The unspeakable tragedy at Virginia Tech is not a public policy problem but something that greatly transcends it. Monday’s carnage might possibly have been limited through a number of policy options: greater controls on the sale of semi-automatic weapons; better mental health laws that can help force obviously ill adults like the murderer — whose own writings foreshadowed the attacks — into counseling and therapy, even against their will; and improved methods of instantaneous emergency communication that in Blacksburg, as on 9/11, could well have saved many.
The real problem is deeper. We live in a vibrant civil society, in which individuals take their responsibilities to each other seriously. We also live in a schizophrenic age: a church-going era, but one of electronic fantasy, of individualized entertainment that encourages atomization from our immediate social environment.
When, at times, our culture glorifies gratuitous and consequence-free violence through horror movies, Internet sites, and video and computer games, the impact on marginal personalities, like the murderer, can be deadly. That the mix of fantasy, narcissism, social frustration, mental illness and access to semi-automatic weapons does not lead to even more frequent acts of horrific violence is itself astonishing.
In short, the problem goes well beyond Washington — to New York and Hollywood, but also to every home in America. Parents have a responsibility to be watchful of their own children, to be honest about their children’s pastimes and their mental states.