Print edition : May 04, 2007

Cho Seung-Hui, in one of the 27 self-made video clips he mailed with photographs and a 23-page testimony to the NBC television.-NBC/AP

The shooting at Virginia Tech, in which a student killed himself and 32 others, exposes serious problems afflicting American society.

VASUDEVAN and Kannammal are an unpretentious middle-class couple for whom life revolved around Karatadipalayam, a little-known village in Erode District, Tamil Nadu. For them the glitter of the faraway United States held no attraction, and they were forever resisting the entreaties of their son to visit him and his family in Virginia. During his customary Sunday call to ask after his mother's health - the last occasion he called was on the fateful Monday morning (when it was still Sunday evening in the U.S.) - he would often try his best to coax them into coming to Blacksburg. The old couple were, however, steadfast in their determination not to make that arduous journey across the seas. Little would they have known that they would have to make that unwanted trip, not for the joyful family get-together their son craved but to mourn his passing.

On the morning of April 16, Professor Vasudevan Loganathan, a distinguished alumnus of IIT Kanpur and a widely respected teacher of civil engineering at the famous Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, was senselessly gunned down along with 31 students as he was lecturing to his class. The assailant was Cho Seung-Hui, a madcap of an English student who went berserk to punish those who he believed had wronged him.

The Vasudevans could hardly convince themselves that anyone in the world bore a grudge against their self-effacing and soft-spoken son who had remained unaffected by success. He had everything going for him - a great career and an affectionate family consisting of his wife Usha and two beautiful daughters, Uma (21) and Abirami (12). Loganathan had also adroitly nursed the bond with his family back home without allowing the enormous geographic distance to come in the way. Such was the utter rustic simplicity of a man who had gone places in the academic world and endeared himself to the demanding American undergraduate student.

One of his several achievements came last year; he was among the three conferred the William E. Wine Award for excellence in teaching. Perhaps each one of the other 31 who were killed in the shoot-out left behind an equally poignant tale.

Students take part in a candlelight vigil on campus at Virginia Tech on April 17, a day after the massacre. The reputation that VT had established since 1872 for effusive hospitality, fair play and tranquillity crumbled at the hands of Cho within a space of two hours.-RICK WILKING/REUTERS

Virginia Tech (VT) is a famous engineering school that attracts students from all over the world. With a campus strength of more than 25,000 students spread over 2,600 acres (1,040 hectares) and including about 100 buildings, VT is a dream university that has a lot to offer its American and international students. As elsewhere in the U.S., the largest foreign contingents are from India and China.

Its idyllic setting between the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny mountains breathed friendliness and engendered in everyone on the campus an unassailable faith in the goodness of humanity. It was almost a sacred piece of earth where evil was kept far away from one's mind. But 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui thought otherwise. He was an odd man in. A loner by all accounts, he stood out for his cold demeanour in an ambience of great cordiality and friendliness. He believed he had been grievously wronged by those around him and that he had to hit back at all costs. The reputation that VT had established since 1872 (when it was founded) for effusive hospitality, fair play and tranquillity, crumbled at the hands of Cho within a space of two hours on that Monday morning.

Around 7.15 a.m., gunshots were heard from West Ambler Johnston Hall, a 900-strong freshman dormitory situated almost at the centre of the campus. Following an emergency call, both the police and university officials arrived at the place when they were told that a gunman had been going round the dormitory from room to room in search of his ex-girlfriend. They were further informed that both the girl and Ryan Clark, a Resident Advisor (RA), had been shot dead. They believed that this was an isolated shoot-out arising from personal enmity, and that the intruder had probably escaped.

It was this grossly wrong assumption that led to the failure to close down classes. A mere e-mail alert and caution to students about the Ambler Johnston Hall incident was the only action considered appropriate at that point of time. This proved a grievous misunderstanding of a serious and unsolved incident because, even as the officials were engaged in discussion, around 9-45 a.m., they heard of another shoot-out at Norris Hall. Norris, which accommodated the Engineering department, is about 800 metres north of Ambler Johnston. The police soon arrived at the spot and tried to enter the building, but the doors had been chained shut. With sustained force they broke open the doors and found several bodies on the various floors.

