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Guest commentary

Lessons from the Virginia Tech massacre          Send a link to a friend

By Debbie Thurman

[April 19, 2007]  Like everyone -- from Virginia to nations abroad -- I am still reeling with mind-numbing shock and horror in the wake of the atrocious massacre of 32 students and faculty members by a crazed student gunman at Virginia Tech on Monday. We call such a tragedy senseless, but can we make some sense of it? Was a mass shooting of this magnitude required to jolt us out of our complacency?

It is clear something must change. One, we must give serious thought to making all our campuses as secure as practical. If that means adding security cameras, 24-hour locked dorms and more security personnel, so be it. We must have an effective communications system in place to warn students when a gunman is on the loose. There should be education programs to teach students and faculty how to respond in the event such a situation arises in the future.

While some are railing against the right of all Americans to bear arms, that is not the problem here. It is impossible to prevent rogues and criminals from illegally obtaining firearms. A person intent on killing is going to find a way to do it. It is the responsibility of each of us to be alert to such a potential killer and know what to do if we encounter one. That is the sad but true state of affairs our violence-loving society has brought us to, that college freshman orientation ought to include this instruction.

If lawmakers don't target the makers of violent video games that, to a person, these mass murderers have been shown to be obsessed with, we the people must rise up and do the job ourselves. Better yet, let some enterprising individual develop a game that trains people in how to respond to armed attacks. Beat them at their own "game."

As for the gun control issue, firearm dealers already have the right to refuse a sale to a suspicious buyer, and many do. But we can't expect all dealers to be psychologists. Nevertheless, dealers should be held to a higher level of accountability where screening of potential buyers is concerned. Various agencies -- the ATF, the FBI and local law enforcement -- can put training in place to assist dealers. If we are in a state of terrorism here, we must use all means at our disposal to screen potential "terrorists." Proposed legislation right now is pushing for a history of mental illness to show up in the police background check.

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Never again should it be acceptable simply to refer an individual as troubled and as scary as Cho was for counseling. Our university policies must have teeth, not just good intentions. We cannot be afraid of offending a student. At least one of Cho's professors had insisted he be put out of her class or she would go. He was on suicide watch as far back as 2005. He was a stalker. Was that not sufficient enough warning, along with his sick writings, that Cho was a ticking time bomb?

One more thing disturbs me. Sadly, we have taught our young men to be sensitive and passive wimps instead of manly protectors. All it takes to turn the tables on an attacker is for one person to lead a charge. Others will get up and follow. Only seconds exist in which to make such a decision in scenarios like the one at Virginia Tech. That is time enough to make a difference.

It's time to wake up and face reality squarely. No campus is immune from the horror we witnessed at Virginia Tech. We will never be able to put this evil back into Pandora's box. We can slowly begin to turn our errant ship around. In the meantime, we must be vigilant as never before.

My prayers go with the families whose loss is almost unbearable. Healing may seem like light-years away, but I hope it comes for them, as I hope awareness comes for the rest of us.

[Text from file received from Debbie Thurman]

Debbie Thurman is an award-winning author and commentator who writes from Monroe, Va. Her e-mail address is

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