna, told me yesterday that she fought hard against the idea of suing. She had zero desire to make money off the death of her daughter. She opposes the litigiousness of this society. Yet she said that again and again, the authorities from whom she sought basic information--the police, the investigators, the school--repeatedly told her that they could only cough up the info if they were sued.

Of course, once she sued, those same folks told Anna that they could no longer talk to her because this was now a legal matter. Catch-22!

But she eventually got the documents she wanted. Sadly, the court then sealed those records so the rest of us cannot know the truth for 20 years.


The networks:"But when a big, serious story like this comes along, they generally revert to fairly reasonable journalistic standards." Please. They totally ignored for hours yesterday the Supreme Court's abortion decision and the bombings in Iraq and then gave them cursory coverage. As for NBC, it held the story on Cho's manifesto for the 6:30 nightly news, keeping it off MSNBC until then and then hyped, "We'll have more on the Today show tomorrow morning."

Marc Fisher: Wait--you're looking for coverage of a Supreme Court decision from a national TV network? That's a bit extreme, no? Anyone intelligent enough to want to know in any depth about a Supreme Court decision should know enough to look at any number of newspapers, web sites, or specialized publications for that sort of news. What TV does well is to cover highly visual, emotionally powerful stories.


Washington, D.C.: What a great post by punk-rocker from Washington. Excellent points. I will say, I think the difference for him or her finding their way out of those years is the he or she does not suffer from a severe mental disorder. This young man (he is not a kid) clearly has a very severe mental disorder that, gone untreated, would leave him paralyzed. This is just my opinion, I'm not a professional mental health expert or anything ...

Marc Fisher: Right--there's a big difference between a troubled kid--the studies tell us that about 10 percent of American teens consider suicide at some point--and a deeply disturbed person who strikes all of those around him as someone who cannot function in society.

In both cases, we should find ways to get help to the person in need. But it's only in the latter case that we should be talking about making it much easier to take the person out of general circulation for the protection of all.


Because journalists do not have the right to hide material that is so clearly essential to a full understanding of a major public issue:: So why isn't NBC fighting to show the coffins being unloaded at Andrews Air Force base?

Marc Fisher: I don't know where NBC stands on that, but I know editors here have been arguing and fighting for that access from day one.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Is the 20-year seal on the Columbine records finalized, or is it under appeal?

Marc Fisher: The Columbine parents have until the end of this week to appeal that decision. Two of them told me yesterday that they don't think they have enough money to continue their legal battle, but no final decision has been made.


Catch-22:... and most of the people who have information won't give it out without a court order because they're afraid someone else will sue them for not protecting their privacy...

Marc Fisher: Right--just like the Catch-22 that colleges find when faced with a decision about whether to take action against (or for, depending on how you look at it) someone who clearly needs treatment and cannot function in a dorm/classroom setting.


Alexandria: In the end, I think I am more upset that people knew this guy was nuts and still this occurred, vs if no one had a clue he had violent tendencies. Two women had complained he was stalking them, professors and students noted to authorities he had "issues," a mental evaluation was done ... but authorities' hands were tied because no violence had been committed. Yet.

So, Marc, how do we untie authorities' hands? This is not the first, nor the last time, that people have said they were scared and then the person went on to commit unspeakable horrors. A restraining order is never good enough. I would think the thing to start with is not allowing those who have had restraining orders, or mental evaluations, or anything along those lines access to weapons.

Marc Fisher: That's a good starting point, but difficult to enforce--how would a gun shop owner know that someone had had mental troubles? And unfortunately as we all know, even such a ban would have only limited impact as long as it remains so easy for anyone to buy guns. The secondary market is so big and so thriving that your good regulation would be only the lightest of deterrents.


Questions about no lockdown: Marc:

While I recognize that locking down a campus the size of Tech's would never be flawless, I still think it needs to be considered. Doesn't the school need to have some procedure in place to move students indoors if a tornado or powerful storm occurred? Wouldn't that have been applicable here? Also, while it's possible the shooter would simply have altered his plan and killed people in his dorm, it appears for now that he wanted to strike in Norris Hall. A lockdown might have made his movements more obvious. Also, if the lockdown included locking students in classrooms, wouldn't that have limited his targets? Is that possible?

Marc Fisher: Sure, it's possible that with a lockdown you might have kept people out of the killer's target building, but you have no way of knowing that, and you could instead be freezing people in place in exactly the setting he's chosen for his crime. My main point there is that a lockdown doesn't reduce the overall number of possible victims unless you already know where the killer is or where he isn't.


Petworth, Washington, D.C.: Are you serious about his comment: " Wait -- you're looking for coverage of a Supreme Court decision from a national TV network?" A major decision is handed down by the highest court in the land and you don't expect network television news to cover it? If that's the case, your profession has sunk far lower than I thought.

Marc Fisher: Hey, it's not my profession. TV folks do some mighty fine stuff, but they operate with very different standards, constructs and goals than print journalists use. At every level, every turn, the two are far more different than you might imagine.


