I won’t soon forget the chaos that ensued on June 28, 2003 shortly after beginning my shift and hitting the streets. And I don’t suppose any other first responder that day will forget it either.
A 53-year-old man with a history of mental illness went on a shooting rampage in the lobby of the Dalt Hotel at 34 Turk Street before retreating to his room. The killer was described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “a ticking time bomb” who on that day was responsible for killing three and critically wounding another. I can recall stepping over bodies lying in the lobby as we searched for the gunman. He was later found deceased in his fourth-floor room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but not until his carnage had left its imprint on a neighborhood unaccustomed to being shocked by violence.
The Virginia Tech massacre will leave an indelible mark on American history. The deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history claimed the lives of 32 innocent souls with scores more injured. The 23-year-old mass murderer was a disturbed loner who stalked women and authoring violent plays. He was declared mentally ill in 2005 and ordered to seek treatment. Unfortunately, after a short stay in the hospital the psychopath returned to society and was back on campus where he would eventually plan and prepare for his day of infamy.
Deadly incidents involving deranged individuals are always succeeded by calls for action to prevent the next rampage killing. Not only is it reasonable to assess such events but it is prudent to thoroughly evaluate after-action reports.
While media outlets often lead the charge for change to law or policy, they are not exempt from critique. In the case of the Virginia Tech rampage, NBC News found itself embroiled in controversy. During the time between the two shooting events, the killer took time to mail his media “manifesto” to NBC News in New York. After copying the evidence prior to delivering it to law enforcement, NBC decided to broadcast the killer’s video message in prime time. But not everyone was pleased by the decision. Some of the victims’ family members cancelled appearances on The Today Show in protest while law enforcement officials were incensed. Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist, called the decision a “social catastrophe.” Welner implored, “I promise you the disaffected will watch him the way they watched ‘Natural Born Killers.’ I know. I examine these people. I’ve examined mass shooters who have told me they’ve watched it 20 times. You cannot saturate the American public with this kind of message.” Allowing the Virginia Tech killer to fulfill his fantasy from the grave with his demented message will prove a disastrous decision. Others who live a similar pathetic existence will seek the same immortality.
Law enforcement response to rampage killings is bound to undergo scrutiny, and perhaps none more critical than internal probes. While tactics need to be rehearsed in order to plan for gaining control quickly, the best one can hope for during the real deal is some kind of organized chaos. An active shooter requires that police officers attempt to put themselves between the killer and his intended victims. As a clever sergeant recently reminded me, “We don’t get paid for what we do—we get paid for what we might have to do.” The sad fact is that by the time a truly depraved individual crosses the Rubicon, limiting the damage becomes the most desirable outcome.
Some will go down the road most traveled and make the predictable calls for stricter gun-control measures. They may also want to consider sword-control. The day after the Virginia Tech massacre, a 33-year-old Northern California man was arrested for stabbing his mother multiple times with a rapier. When cops arrived they found the paranoid schizophrenic still holding the deadly weapon. It should be obvious that a determined individual will always find some way to launch a brutal attack on society. Lethal force must be met by lethal force pure and simple. Laws won’t help unarmed victims when a rampage killer is bearing down on them even when they happen to be in a gun-free “safe zone.”
The mental health profession will also be taken to task for what they did, or in many cases didn’t do, with a rampage killer preceding a deadly event. With strict confidentiality laws and even tougher requirements for involuntary commitment, it’s hard to envy the job of those tasked with treating people living off the edge. It’s a balancing act between patient’s rights and public safety, but it has been tipping in favor of the former for many years. Something may have to give. It’s worth noting that millions of Americans suffering from mental illness are able to lead productive lives.
After-action review must focus on myriad responses leading up to, during, and after a rampage killing event. But it should also take into account something that I believe I have witnessed up close—pure evil. Evil has existed since Lucifer was cast from Heaven. Bad men will do bad things. We can’t regulate it and we certainly can’t cure it. We should recognize it and, if need be, confront it. But we should never be naive enough to ignore it. Virginia Tech Professor Liviu Librescu didn’t ignore it. As a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, Librescu knew the face of evil, and when he saw it once again he blocked the killer’s entrance into his classroom costing him his life but allowing his students to escape through a window. Librescu’s courage is worthy of this nation’s highest honor, and his name has earned a reverent place in our history.
Michael Nevin, Jr. is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc.