In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, police, the news media, and psychologists have pored over the crime, picking it apart from every imaginable angle. Everything from the gun lobby to the university president to violent entertainment and racism have been cited as possibly contributing to the worst shooting rampage in America’s history.
Predictably, the killings have spawned calls for action and the usual questions that follow any well-publicized violent tragedy.
Pundits come out of the woodwork to muse about how to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again, but of course it’s a public farce. The simple fact is that no one knows why a troubled person will suddenly turn violent. No amount of after-the-fact psychological analysis will tell police how to prevent other attacks. In the current climate of media coverage overkill, panic and concern often replace rationality and reason. Time for a reality check:
1) Are schools safe?
Yes. Despite rare incidents like those at Columbine and Virginia Tech, schools are and always have been among the safest places to be. A student is far less likely to die on a school campus than in a public park or on a highway driving to the school.
2) Are shootings like this preventable?
Rarely. Unless the attacker shares his plans with others who warn authorities, there’s little anyone can do. Students who are intent on harming others will always be able to do so. The efficacy of psychological profiling is greatly exaggerated; police already have good profiles of potential mass murderers, which were useless in preventing Seung-Hui Cho’s attack.
3) Could the heavy media coverage of the shootings spur further threats and violence?
Yes, and it already has. According to the FBI, there have been nearly 50 copycat threats across the country since the Virginia Tech attack, often shutting down schools. Apparently not all of the nation is in mourning; some use the opportunity to play hoaxes.
The news media suggest that America is asking why the tragedy occurred, but most of us already know why: bad things happen. Every now and then, some deranged person will shoot up a school or blow up a building. Innocent people will die. Cho was a violent, mentally ill man who had access to a gun. There’s no big mystery. Yet the news media, and some Americans, won’t accept that. Just like conspiracy theorists for whom the death of Princess Diana was too easy, too understandable, they will continue asking why, pressing for answers they already know.
In the wake of events like this, reflection and analysis are good, but asking why is often pointless and unproductive. It does not help people grieve, it does not help us understand the event. Of all the lessons that these tragedies teach us, this is the one most often forgotten.
Benjamin Radford wrote about the news media’s coverage of school shootings in "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us" (2003). This and other books are noted on his website.