Falls Church, Va.: Through my years in Blacksburg, I dealt with what have been the most difficult emotional issues in my life, but a nice day in the Blue Ridge Mountains was always enough to cheer me up. It was my escape from the fast-paced Northern Va. I grew up in, which I still love for it's diversity and quality of life (minus the traffic), but I only wish people could know the Blacksburg I got to know. A place where I didn't worry about locking my doors or avoiding certain parts of town because they were shady. Nowhere in Virginia is there a place that proportionally represents the cultural diversity of Virginia very different populations like Blacksburg and Virginia Tech.

Marc Fisher: And I can't imagine that that will change. Once some time has gone by, people will realize what they like about the place and will also know that none of that is altered by the act of a single madman. It's possible to remember those who died and honor their contribution without allowing one killer to alter the essential character of a place.


Arlington, Va.: This is a simple question, but one that I've been confused by media reports.

I've seen the shooter referenced as "Seung-Hui Cho" and "Cho Seung Hui".

Which is his first and last name and why has it been used interchangeably?

Marc Fisher: Great question. When the police first announced his name, they went with Cho Seung-Hui, probably because that's how he was listed in some official university directory. In most Asian languages, the surname comes first. His family name is Cho. In this case, he called himself Seung Cho, and that's how it appears on his papers for classes, his signature, and his family's official records--property records and the like.

His sister also Westernized her name and uses Cho as her last name.

Some news organizations have made that change despite the police's use of Cho Seung-Hui. The Post has stayed with the Korean name order. I can't see how either is wrong; my own preference would be to go with the name as the Cho family uses it, Seung Cho.


Silver Spring, Md.: Remember that student who got tossed out of GW and then sued? Some might say his lawsuit created a culture where universities feared kicking dangerous people off their campus. Thoughts?

Marc Fisher: That culture existed long before that case, but that case--as GW prez Stephen Trachtenberg writes in today's Post--certainly did not help matters. The only road out of this is for colleges and individuals to realize that the lawsuits will come either way and the prospect of a suit does not absolve them of their moral responsibility to do what's right.


"Hey, it's not my profession": Bull. The entire country considers newspeople -- whether they deliver by radio, TV, newspaper, Internet, or magazine -- to be in the same profession. Are you telling me that when you get interviewed for Post Radio or a .com video clip, that you're actually on sabbatical?

Marc Fisher: I don't think that's right--I routinely interview people who tell me they wouldn't be interviewed for television, and, to be fair, I occasionally run into folks who say they will only be interviewed by broadcasters because they don't trust print reporters to take down their words correctly. In either event, news consumers do make distinctions and I think are generally fairly savvy about when a story is being hyped and when it's being presented fairly.


Richmond, Va.: Has anyone heard anything from Cho's parents? Specifically, if a university the size of Tech and the enormous bureaucracy of the state mental health system are under scrutiny -- why shouldn't we also be asking the people who knew him best these difficult questions? I am not suggesting that they are responsible for his actions but if he exhibited this behavior early in life, they were best positioned to provide help.

Marc Fisher: We should indeed be asking those questions about the family. How much did they know about their son's mental state? What actions did they take? Did they look the other way? These are essential questions. The family is in hiding with relatives and has not been available to answer questions. Ideally, that will happen at some point in some way.


Supreme Court: For the record, Brian Williams' second story last night on the national news (following the Cho footage) was the Supreme Court ruling.

Marc Fisher: Excellent!


Haymarket, Va.: I read his mental evaluation by the court dated in Dec 2005. Why was this not a red flag when he applied to purchase the gun? I thought after Hinckley that mental state was included in the background? He was listed as being a danger to himself at the very least.

Marc Fisher: As I understand Virginia law, that's not a factor in eligibility to buy a gun unless the potential buyer has been committed, which Cho was not.


Fairfax, Va.: The Virginia Tech killer talked about all the privileged rich kids who dismissed him. Fairfax County is one of the richest suburbs in the nation with many spoiled kids driving BMWs to school. Since Cho's parents were working class immigrants who worked at a dry cleaners maybe he felt humiliated.

Marc Fisher: A whole lot of people feel humiliated. A whole lot of people have deep class anxieties. A whole lot of people are consumed with jealousies and rage about status. But that's wholly different from the deranged state we see in Cho.


Bowie, Md.: So Marc, your position seems to be that every loner who acts different from everyone else and who doesn't follow social mores like saying Hi in the hallway, and writes ugly things in English class, needs to be removed from ... well, everything. Isn't that broad hindsight? How many loners out there would we be isolating? How many of our greatest artists, etc., are/were strange loners who scare or strike people as odd?

Marc Fisher: Not at all. The Secret Service's Threat Assessment Center studies on what makes someone a danger are very clear that those who write violent fantasies and even those who make threats are rarely people who would act on those fantasies. Virtually everyone has some degree of homicidal fantasy at some point.

No, the line is much, much further toward insanity than that. And people instinctively know and see that line, as they did in the Cho case. Kids write wild violent fantasies in class assignments all the time and nobody considers them the next mass murderer. But in Cho's case, entire classrooms cleared because kids knew that this was something beyond the pale.


