by Lila Rajiva
by Lila Rajiva
"I think we
know enough about the response to know it was very effective and
a very successful response," said retired state police superintendent
W. Gerald Massengill, the chairman of the review panel appointed
to investigate the Virginia Tech shootings. That was in a May 11
article in the Washington Post called "Va
Tech Panel Outlines Agenda."
is about right. How does 33 dead over a two-and-half-hour spree
on a campus crawling with cops count as "very effective"
and "very successful"?
About the same
way as V-Tech is now apparently about "breaking down bureaucratic
barriers among the courts, the school and the state as it relates
to mental health information."
undermining of privacy laws, in fact. Just what we need from an
administration already up to its intrusive eye-balls in domestic
by the way, is the man who led the Virginia State Police in the
9-11 attack on the Pentagon, and his fellow panel members are Tom
Ridge, the first U.S. secretary of homeland security, a top policy
maker in state higher education, an administrator of the FBIís center
for the analysis of violent crime and two medical experts.
Massengill, the police gave him a timeline that "helped convince
him that they responded as quickly as they could after the two people
had been shot in West Ambler Johnston Hall."
Since the timeline
is the lynch-pin of the panelís bizarre conclusion, it warrants
more examination than the media has given it so far.
first entered the public debate on April 26, 2007 in this report
from AP: "5-minute
Delay Crucial in Tech Shooting."
reported what is now regarded as the official version of the killings
at Virginia Tech on 4/16:
Cho got to
Ambler Johnston Hall a bit before 7 a.m.; he killed his first 2
victims with a Glock 9 mm (a fairly ordinary handgun) with two rounds;
his second bout of killing (30 people) was at Norris Hall and it
took 9 minutes. Police supposedly took 3 minutes to get to Norris
and 5 minutes to get into the building, where several entrances
had been chained shut from inside.
are often contradictory or mistaken and a crisis, in recollection,
can seem to have taken much longer than it actually did, but still,
think about whatís supposed to have happened in 9 minutes:
up and down the halls (2Ė3 minutes, at least); he poked his head
into a few classrooms a couple of times and left without doing anything;
he fired steadily but with pauses in between, methodically breaking
through doors that had been barricaded (that should have taken a
minute at least), shot, left and returned to at least two classrooms
(another minute or so each); stood over and shot students and fired
individually at each (a minute?) in at least two classrooms. Although
the students were trapped inside, they were barricading doors, running
away, throwing themselves over each other, or jumping through windows,
so they were moving targets that required him to aim and move too.
And then he
shot himself. His last victim, wounded and on the floor, said he
watched the gunmanís legs move to the front of the classroom, then
heard a pause, then shots. No one actually saw the suicide, so what
happened must remain somewhat tentative.
If Cho fired
170 rounds (or 255, in at least one account) in Norris Hall, as
reported, he fired almost 18 rounds per minute or a round roughly
every 3 seconds. Iím not a marksman, so I dont know if thatís likely
or not. If you also take into account that he was reloading and
pausing, he must have been firing an even higher number of rounds
per minute than that most of the time. And, if we go by the multiple
each body (34), he must have made about 110Ė120 hits (out
of 170 rounds). Even more, if we include the wounded. So far as
we know, he was an amateur with, at most, a few weeks of practice.
I am not sure if that scenario is plausible or not. And again, Iím
not trying to refute the timeline so much as evaluating it. But
I do wonder how officials can be so sure of it. And why.
This was a
timeline posted on Wiki (itís since been deleted, but you can find
it, with the original footnotes, on my
blog, which has collected material relevant to the case):
- 9:42 a.m.:
Students in the engineering building, Norris Hall, make a 9-1-1
emergency call to alert police that more shots have been fired.
- 9:45 a.m.:
Police arrived three minutes later and found that Cho had chained
all three entrances shut.
