Matt Frei reports from the scene of the US campus killings, listens to the survivors and concludes that the only question worth asking is: where next?
The last school shooting I covered also happened in the morning. It was October 2006 and a middle-aged milkman finished his night shift, got a few hours’ sleep, kissed his wife and children and then walked into an Amish village school half a mile away in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a glorious late summer day. Armed with ropes, rubber gloves and gaffer tape, he let the boys go and tied the girls together. He then shot ten of them execution-style. Five died.
On Monday this week, Cho Seung-hui began his killing spree at Virginia Tech at 7.15 in the morning. He had legally purchased the 9mm Glock pistol on 13 March from Roanoke Firearms, 30 miles from the university campus. Cho was a tidy student with an untidy mind. The police found the receipt for $516 — including ammunition — neatly folded in his rucksack.
In both cases the motives were twisted, but these were not impulsive crimes of passion. They were meticulously planned and carried out in the cold light of day, and both ended with the shooter turning the gun on himself. So what is it that makes grown men get up in the morning, slaughter innocent civilians in a place of learning and then end their own lives? We contemplated this question as we drove down to Blacksburg late on Monday. The journey happened to lead through the genteel Washington suburb of Fairfax, where the headquarters of the NRA, the National Rifle Association, glint at passing cars. The lights were on in many of the offices. Was this usual? Or were they busy working on damage control? Another 100 miles farther down the interstate you enter the upper reaches of the Bible Belt. Periodically, giant illuminated crucifixes jostle for attention with huge billboards advertising injury lawyers, McDonald’s and in one case a dire warning: ‘Dusty Bibles, Dirty Thoughts!’
Just before the city of Roanoke there is a Wal-Mart. ‘Guns for sale all year round,’ it boasts, ‘except on Xmas Day!’ We were in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains only a few miles from the West Virginia border. Deliverance, one of the creepiest films of all time, was filmed near here. To add to the unease, howling 50mph winds, created by a freak storm, threatened to lift our car off the road. We reached Blacksburg in the middle of the night. It was bitterly cold. The expectant dishes of a phalanx of satellite trucks pointed silently at the stars. The Klieg lights were still humming for the late shift of the American network anchors. The eerie stage was set for the prime-time pageantry of shock, recrimination and healing that follows every tragedy of this kind.
America has witnessed at least 19 fatal school shootings in the last decade, and although much of the aftermath has become ritual, every tragedy is different and full of baffling details. In Pennsylvania the Amish world of horse-drawn buggies, straw hats and militant pacifism collided with modern gun violence visited upon innocent children by a friendly neighbour. At Virginia Tech, an institution devoted to learning and clarity of thought was brutalised by the murky mind of a painfully shy Asian-American. As he rampaged from the maths class to the engineering class, from German to French, he may have felt like Rambo but he still looked like the quintessential science geek. The fact that he was of South Korean descent has had some reaching for the cliché of the unsmiling, uncommunicative Korean grocery store owner who protects his shop with a baseball bat and trusts no one outside his immediate family. But to my knowledge, no Korean American has ever taken part in a school shooting before.
The stereotype doesn’t fit. And, as we discovered, nor does the location. The campus of Virginia Tech sprawls across the rolling landscape. It is huge. The university has 100 buildings. It boasts its own airport and power station. Size is one of the reasons why the police say that they couldn’t easily ‘lock down’ this virtual city which is home to almost 26,000 students. But the place is also surprisingly beautiful. Pink cherry blossom decorates hundreds of trees like tufts of candy floss. The college buildings are tastefully built in beige quarried rock. The fluorescent green lawns are meticulously manicured. A lot of money has clearly been well spent. A golf course snakes between half a dozen artificial lakes and the students we speak to are impeccably polite despite our intrusions into their grief. In short, Virginia Tech is the kind of university where you would want to send your daughter or son.
On the sports field between the hall of residence where Cho Seung-hui shot his first two victims and Norris Hall, where he gunned down the remaining 30, I spotted Chris Mucklow, a 22-year-old sociology student who loves soccer. He was sitting by himself and crying silently. I asked him whether he thought there should be stricter laws against gun ownership. ‘More background checks, absolutely!’ he replied. ‘But I wish I had had a gun that day. I wish some of the professors had had guns on them. They could have taken the shooter down.’ It was an opinion I heard from many students at Virginia Tech and it goes beyond the abstract debate about the ‘right to bear arms’ enshrined in the Constitution. It is about self-defence in the face of a rampaging menace: if Professor Liviu Librescu, the 76-year-old Holocaust survivor who died after wedging himself against the door to stop the gunman from killing his students, had had a weapon, perhaps he would be alive today.
But it strikes me that this is a reaction rather than a solution. ‘You can’t control guns with more guns, for Chrissake!’ That’s how Brendan Quirk, an engineering student who watched as his fellows jumped from the second-storey windows of Norris Hall to escape the gunman, put it. If the state of Virginia had been obliged to conduct a thorough background check and seek references before granting Cho the right to bear arms, they might have discovered what his teacher Lucinda Roy knew from his writings: that he was a deeply disturbed individual who fantasised in his creative writing exercises about ‘shooting people in the face. First one eye. Then the other.’ Would John Markell, the owner of the Roanoke firearms shop, really have wanted to sell Cho the 9mm Glock if he had read some of these pages? After all, four guns sold from his shop had already been involved in other homicides.
Yes, this tragedy has sparked a debate about gun control, but only outside America. Even the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, that stalwart friend of George Bush, was quick to blame ‘the US gun culture’. But on Capitol Hill the Democrats, who have sunk their teeth into every other aspect of the administration, have remained largely silent on the issue. Gun control puts voters off in swing states, their research has discovered. Best to say little about it, especially with an election approaching.
Despite this week’s bloodbath, there will be no overwhelming demand for gun control in this country. Like evangelical Christianity, baseball and pumpkin pie, it is just one of those things that separates Americans from Europeans. The law of averages dictates that the next shooting will take place in six months. Will it be another university, a high school, a nursery or a secretarial college? At our hotel they were handing out ribbons made by the staff, displaying the colours of Virginia Tech. Orange and red. What will the next colours be?
Matt Frei has been the BBC’s Washington correspondent since 2002.