Heeding lessons from Virginia massacre


The hurt of a tragic school shooting at Red Lake two years ago still burns, when suddenly our collective attention turns to Virginia Tech, where a mad gunman ripped away the lives of 32 people before killing himself on April 16.

It catches us off-guard every time, and leaves us, always, shaking our heads in stunned disbelief.

Now - and again - we can only ask the Creator, ''Why?'' and offer our sincerest condolences to those grieving hearts and spirits affected by the tragedy in Blacksburg.

As details continue to surface from the horror on the Virginia Tech campus, we try to understand what caused another young person to enact such a hateful destruction of life. The massacre is the deadliest shooting in modern American history, a nightmarish collapse of reality that is certain to generate more questions than answers.

By now we know many grim details about the mass murderer, 23-year-old senior English major Cho Seung-Hui, probably much more than we wish to know, for the sake of our own personal and collective well-being: the cross-campus shooting rampage; the mental health problems; the creepy, anti-social behavior; the posthumous narcissism. The real-time witnessing of the monstrosity of a fellow human is thoroughly harrowing for even the most mentally and emotionally stable among us.

This tragedy raises many questions and has provided us some learning opportunities.

How could a student whose mental health problems raised red flag after red flag with authorities stay on their radar for so long without consequence?

As early as November 2005, the would-be killer was questioned by police after reportedly ''annoying'' fellow female students with text messages and phone calls. Although Cho was taken to a mental health facility, no charges were filed. Professors, including the poet Nikki Giovanni, and fellow students voiced concerns over what they called ''macabre'' and ''alarming'' writings by Cho and asked that he be removed from their classroom. It gets worse. The tutor who saw Cho after this had a code word to warn her assistant to notify police ''if she ever felt threatened.'' According to an AP report, classmates half-joked about whether he could be a ''school shooter.''

''We always joked we were just waiting for him to do something, waiting to hear about something he did,'' said a student. ''But when we got the call it was Cho who had done this, I started crying, bawling.''

These warning signs serve to remind us of the sheer torment of hindsight. Those who work in our schools, police departments and health services - especially in Indian country's tight-knit communities - operate between a rock and a hard place, often struggling over concern and confidentiality. It is a discussion that needs light; the Virginia Tech massacre, right now, may as well be the sun.

Are we prepared or equipped to respond to emergencies, especially those involving gathering places of children or elders?

At Red Lake High School and West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster, Penn., the initial response by law enforcement was similar to that of the Virginia Tech police department - relatively slow. Cho killed two students at one end of campus, spent 90 minutes mailing his ''multi-media manifesto'' to NBC at the Blacksburg post office, and then traveled across campus to continue his rampage. Students were not warned by school officials or law enforcement until well after the first burst of violence. They are criticizing officials, saying the second wave of killings may have been avoided had the student body and faculty been warned sooner.

''Nobody has this in the playbook,'' said Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine; ''there's no manual on this.'' By now, there should be one. Each instance of this type of violence energizes like-minded individuals, creating a trail of copycats. Schools and college campuses need to be safer places if we are to entrust them with our children for the better part of their young lives. It is not irrational to feel this way, or to say it out loud before leaders and officials.

The reality throughout Indian country is only a handful of tribes operate emergency preparedness programs, and they rely heavily on near-nonexistent Homeland Security funding. First responders tend to be volunteers with few essential resources, leaving a gap in preparedness we pray is never exploited. Whatever the case, mass shootings - violence that can be perpetrated quickly in public places - need to become part of the playbook for all communities. We must remember that such disasters have come to the doors of Indian peoples before.

When we cannot even begin to satisfy our mind's desire for answers, we instead look toward safeguarding our own lives against such beastly violence. Making sense of tragedy is sometimes softened by doing. As Native nations and community members, we are making sense of tragedy at any given moment in time. We will be able to help protect ourselves in the future if we learn from the lessons put before us today.