9:30 and 9:50 a.m.: Using the .22 caliber Walther P22 and 9-millimeter
Glock 19 handgun with 17 magazines of ammunition, Cho shoots 60
people, killing 30 of them. Chos rampage lasts for approximately
nine minutes. A student in Room 205 noticed the time remaining
in class shortly before the start of the shootings.
9:40 a.m.: Students in Norris 205, while attending Haiyan Chengs
issues in scientific computing class, hear Chos gunshots. The
students, including Zach Petkewicz, barricade the door and prevent
- 9:50 a.m.:
After arriving at Norris Hall, police took 5 minutes to assemble
the proper team, clear the area and then break through the doors.
They use a shotgun to break through the chained entry doors. Investigators
believe that the shotgun blast alerted the gunman to the arrival
of the police. The police hear gunshots as they enter the building.
They follow the sounds to the second floor.
- 9:51 a.m.:
As the police reached the second floor, the gunshots stopped.
Chos shooting spree in Norris Hall lasted 9 minutes. Police officers
discovered that after his second round of shooting the occupants
of room 211 Norris, the gunman fatally shot himself in the temple.
From this Wiki
account (which is quite conservative and can be verified from other
published timelines), the shooting really could have taken place
any time between at least 9:30 and 9:50 Ė a space of 20, not 9 minutes.
But even on
its own terms, the official timeline seems a little odd. If students
heard gun shots (which could only have been at the very latest at
9:40), and if police reached the second floor at 9:51, that still
makes 11 minutes, not 9.
Why, you might
ask, am I quibbling about a few minutes? After all, no one could
really have been sure of anything in all the confusion. True. But
thatís all the more reason why insisting on those 9 minutes seems
peculiar. Especially since we also have at least one account that
the police got there later
than this account suggests.
What about the video
footage and reports
of the police hiding around the building? Or coming
out of nowhere (BBC, April 17)? That doesnít
square with the official story saying they rushed straight from
that 9-1-1 call to Norris. More confusion? Possibly. But each additional
contradiction becomes that much less plausible as simple error.
But the insistence
on 9 minutes does make sense if you think about the bigger
If the gunman
only took 9 minutes, then the onus on the police to explain their
behavior becomes much less. Itís then no longer a question of what
they were doing for the half hour or so in which Cho was rampaging
through Norris Hall (not to mention the two hours before) but only
what made them delay after they got to Norris at 9:45 (3
minutes after the call).
simple Ė the doors were chained shut. Ergo, they had to wait 5 minutes,
while Ė by this reckoning Ė Cho finished off his 9-minute spree.
That this is
the significance of having a 9-minute timeline is pretty clear,
since the police officers quoted in the article direct their criticism
specifically at the 5-minute delay. The critics say it was those
few minutes that most significantly increased the number of victims.
Meanwhile, for some reason, theyíre silent about what the police
were doing for the two hours before.
in the Military
on to the criticism of the 5-minute delay is a discussion (for the
first time in the media) of what is known as the "active
shooter" paradigm in police operations. The critics say
the 5-minute delay wouldnít have happened if V-Tech had been treated
from the start as an "active shooter" situation.
What is an
"active shooter" situation? Itís a sniper or shooter crisis
where swifter and more aggressive police tactics are required, because
the perp is careless about his own life and, therefore, more likely
to take as many down with him as he can. Those aggressive tactics,
called, "Immediate Action Rapid Deployment," were developed
in the nineties, but really came into prominence only after the
Columbine school shootings in 1999. But they still arenít operational
everywhere, supposedly because of lack of funds and training.
that "active shooter" is being referenced in the 4/26
article only in terms of the 5-minute delay. Why? Maybe because
itís a strategy with several advantages:
- It lets
the police take some blame, but not so much that the massacre
looks like a case of negligence. Thatís a move that makes it possible
to take the focus off police failure and put it on policy changes
requiring more laws, more force, and ultimately more federalization
- It dampens
public outrage at the individuals who really are culpable. A 5-minute
delay simply isnít going to work anyone up the way a 2-hour delay
- It lets
officials introduce the "Immediate Action Rapid Deployment"
(IARD) paradigm into campus policing without undercutting the
decisions taken by the administration or the police.