After hours of investigation and discussion, the police and the university authorities concluded that it was Cho, who was lying dead on one floor, who was the killer. He had turned his gun on himself after killing the others. Apart from his firearms and plenty of spare ammunition, the police noticed several knives on his person; it appears likely that he picked them up from his dormitory on his way to Norris after he had finished at Amber Johnston.

In all 33 people were killed in the whole episode, two at Ambler Johnston and 31 at Norris. Apart from Professor Loganathan, another faculty member was killed - Professor Liviu Librescu, an Israeli who was reportedly a Holocaust survivor. Eyewitnesses said that Librescu played a heroic role in holding Cho at bay for quite some time by physically blocking the entry door to one floor at Norris to allow some students to escape. Of course, the old man was finally overpowered by a possessed Cho, who then killed him. Most of the other victims were students aged between 18 and 30. Among them was Minal Panchal (26), who had come from Mumbai to pursue a master's in Advanced Building. Described as a focussed and serious student, Minal was the daughter of an architect and was looking forward to a career back home after graduation.

Professor V. Loganathan, who hailed from Erode, Tamil Nadu, was killed while lecturing students.-By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

It is still a matter of conjecture why Cho picked Norris as the second scene to perpetrate his cruelty. This is because, being an English Major, he did not have any business in a building that was devoted to the teaching of Engineering. But the preparation involved in locking the doors of the building with chains before he launched the attack at Norris indicates a certain knowledge of the lay of the building and a deliberate choice.

Details about Cho unravelled after he committed his gory crime tell us that he was a nearly insane character who, if he had been monitored, could have been eased out of the campus. He belonged to a South Korean family that had moved to the U.S. when Cho was eight years old. His parents are in the drycleaning business and have been described as "super-nice people". After joining as an undergraduate majoring in English, he first came to adverse notice during the Fall semester (August-December) in 2005.

In October that year Nikki Govanni, a Professor of Creative Writing, found that whatever Cho wrote by way of class exercises was "intimidating". His behaviour even otherwise was odd; he was caught taking pictures of female students from under a desk and two separate complaints were made to the campus police by two women, one of whom objected to annoying and unwelcome telephone calls from him. In neither case, however, was the complainant willing to press charges. An unnamed acquaintance of Cho later told the police that he displayed suicidal tendencies. Cho thereafter voluntarily came to the police, who promptly referred him to an agency.

Following this, on the recommendation of a counsellor, a magistrate signed an order saying that Cho "presented an imminent danger to himself and others" and sent him to the Carilon St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital in Radford for an evaluation. Although the doctor at Carilon hospital found Cho depressed, he did not detect any suicidal proclivity. The final medical opinion tendered by the hospital before discharging Cho was that his insight and judgment were "sound" and that he was not in "imminent danger". This was despite their overall conclusion that he was mentally ill.

In retrospect, one could assail this assessment as grievously wrong. It should be remembered that the legal position in the U.S. is that unless an examining doctor or psychologist convinces a judge that a patient is so mentally ill that he either cannot take care of himself or poses a danger to himself or to others, the judge cannot order continued detention. There is nothing on record to indicate that Cho was monitored closely enough on and off campus after his return from hospital in late 2005.

At the beginning of the Fall semester this year, Cho's parents helped him set up in a dormitory on campus. Cho continued to portray erratic tendencies, which were reflected in his assignments. His writing was considered `unhinged', a euphemism for the ranting caused by an unstable mind. In particular, two plays that he wrote and submitted to Professor Falco contained so much of profanity and violent imagery that peer review by other students in the class was almost impossible. Falco checked with others who had taught Cho earlier and got a general picture of a disturbed mind. Although he was allowed to remain on campus, Cho became a withdrawn figure who hardly talked to anyone. He stopped attending classes and he went off the radar.

Undoubtedly Cho stuck out like a sore thumb. His faculty knew he was odd. The campus police were aware of this and a magistrate had sent him to a mental home for observation and evaluation. But none of this led to his being eased out of the campus or kept under continual observation. This is the tragedy of an overly strict regimen of rule of law. The minimum that peace-loving citizens should expect is that mentally suspect individuals are not allowed access to tools with which they can harm themselves or others.

