I grew up in Northern Virginia. And In the Fall of 2002, for three weeks straight, a mystery shooter terrorized the area. Fear of “The Sniper” spread fast. People were shot and killed while coming out of the grocery store, getting gas, and walking down the street. My High School, along with many others, took precautions by canceling outdoor sports and practicing lockdowns during the ordeal. In a string of 15 separate attacks, the sniper (there actually turned out to be two of them) took the lives of 10 people and seriously injured 3 others in Virginia, Maryland, and DC before being caught.
So, the text my boyfriend sent me on a cold spring morning in 2007 didn’t rattle me as much as one might expect. “We’re on lockdown in my classroom” he said. Something about a shooting nearby. I thought, “is this really happening again?” The feeling was abstract and distant, like the way you feel about terrible news stories that never stop repeating themselves.
Shortly after the text, my roommates emerged one-by-one, asking if I heard what happened. The University sent out an email. Stay put, they said.
There was a shooter on campus.
Terrified, we huddled around the TV in our apartment, which was about a mile away from the University. Rumors spread fast — the shooter got away, people speculated he was out in the community looking for a place to hide. We locked our doors. I called my mom. And we continued to listen in disbelief as the news unfolded in slow motion.
Seung-Hui Cho was a senior at Virginia Tech. On the morning of April 16th, 2007, he went on the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history. It happened over the course of a few hours. First, he shot and killed 2 students in their dormitory. A few hours later, he barricaded himself inside an engineering building on campus and opened fire on everyone inside.
32 people were killed, 17 wounded, and 6 injured while jumping from out of second and third story windows to escape. Cho killed himself before being caught.
I did not know any of the students or faculty who died that day. But it was my community, and I grieved deeply. I remember wondering how many times I might have passed the victims and the shooter during my 2 years at Tech. I wondered what they had decided to wear on the last morning they’d be alive. I wondered what they had dreamt about the night before.
Apparently Cho mailed some sort of sick, twisted manifesto to NBC in between shooting 2 students in a dormitory and heading to the campus building to continue his plans. I never read it, or watched any of the video that accompanied it. However, I caught glimpses of its contents through the barrage of news that no one could seem to look away from.
To be honest, I can’t remember the details. I remember hearing that he’d been troubled, possibly mentally unstable. Disliked. Sad. Unable to connect with people emotionally. Resentful.
I often wonder how that day could have been prevented. We talk about mental background checks before buying weapons as a way to prevent events like this. We talk about banning guns. To me, these solutions are addressing symptoms and not causes. The symptom — that is, an angry, depressed, emotionally disturbed member of society looking for revenge.
I’m not a psychologist, sociologist, expert on crime, or any of the other things you should probably be to decipher why things like this happen. But I have a feeling that the cause builds up over time. Maybe a rough childhood. A tough time understanding others. Rejection. Isolation. A sense of powerlessness. A wish to simply be “a part of” that grows into deep and festering resentment.
I wonder too, if this sense of powerlessness manifests itself in much, much lesser degrees in society every day. From tyrannical bosses to internet trolls, we suffer when others around us are not well.
This is why I believe we must practice listening deeply and being present when someone is in pain. To have compassion, not just for others, but for ourselves too. It’s something you can practice every day, and hope that others will pay-it-forward. If the causes of horrific outbursts and angry people build up in small increments over time, perhaps this is one of our best proactive defenses against it.
In her beautiful book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes, “the well being of others is linked to our own well being…it’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”
Dedicated to the 32 students and faculty members who lost their lives on April 16th, 2007. Never Forget.