Now, IARD is
a distinct step in militarizing police response and is very much
a part of the trend to systematically erase the boundaries between
wartime military actions and domestic policing. Domestic crises
are more and more described and tackled in military terms, just
as foreign military actions are being palmed off as policing operations.
Which is why
the article goes on, "This is a seminal moment for law enforcement
as far as Im concerned because it proves that minutes are critical."
Yes, itís seminal.
V-Tech is going to help put military responses squarely on campus.
What Iím suggesting
is that the more officials can take the blame off V-Tech, the more
they can push for additional federal policies and laws.
So, if my thesis
holds good, officials should also be taking that 2-hour gap between
Ambler Johnston and Norris off the table as fast as possible, because
thatís where the administrationís culpability is most obvious. Are
are. In the AP account, the V-Tech review panel states flatly that
shutting down the campus couldnít possibly have done any good because
the shooter could always have gone back into his dorm and shot the
900 or so people who lived there. I quote,
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said that the massacre may not have been averted
if the Virginia Tech campus had been locked down after the two shooting
deaths at the dorm. ĎWell, if the campus had been locked down Ė
because the shooter lived on campus Ė I mean he could have gone
into his dorm with 900 people instead of going into a classroom
(and) he could have shot people there, Kaine said in his monthly
listener-question program on WRVA-AM and the Virginia News Network."
this is a straw-man. Locking down the campus was not the only option.
V-Tech could also have made an announcement on its PA system for
students to lock themselves into their rooms or stay off campus.
A siren could have gone off to alert people, instead of an email
notice. Police could have been rushed in to guard buildings (they
should have been doing that anyway, since there had been a couple
of bomb threats in the weeks preceding). How did they manage to
shut down the campus so efficiently in August 2006, when survivalist
and killer, William Morva, was on the loose?
announcement also overlooks another bunch of really serious failures
on the part of V-Tech. How was it that on a campus where the student
population had been disarmed by policy, there were no monitoring
cameras nor armed security guards near the dorms, who could have
stopped the shooter in the first place? Even measly little schools
have them; why not this lush, plush campus with its own golf course,
power station and airport and what the BBC calls "meticulously
How could V-Tech
promise its students that the campus was gun-free, if they had no
metal detectors or security checks to ensure it? How did Cho leave
campus to post his video and re-enter loaded with ammo and guns
and not set some detector or alarm off? How could he have even entered
a dorm without a security card in the first place? And why were
entering and leaving Ambler Johnston until 10 a.m. (according
to student reports) after the shooting at 7:15?
Is none of
that worth noting? Would a little vigilance in any of those things
not have helped at all? Does it really just boil down to
those 5 minutes?
Or is the media
trying to frame whatís at stake? Seems like it, especially if we
look at what else is going on.
on, Time magazine had an opinion piece, "Va.
Techís President Should Resign," John Cloud, 4/19, which
Ė with little serious argument Ė explicitly directed the publicís
attention away from the delay between the two shootings and
toward the danger signals Cho was sending up for two year before
two years are problematic, of course. But the useful thing about
focusing on the two years is that the failure to follow up on Choís
problematic behavior Ė unlike the two-hour delay Ė can always be
blamed on policies.
And in fact,
people are doing just that. In time, weíll find theyíve reached
the conclusion that, mirabile dictu, none of this was V-Techís
fault at all. It was the fault of laws, policies, programs, etc.
instance, this 4/25
report from MSNBC describing students standing firmly behind
the V-Tech president and administration. It makes a striking contrast
with earlier reports in which students repeatedly and loudly criticized
Looks a bit
as if this show of student confidence developed later. But whoís
pushing for the vote of confidence for the people at the top? Letís
to present the university Board of Visitors on Thursday with an
online petition with thousands of signatures of support for Steger
and Flinchum. Steger also received an endorsement from the governor.
Charlie has been acting as a very, very good president, Gov. Tim
Kaine said. ĎThis kind of event could happen anywhere on any campus,
and there has been an innocence taken away from the students. But
the positive values, and academic tradition of this university will
help the community stay strong, and keep this university attracting
about this kind of media framing before. First, the media sensationalizes.
This is the pulp drama of personal narratives, human interest stories,
emotion, drama, color, personalities... Then, when we get to the
heart of the matter, the focus quickly shies away to broad questions
of law and policy. No oneís ever at fault now. Itís always a failure
to communicate, bad laws, not enough funding Ė anything that lets
the bosses off the hook.
That was the
MO of the media during the torture debate. Questions about what
actually happened were quickly framed out and the debate focused
on creating better policies rather than on punishing the people
who created the bad ones. It was ultimately only the alternative
press which pushed the discussion back to where it belonged.
At V-Tech too,
the mainstream public debate has been relentlessly about more federal
laws of all kinds Ė more gun control.... or federalizing the mental
health data base... or militarizing security...or imposing speech
in perfectly with where this government wants to go, as a recent
piece by James Bovard, "Working
for the Clampdown," in The American Conservative Magazine
(April 27, 2007) indicates. Bovard describes how the Defense Authorization
Act of September 30, 2006 makes it easy for the president to impose
martial law in the event of what he calls public disorder, which
might just be something like an antiwar protest on campus (not for
nothing was it the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee
that held a hearing on college campus security on 4/23 and on 4/26).
Congressman Ron Paulís Texas newsletter, "Straight Talk,"
describes the dangers of an impending and unconstitutional "hate
crimes" bill (HR 1592) that has every potential
to create a category of "thought crimes."
With that in
mind, you begin to see that despite the overwhelming focus on them,
V-Tech is fundamentally not about these things:
About More Gun Laws:
The gun control
argument runs Ė Were guns not growing on Virginian trees, this
would never have happened. We need new laws: No guns for nut jobs.
But the trouble
with this line of reasoning is that Virginia Tech is already
a gun-free zone. Theoretically at least. The university beat back
an attempt in just 2006 by the state of Virginia to allow student
to carry concealed weapons on campus. And, Virginiaís gun laws already
do prohibit deranged people from purchasing firearms. When Cho bought
his two handguns, he was already committing a felony.
About More Mental Health Reporting
OK, you ask,
then how come Choís record of derangement didnít stop him from buying
because he had no record. Forget the Feds. He didnít have
one with the state. No one gave him one.
that make the case for more laws regulating the mentally deranged?
Not really. The real problem was that the laws already in place
be precise here Ė no psychiatrist ever saw Cho. A licensed
social worker recommended sending him to a treatment facility (and
got a special judge to do it) and then a PhD psychologist reckoned
he was a threat only to himself (and had the same special judge
release him) Ė all in about 24 hours flat. Some evaluation. It was
not only shoddy on its face but in flat violation of state law,
which requires an MD to do the job. ("Cho
Seung Huiís Commitment Papers," Bonnie Goldstein, Slate,
April 24, 2007). Thatís strike two just there.
And now, strike
three. Although Cho was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment,
it turns out that no one kept track of whether he did or didnít.
Or kept records of any kind, apparently, all of which is a violation
of existing state law.
have emerged about what happened at the three state institutions
through which Cho passed ("Cho
Didnt Get Court-Ordered Treatment," Brigid Schulte and
Chris L. Jenkins, Washington Post, May 7, 2007).
V. Techs Cook Counseling Center, Blacksburgs New River Valley
community services board, and nearby Christiansburgs Carilion St.
Albans Clinic, which is where Cho ended up staying overnight. Each
now says it had no reason, jurisdiction, or wherewithal to follow
up. They all saw no evil, heard no evil..... and did nothing at
Says Mike Wade,
the Blacksburg boards community liaison, "Since we werent named
the provider of that outpatient treatment, we werent involved in
Teel, Choís court appointed lawyer, of the courtís role in overseeing
the treatment, "We have no authority."