Professor Liviu Librescu, an Israeli Holocaust survivor, was killed trying to protect his students.-AP

But Cho was able to walk into a local arms dealer and help himself to the firearms he wanted. About six weeks before the incident, Cho bought a Glock 19 handgun and a box of ammunition from a local dealer. He made a credit card payment of $571. It appears that even prior to this he had a .22 gun. The police recovered both the weapons after the incident and found they bore Cho's fingerprints.

The U.S. Constitution sanctifies a citizen's "right to bear arms", a provision that at least partially explains the ease with which one can buy firearms and the consequent high incidence of gun violence. It is generally known that the handgun is the deadliest of weapons because it can be concealed with minimum effort by a prospective user. Cho was not dumb. He held a green card and had no documented conviction for a felony that would have made him ineligible to buy a gun. There was no way any dealer could have refused him a weapon.

According to reports, Virginia is the State with the most liberal gun laws, and Cho took advantage of these. This is not to say that he might not have succeeded in another State. The gun lobby in the U.S., headed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), enjoys such strong political support and popular backing that one can hardly visualise any tightening of the laws on the licensing and sale of guns taking place for centuries to come.

This view is shared by my good friend Louie Freeh, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director. According to him, the essential question is why is it so easy for almost anyone in the U.S. to buy firearms. He also says that it is necessary for Americans and their political leaders to deal with this question before beginning any debate on whether a strict gun control policy could have averted a tragedy like the one at VT.

Minal Panchal, a graduate student from Mumbai, who was killed in the shoot-out.-SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

A major criticism against the VT police is that they did not do enough in the two hours between the first and second shoot-outs to locate the intruder and to get classes closed, which would have foiled the attack at Norris.

In an email to me Freeh raises the same issue: "There are unanswered questions about why the university and police did not immediately shut down the campus after the first killing, when they knew the gunman was at large. There appear to be many indications that Cho was mentally and emotionally disturbed and was observed to be so by many teachers and fellow students. It is not clear that the university even had a viable crisis management plan in place to deal rapidly with such an incident so as to save lives."

In their defence the police said that they were looking for Karl Thornhill, the latest boyfriend of Emily Hilscher, who had been estranged from Cho and whom he killed at Ambler Johnston. The police learnt that Thornhill kept guns at home, and both he and Emily had been to a shooting range recently for some shooting practice. The police lost valuable time looking into Thornhill's complicity.

The latest development is the revelation that Cho took time off between the two shootings to go to a local post office and mail a package to the popular television channel NBC in New York. This package carried a composite portrait of a gun-wielding Cho: a number of photographs, 27 short videos and a 1,800-word soliloquy that was hypercritical of the hedonism of his audience and lashed out against all those who had picked on him.

A tribute to the victims of the shoot-out at a memorial in Blacksburg, Virginia.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

I understand from a graduate student at VT, who hails from Chennai and spoke to me after the incident, that things have returned to near normal. There is not only no backlash against Asian students but the issue of race does not even figure in conversation. He feels so secure in the campus that he dismisses the recent incident as that of a freak and believes that students will put it behind them in due course.

What do we learn from VT? An event captured so vividly on camera and broadcast all over the world cannot but leave a lasting impression on fragile minds. I do not agree with an NDTV poll in which more than 90 per cent of respondents believed that such a thing could never happen in India. Such complacence is dangerous. But we in India can be different from the U.S. and build strong public opinion against a gun culture.

The task of securing campuses is delicate and needs imaginative administration and considerable resources. As my good friend Jack Greene, Dean of the College of Criminal Justice, Northeastern University, Boston, says universities cannot but be open and inviting places, although lately security in the form of closed circuit television cameras and control and check points in residential halls has been strengthened. The VT incident, according to Greene, is different from the high-school killings to which the U.S. is accustomed, although the media would link the two. But he believes that the episode will "reverberate" throughout centres of higher education for years to come.

The campus police is an essential adjunct to all universities in the U.S., rich or poor. They play a useful role in crisis situations. I plead for such a force at least on our larger campuses, which now have just an apology of a security wing. Alongside such a move, we need to train and sensitise the faculty in the task of keeping a watch on those students who reveal streaks of abnormality. Counselling on campus and referral to mental health care centres can greatly help.

Only after installing these measures can we be reasonably satisfied that we have done everything to prevent the actions of freaks like Cho Seung-Hui amidst us.

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