The search for meaning, motives and culprits in the Virginia Tech shootings began even before all the next of kin were notified, as Americans again tried to make sense of the senseless.
But we can almost guarantee that the self flagellations and legislative overreactions to come — are there doubts that we will see a Safer College Campus Act of 2007? — will miss the important points.
You can’t legislate a cure for depraved minds or sick souls. You can’t legislate a risk-free society — at least not without creating a police state that contradicts the values of personal liberty, limited government and openness that most Americans hold dear.
Guns aren’t to blame. Charlton Heston and the NRA aren’t to blame. Lax campus security isn’t to blame — unless we can all say we operate with 20/20 hindsight.
Ultimately, Cho Seung-Hui is to blame. Better understanding what demons drove him or what methods he used is only nominally useful in terms of preventing repeats, given the unsettling randomness of such events.
What we come away with, aside from a profound sadness for the victims and their families, is a reminder of how vulnerable this country is to such attacks.
The gunman wasn’t politically motivated, from what we know. He wasn’t a terrorist, in the conventional sense. He was a 23-year-old “loner” with a chip on his shoulder and homicidal tendencies.
But the carnage underscores the endless variety of “soft targets” this society presents for an individual or group bent on mass murder. It’s not practical to harden every potential soft target out there. And leaving security exclusively to the “professionals” in government won’t work, not because these people aren’t trying their best but because the list of potential targets and threats far exceeds their capacity to respond.
When violence is so arbitrary, and our ability to predict or pre-empt so limited, “first responders” often arrive too late to do much more than carry away the injured, tag the dead and process the crime scene.
Assuming such random acts of violence will remain a contemporary fact of life, we believe the ultimate answer lies in re-thinking the concept of civil defense, to shift more of the responsibility for homeland security onto the average citizen, somewhat following the Israeli model.
It’s time to think boldly and creatively about hardening soft targets by better preparing, equipping and possibly arming average citizens to serve as civilian response teams.
Some might find this idea radical. But they won’t think it so far-fetched if the U.S. experiences a schoolhouse terror attack of the type that took place in Chechnya not so long ago.
A metal detector in every school house, college building or public space isn’t affordable or practical — not to mention, foolproof. But perhaps bank teller-like “panic buttons” could be built into many schools, and special civilian response teams could be established in government offices and private businesses that choose to participate.
These are just starter ideas. But the venerable old concept of civil defense, which served the nation well from Concord through the Cold War, but which has more recently fallen along the wayside, needs to be revived in response to the threat of terrorism and random violence.
Reinventing civil defense won’t guarantee complete safety. Nothing can do that. But it might help harden many soft targets, complicate the calculations of groups or individuals planning mass murder — and once again instill in Americans the idea that self-defense is not just the responsibility of government, but of the community and the individual.