Flynn, director of V-Techís Cook Counseling center, "Ive never
seen someone delivered to me with an order that says, This person
has been discharged; hes now your responsibility. That doesnt
on paper contradicts all of them.
Tech. Here are VA
state guidelines with which state universities have to comply
(Act H 3064 approved by the Governor on March 21, 2007, not even
a month before V Tech):
boards of each public institution of higher education shall develop
and implement policies that advise students, faculty, and staff,
including residence hall staff, of the proper procedures for identifying
and addressing the needs of students exhibiting suicidal tendencies
or behavior... Nothing in this section shall preclude any public
institution of higher education from establishing policies and procedures
for appropriately dealing with students who are a danger to themselves,
or to others, and whose behavior is disruptive to the academic community."
Re New River:
Virginia state law says that community service boards "shall
recommend a specific course of treatment and programs" for people
such as Cho who are ordered to receive outpatient treatment. The
law also says these boards "shall monitor the persons compliance."
[Wade claims thatís "news to him."]
Re St. Albanís:
Virginia law says that if a dangerously mentally ill person ordered
into treatment doesnt go, he can be brought back before the
special judge, and if necessary, in a crisis, be committed to a
psychiatric institution for up to 6 months.
Letís put it
this way: If Virginia state guidelines for universities had been
followed, Choís history would have been on record and campus police
would have had an eye on him already. And if he had been properly
evaluated and monitored according to state mental health requirements,
he would have been labeled a danger to society and the state police
would have stopped him buying a gun.
So tell me,
why do we need more laws when people arenít following the ones already
on the books?
About More Funding:
Was it because
there werenít enough funds, as some argue? Community service boards
apparently handled 115,000 mentally ill people in Virginia in 2005
at a cost of $127 million. That works out Ė very roughly Ė to about
a thousand bucks per person. I donít know if thatís shabby or not.
But it doesnít really seem relevant here. What could it have possibly
cost in additional time or money to call up and find out if Cho
had gone into treatment? Ten minutes and the cost of a local phone
The whole business
is that amazing. No one seems to have known anything or done much
of anything. No one seems to have followed up or even thought they
had to. For instance, reports say the Choís family didnít seek treatment
for him because they didnít have enough money, yet the family lives
in an affluent Virginia neighborhood, sent their children to elite
private schools, and gave Cho enough spare change for videos, a
car, a cell phone, an escort service (at least once), firearms,
an ungodly amount of ammo and training at a firing range.
Isnít it much
more likely that if Choís family didnít get help for him, it was
because of the stigma attached to mental illness, which is much
greater among Asian families? And would more money really have made
spend as much as they want on community mental health. But donít
tell me Virginia Tech happened because of lack of money.
About More Federal Data Bases:
that reporting to the Feds has to be tightened because under federal
law, Choís voluntary confinement would have automatically prevented
him from buying a gun. (Richard Bonnie, chairman of the Virginia
Supreme Courts Commission on Mental Health Law Reform.)
Well, in the
first place, as weíve seen, if heíd been properly evaluated, state
laws themselves would have stopped Cho. If people donít comply with
state laws, why are they any more likely to comply with federal
the FBI, Virginia is already the leading state in reporting mental
health dis-qualifications to the Feds. But, the problems is that
Virginia state law is a tad different from the federal law. It lists
only two categories that would warrant notifying the state police
Ė "involuntary commitment" or a ruling of "mental
incapacitation" Ė neither of which applied to Cho, who was confined
"voluntarily" and wasnt ruled incapacitated.
after V-Tech, Governor Tim Kaine (a Democrat) eliminated this distinction.
He also said he thought V-Tech would help push through legislation
he supports that would also subject firearms sales at gun shows
to instant background checks (legislation introduced annually in
Virginia that dies before a floor vote in the General Assembly).
move to expand Virginiaís mental health laws was already
in the works in October 2006.
