Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The lesson we need to learn from Cho Seung Hui and the Virginia Tech massacre

Cho Seung Hui, as we all know by now, is the crazy Virginia Tech student who killed 32! Virginia Tech classmates and faculty, wounded 15 others, and killed himself when the police got near him. He did all of this damage simply with a 9mm handgun and a chain on the front door of Norris Hall, an engineering and general-use academic building that sounds like Pupin Hall at Columbia.

From the information that has come out since Monday about Cho, I don't attribute a religious, sociological or cultural reason for what he did. It was psychological. He had mental problems. Whether it was schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, whatever he had broke his mind and caused him to decide that Monday was his day to take control of his diseased reality by killing and dying.

I don't blame the victims, but for future reference, I hope the lesson we all take away from the Va Tech massacre is that when confronted with an unexpected situation like Cho, our initial reaction cannot be to hide or run. It needs to be an immediate, aggressive and collective response to fight back and eliminate the threat. Potential victims may only receive one moment to subdue the attacker before the attacker is in control of the space and killing.

In my opening paragraph, I said "simply" to describe Cho's armament so I could make this point: given the weapon he used, I believe the final very high dead and wounded toll was preventable ... if the victims had responded differently from the outset.

Cho essentially engaged in a room clearing operation with his handgun. Accounts say Cho entered 4 classrooms to do his killing. There isn't much the 1st class could have done - they were caught by surprise. However, the 2nd, 3rd or 4th class could have fought back and counter-attacked Cho. How? Anyone with a modicum of room clearing training can tell you that the 1st man in, Cho in this case, is vulnerable during the moment he transitions, virtually blind, from outside to inside the room, before he establishes control of the space. The accounts say the classroom doors were wooden, which meant they were not see-through, which enhanced the advantage held by the victims.

That was the moment - the lost opportunity. The Va Tech victims could have fought back as Cho entered each new classroom. They needed to close the distance with Cho as soon as possible to hand-to-hand range in order to negate his firearm advantage and subdue him. In practical terms, that meant they needed to ambush Cho during the moment he was entering their classroom. A variation is that students and faculty could have waited until Cho first stepped inside the classroom and then thrown as many objects as possible - e.g., shoes, laptops, cell phones, books - at Cho to distract him for the second or two necessary for other students to tackle and subdue him.

Instead, at Va Tech, the victims went passive and hid, or tried to increase the distance between themselves and the shooter. Those actions allowed Cho to pass through, untouched, the moment of danger to himself and establish control of the classrooms. Once he was inside the room and in control of the space, with students and faculty not closing the distance to negate his firepower, those rooms became shooting galleries. Also, no one left their classrooms to ambush Cho in the hallway as he was leaving a classroom.

Cho had the guns, but he was also outnumbered 10s (per room) or 100s (building) to 1 by healthy and strong people in confined spaces. Even granting him the initial advantage of surprise and aggressive action in Norris Hall, so that Cho would still likely have killed or wounded some people, if the students and staff had fought back, it's unlikely Cho would have successfully killed and hurt such a high number of people.

2nd Amendment advocates will say that if students and staff had been packing, they could have stopped Cho. I don't like that argument because it supposes the victims were deprived of all reasonable counter-attack options. In this case, the more important revelation is the poor mindset revealed by the reactions of the students and staff. Guns were not the only solution to Cho.

Alternatively, others will blame the school's security measures, but short of a zero tolerance 24/7 lock-down of the university in perpetuity, there will always be gaps of time, distance and information hindering campus security reaction. A university ought to have freedom, but we also need to account for the risks of freedom. Rather than give up too much freedom for the sake of security, students and staff should take on personal responsibility for freedom's risks by also becoming guardians (or "sheepdogs" - see below). The first line of defense is the people on the scene, and they can be effective only if they are equipped with the proper mindset to react aggressively, quickly, and collectively to fight back and eliminate a threat in the moment and on the spot. The assumption of helplessness was their death warrant.

Emphasis: Even without their own guns, the victims were not helpless. They had relative advantages over Cho (e.g., confined spaces, vastly outnumbering the lone gunman, and in the later rooms, forewarning) they could have used to fight back, but they didn't use them. Instead, in the critical moment, they opted to hide and/or flee, thus allowing Cho the time and space he needed to cause more deaths and wounds than were necessary.

In conclusion, we should not blame the Va Tech victims, but we should all learn from their mistakes. I hope a lesson we all take away from the Va Tech shooting is that we are our own first line of defense, and that may be our only line of defense. When it only takes minutes to wreak such incredible damage, police can't respond fast enough. Guns are an inadequate answer that miss the point because they are just tools. Our most effective weapon is our minds. Conversely, when we make the wrong decisions, our minds can hurt us or even help kill us. As such, the most important lesson from Cho Seung Hui and the Virginia Tech massacre of April 16, 2007 is that we must re-orient from our current entitled, zero-defect cultural mentality to a robust cultural mindset that embraces personal responsibility and proactively solves problems, and counter-attacks and eliminates threats.

For a terrific perspective of the mindset I'm talking about, read the enlightening essay "On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs" by Dave Grossman. We need to stop teaching Americans to be sheep. As Grossman describes, we need to become a people of sheepdogs.


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Anonymous Exholt said...

Hey Eric,

Good points. However, the "mistakes" that were made was borne of incessant instructions from authorities for persons confronted with such situations to not resist and to flee at the first opportunity. While some of this has started to change after 9/11, changing mindsets cannot be done quickly when the prior mentality has been drummed in for years, especially in the minds of most current college students. How would they learn the mindset and techniques necessary to be effective in your proposed solution? As you are well aware, most of these students, faculty, and staff with a few exceptions had no training in sizing up such situations and dealing with them accordingly.

Moreover, I an concerned that even with your valid disclaimer that you are not blaming the victims of the VT massacre, your comments may still be interpreted as such by many parents, school administrators, and the college/student community at large. Much of this can be attributed to the fear and hysteria stirred up by the media's need for quick "flashy" soundbites, the increasing public intolerance of anything less than government/ institutionally guarantee of perfect security, and the knee-jerk tendency of institutions and authorities to use reflexive "quick-fixes" rather than attempting to find and address the complexities of the actual problems. Unfortunately, too often unchecked emotional reactions has trumped dispassionate critical analysis in determining the responses of the school authorities, law enforcement, and the public at large.

5/04/2007 3:05 PM  
Blogger Deymond said...

The sad thing is that any attempts to counter this non-reaction mindset are met with claims of insensitivity, without any consideration that human lives could be preserved.

5/22/2007 1:39 AM  

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