The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Mental illness played large part in Virginia Tech killings

Originally Published April 25, 2007

In the wake of any tragedy, it is understandable for society to attempt to understand what caused it and what could have been done to prevent it. The problem is when pockets of society inject the public with ready-made answers before enough facts behind the tragedy have surfaced.

Take the 1999 Columbine shootings in Littleton, Colo., an incident which was, until last week, the most high-profile school shooting in American history. Immediately after the tragedy and within the days that followed, there were oodles of references to guns, black trench coats, Adolf Hitler, violent entertainment, and bullying, but nothing beyond the speculative.

Nevertheless, some politicians, political pundits, and action committees could not contain themselves, and with lightening-quick resolve they declared what or who, beyond the actual shooters, was to blame for the seemingly senseless murders. The spotlights shined haphazardly in every direction, with one shining on the NRA, and another shining on some filmmaker of the grotesque, or a grotesque entertainer, like Marilyn Manson.

These cultural adjudicators, of course, were not shining any light on the truth; what they were doing was using a tragedy as a springboard to rail about their pet issues, which were three-fourths of the time gun control or violence in entertainment.

Consider what we learned about the Columbine shooters after all of the hullabaloo fizzled. Neither of the Columbine gunmen worshipped, much less liked, Manson. They bought their guns illegally, with the intent of using them as secondary weapons. They had strewn their cafeteria with bombs set to go off at a specific time, and had brought the guns to murder any student who may have escaped the explosions. It’s a miracle those bombs did not detonate considering their decoy bomb went off several miles away. In other words, even if you had banned Goth rock music and guns from society at large, there may still have been a Columbine massacre.

The same hastiness is surfacing at the heels of the horrible Virginia Tech Massacre. Dr. Phil appeared on “Larry King Live” the day of the shootings and blamed the wholesale violence of video games and movies. Evangelist Franklin Graham blamed the Devil. CharmaineYoest, a representative for the Family Research Council, blamed cultural relativism and the removal of God from the public sphere (apparently she had not seen the video showing the shooter comparing himself to Jesus Christ). Bill O’Reilly and others blamed “evil” and left it at that. The media sweated profusely as if it wondered if they were not to blame for sensationalizing school shootings, even while the news anchors who pondered before our eyes the right of the public to know versus the faming of a killer plastered the gunman’s psychotic images all over our screens. And then there was the expected gun debate, though the loud yells seem to only come from the pro-gun ownership groups. Gun lobbyists such as the Gun Owners of America and right-wing columnists such as Michelle Malkin blamed “gun-free zones,” while the other side seems to be strangely silent, at least for the moment.

I do not deny that any of the previously mentioned “problems” are real, yet it seems obvious to me that these groups are distracting us from an issue the media, to its credit, has been underscoring in the form of open-ended questions. Namely, mental illness.

It is understandable why mental illness and mental illness screening is a difficult thing to discuss in relation to the Virginia Tech massacre. Society has just witnessed senseless carnage and is grasping at straws to find what in society may have caused it. Blaming society is easy because it allows us to look outward for the causes, and it gives us a sense of control about doing something about those causes. This prejudice of turning only to society for the stimulus is rooted in our widely held belief in the blank slate that can only be corrupted from the outside.

But this denies the plethora of evidence which points to the reality of mental illness and the very rare reality that a mental illness may lead to violence.

Many psychiatrists have gone a step further and have suggested the Virginia Tech. shooter was a schizophrenic. Suppose he was. Why would this bother us? Suppose a schizophrenic talked about feelings of persecution or had delusions of grandeur but was harmless as a fly, which is the case for the vast majority of schizophrenics. We would write these projections off as symptoms of the person’s disease and move on. But what if that same person then goes out and murders 31 of his fellow classmates? Then what?

We need to have a discussion about mental illness, as well as asking ourselves whether society does enough to screen for it, understand it and treat it. This discussion should also influence our gun policies. How was a man allowed to buy two guns after he had been deemed by a district court in Montgomery County, Va. as “an imminent danger to self or others”?

Sadly, it does not go without saying that most people who suffer from mental illnesses are harmless and are looking for help, but there are the rare cases that pose a danger to themselves and society. It is often forgotten that the student who climbed the University of Texas at Austin tower and shot to death 15 of his fellow students in 1966 had confessed to his psychiatrist that he had urges to climb the university tower and “start shooting people with a deer rifle,” but was sent away with valium and no further analysis. An autopsy later revealed that the gunman had a brain tumor.

Such facts would probably not impress the partisans clamoring for gun control or a cultural Gestapo. They want to believe that under the right, or wrong, conditions, we are all capable of massacre. That theory makes it easy for them to dish out their simplistic solutions that we should prevent society at large from responsible gun-ownership or certain genres of movies and music.

Acknowledging that mental illness may have played a role in several school shootings should temper our desire to make sweeping changes in society for political reasons. It also commands our attention to the fact that mental illness has been shamefully ignored, and that this ignorance, whether willful or otherwise, can have disastrous consequences.

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