Its goal was
to "modify the criteria for placing people in emergency care
by eliminating a requirement that they pose an imminent
danger to themselves or others," precisely whatís now being
demanded as a result of the V-Tech shootings.]
But will making
every state law automatically comply with federal law on this make
things better or worse? Iím not sure. If people know that their
mental health evaluations automatically go into a federal data base,
will that make them even more reluctant to seek help they might
need? Is it a provision that might be misused by vengeful spouses?
And what if, in the present political climate, expression of certain
beliefs Ė say, conspiracy theories about the government Ė were classified
as signs of mental derangement? And suppose you could be forced
into psychiatric evaluation for that? What if the hate crimes bill
on the table now makes even thinking or speaking a certain way a
sign not only of derangement but of criminal intent toward society.
Iím afraid that the unintended bad of more federalization might
come to outweigh the hoped-for good of standardization.
In any case,
to my mind, the real problem lies with the special justice who released
Cho and then decided he had to attend outpatient Ė not inpatient
Ė treatment. Whether Cho was sent to V-Techís Cook Center or not
(Cookís not returning calls), mental health advocates and state
officials call it pretty unusual to order outpatient treatment for
someone labeled a imminent danger to himself. Usually,
itís an inpatient order, says Mary Zdanowicz, executive director
of the Treatment Advocacy Center. And, a 1994 survey of special
justices found that outpatient treatment was ordered in just 8 percent
of the commitment hearings, among other things, because theyíre
hard to monitor (Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission).
In short, measured
just by current laws and care standards, Choís evaluation seems
to have been shoddy and the special justiceís remedy poorly conceived.
And I donít
see why more laws would change that.
In fact, part
of the problem looks like too much regulatory apparatus and too
many state bodies with orbits designed to mesh that ended up clashing,
on one hand, and too little common sense and care, on the other.
The three agencies
involved at V-Tech shared responsibility like the three crones in
the myth shared one eye Ė they fumbled so much as they passed it
around that they dropped it.
In short, what
we have here is a full-throttle display of the Diminishing Utility
of More Bureaucrats and Laws (DUMBEL), whereby what was everyoneís
responsibility became no oneís job.
the policies that should be discussed are not.
We still have
no account of what medication Cho was taking, although his roommates
have told us they saw him taking a pill regularly in the mornings.
And we have
even less discussion about a matter of crucial importance now:
How to hold
the state accountable for laws it expects us to follow but doesnít
in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("Lawyer
Says Virginia Techís Immunity to Lawsuits Over Shooting Is Not Absolute,"
April 24) describes the potential for litigation at V-Tech and quotes
lawyers who suggest that the university showed "gross negligence."
But of course, the panelís swift and well-publicized exoneration
easily trumps that in the public debate.
the media, which rushed to shove microphones and cameras in the
faces of grieving friends and family, hasnít shown much interest
in reporting on what victims are up against if they do try to press
their claims: The doctrine of sovereign immunity.
relic of common law, itís designed to protect a state university
like Virginia Tech from litigation by the public. States have relaxed
the doctrine to allow state hospitals, for example, to be sued for
malpractice; still, any plaintiff at V-Tech, I am reliably told,
would have to establish a case of gross negligence and would have
only 6 months to press claims. That means any stalling by the university
helps it avert a lawsuit by reducing the amount of time victims
have to collect information and prepare a case. Its very likely
that the victims donít even know about the doctrine.
by the way, the doctrine of sovereign immunity holds that a state
can do no wrong because the state creates the law and thus cannot
be subject to it. On that count at least, it looks like the State
of Virginia is already perfectly in synch with the Federal government
[send her mail] is the
author of The
Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media (MR
Press, 2005) and with Bill Bonner, the forthcoming Mobs,
Messiahs and Markets, (Wiley, 2007). Visit her
© 2007 LewRockwell.com