To Leesburg, Va.: They did share immediately following their own airing of the pics and video. I saw it at 7 p.m. on Fox and CNN. And yes NBC had to air it. Every single media outlet showed the footage, so the whole debate should stop. Much like we are affected as a nation, the nation should also have access to the footage in an attempt to better comprehend this killer.

Marc Fisher: Thanks.

By the way, apologies to all those who have written in today on topics other than Va Tech--I had hoped to get to some of your thoughts and questions, but the hour has flown by and I haven't made a dent in the queue full of comments and questions about the shootings. We'll get back to a wider menu of topics next week, but the overwhelming crush of VT posts made it imperative to stick to that for this hour.


Central Va.: A few years ago I read Gavin deBecker's book The Gift of Fear. I recommend it to a lot of people. It's not a solution, but a way to safeguard yourself when your instincts are telling you "beware."

Marc Fisher: Thanks for the recommendation.


Orange and Maroon Effect Day: Is the Post doing anything in particular tomorrow for Orange and Maroon Effect Day? Perhaps changing the masthead (print and online) to Orange to stand in solidarity with Virginia Tech?

Marc Fisher: I can't imagine we would do that, but I like your spirit.


Tysons Corner, Va.: Marc: I have to understand analyzing the minutiae after the fact is critical to our comprehending such tragedies. But there are costs to living in a free society. For the same reason it is slowly being realized that a "lockdown" would not likely have prevented the Norris deaths, might we have to swallow the bitter pill of accepting a few bad apples? There will always be crazy people and some crazy people will always succeed in an act like Cho's. It's no solace to the parents or any of us who are deeply saddened by the deaths and it doesn't hurt to philosophize, but does it really get us anywhere, ultimately?

Marc Fisher: I argued in my first column after the shootings that as much as we search for meaning in tragedies like this, we often have to accept that they are essentially meaningless, the unpredictable, insane act of a single lost mind. But as we've learned more about what people knew about Cho, I think it's fair to ask why he was not stopped, or at least why more was not done to try to get him out of the general VT community and into someplace where he could get help.


Va. Tech:: I imagine the carnage would have been less at Va. Tech if more people had firearms, because a responsible gun owner would have shot and killed Cho.

This is the argument of the gun rights side. Gun laws don't stop criminals because criminals don't respect law in the first place.

For all of the talk about the D.C. gun ban, it is hardly the model of a crime-free city.

Background checks and all of that stuff makes sense -- as does mandatory gun classes. Gun bans do not work.

Marc Fisher: Right, gun bans don't work unless they are nationwide and confiscatory. Anything less than that is just a gesture.


Washington, D.C.: I, too, have been pondering the question of peer response. I was a resident advisor in college, and there were loners in my dorm hall too. There were several residents who I almost never spoke to ... not that I didn't try, but I probably didn't try very hard. If someone is anti-social and unresponsive, it's so much easier just to ignore them. It seems to be what they want.

But then, it seems like reaching out failed in this case, too. I wonder if sometimes there just isn't anything anyone can do, but then, what a sad conclusion to reach.

Marc Fisher: I agree that it's hard bordering on impossible in some cases. I knew of some such cases when I was in college, and people tried to connect and finally backed away.

But those are likely exactly the cases where a more concerted effort is needed, and often one that may go against the will of the person in question.


Columbine Videos: I was at a conference this past weekend talking about memorialization and tragedy, and the historian in charge of the collection for Columbine mentioned that the tapes being under seal was a good thing, mostly because even after 10 years the emotions in the community are so strong -- but of course this was two days before the shooting at Va. Tech.

I for one can't watch this Cho's video. It is psychologically and mentally depressing and while I understand the need to understand his motivations to prevent future attacks, it's just too much, too soon.

Marc Fisher: There's always the option of not watching them. The desire of some not to see painful images doesn't seem like a fair justification for keeping them secret from all.


Perplexed: Everyone is talking about the "signs" that Cho Seung Hui showed and how nothing was really done about it. It is very clear that this young man had some serious mental health issues. However, as a parent of a child with mental health issues I can tell you that this is going to happen again and again. Our society does not take mental health seriously. There is a stigma attached to it, insurance companies pay nothing (and I mean nothing) and most mental health professionals no longer take insurance because they can't survive on the little some insurance companies do pay. I am trying to raise a healthy "normal" contributing member of society and everyone and everything seems to work against me. I am not giving up but many do because they can't afford services and they are just worn out from the fight.

Until we seriously change the way we view, pay for and make available services for families of the mentally ill this type of tragedy will continue. We just want to give people a pill and send them on their way but there is so much more to it and it does take a village to raise a child but sometimes I think the village is a village of idiots because families and children are suffering because no one wants to address this issue. Isn't it about time we take the bull by the horns and do something about the status of mental health services in this country? Perhaps we can prevent this from happening again.

Marc Fisher: Thanks for your contribution.

I'm going to leave it there today, as we're well over the allotted hour.

Thanks for coming along--more on this next week, along with other topics.



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