Fighting the Columbine copycats (National Post April 25, 2007)

Fighting the Columbine copycats

Barbara Kay, National Post
Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I'm weighing in on the Virginia Tech massacre bandwagon rather late, because when news of the tragedy broke, I was in Quebec City for my annual week of French immersion. The shooting then became the focus of my daily four hours of conversation, divided amongst three different "profs".

The usual questions surfaced: Are these crimes all copycat events? Is there a discernible pattern? Is it a fad or ongoing? How can we stop them?

Yes, in format they are all Columbine copycats.

Patterns: There are none to shooter histories, personality, family dynamic or level of mental pathology. Every school shooter's personal story is unique.

But: There is some thematic uniformity. Blacks haven't so far committed campus massacres. The shooters are middle-class. Victims are peers and authority figures. Homage is usually rendered to Harris and Klebold, the Columbine killers; and feature irrational "explanations" of systemic victimization ("Always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, blame me for what I do?" wrote 16-year-old multiple killer Luke Woodham, who was neither beaten nor hated. Loner Cho, but also socially integrated Dawson shooter Kimveer Gill, posted similar claptrap on the Web). A fad? Yes, if we choose to stop them.

How? By approaching the perpetrators not as individuals, but as terrorists sans ideology. The more we seek "answers," regard them as "troubled" youth with "issues," the more vulnerable we are. We didn't brood over 1980s copycat airplane hijackers' "root causes." We instituted (pre-9/11 levels of ) deterrence, and the fad died.

These idiosyncratic terrorists seek out vulnerable people hubs. Famous bank robber Willy Sutton targeted banks because "that's where the money is."

Shooters choose school campuses because that's where the sitting ducks are. Virtually all school shooters are vengeance- bound grievance-collectors seeking spectacularly public suicide. Virginia forbids universities from expelling students who attempt to commit suicide or show obvious suicidal tendencies. That should change there, and everywhere.

Gun control? It's been commentated to death. With 200 million guns circulating in a complacently self-acknowledging gun culture, do let's agree that guns in the U.S. are there to stay.

At the very least, however, a "No-Buy" list similar to the No-Fly list at airports would be a "no-brainer" in the U.S., with harsh penalties imposed on gun sellers for non-compliance. The minute Cho's psychiatric evaluation indicated he was a suicide risk, his name should have entered a No-Buy database.

As for Canada, since we aren't intrinsically a gun culture, we have options, and should continue to debate them. I think the U.S. will do the heavy lifting for us: All U.S. states will probably eventually permit faculty to carry concealed weapons. Evidence shows that in states like Utah, for example, where "concealed-carry" is legal on campus, there have been no college shootings. Copycatters in the U.S., paranoid but not stupid, will lose interest in shooting galleries where ducks shoot back, and I would guess that Canada will benefit from the falloff in "role models."

Interestingly, all three of my superb Quebec City French profs are professional dropouts from middle-class schools in the secondary system in Quebec and Ontario. They accepted job insecurity, lower salaries and fewer benefits and vacation days to work at the private language school I attended, because they were fed up with the "atmosphere of menace" and the privileging of students' rights over teachers' dignity and security that defined their schools' culture.

(One prof had been forced to re-instate a problem student he'd ejected from class for extreme verbal abuse of him before her peers. His principal also refused to act on a clearly implied physical threat from a disgruntled student with poor marks. Another prof was forced to issue a passing mark instead of zero for one never-submitted project when the student's parents complained, but was allowed to fail two other same-case students whose parents didn't complain.)

So here's a final recommendation: Reverse the current order of hierarchy in education. Retrieve moral authority from students and return it to teachers. How did the pathologically anti-social Cho achieve high school leaving without uttering 10 words a year? How did he gain entry to college, let alone pass three years there? What message do we send when the system drives out self-respecting teachers like mine, the cream of the profession, because they are not supported in imposing normative rules of comportment and performance?

Lots for Canadians to think about on this issue in both official languages.

© National Post 2007