There are a lot of people asking this question, and a lot of people offering answers: sociologists, psychologists, preachers, pundits….
So here’s one simple answer: guns.
No, I’m not about to sound off about gun control. And no, I’m not saying that the individual wasn’t to blame, or that his parents aren’t to blame, or that society isn’t to blame, or that God isn’t to blame. All of those are valid sites for analysis and reflection.
Here I want to say something a little different, at least for a theologian, and I need to say so in two parts.
First, we must acknowledge that there is nothing wildly unusual about the Virginia Tech massacre. It’s horrible, of course. But people have been doing horrible, deadly things to other people for quite a long time. And they are doing them now, on a greater scale than this, in Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every other badly troubled spot on the globe.
So to the question, “How could this have happened?” one can respond that it is always happening, and has been happening for millennia. This is what some of us do to each other when we become deeply angry, deeply sad, deeply alienated, and deeply wicked.
Notice that I used that word “deeply.” I did it to show that such people are simply at a further position down the same spectrum of evil upon which I myself am located. I mentally and verbally write off people all the time—while I drive, while I’m reading or watching something I hate, while I’m in a particularly intense argument, or while I’m being threatened. I don’t think I’m especially prone to violence and neither are you. But haven’t each of us thought that, if we could just get away with it, we might just want to murder him or her?
And that brings me to my second main point. The big difference in the world today is technological, not moral. We’re no less deranged and wicked and no more deranged and wicked than people in the past. At least, it’s hard to see how one could make a strong empirical case one way or the other.
What is different now, however, is what guns bring to a situation. In fact, guns bring at least three things to such a scene as Virginia Tech.
Guns provide grossly disproportionate power to an individual, and especially guns today. Compared with, say, muskets, contemporary weapons have several crucial qualities that in combination make them fearsome indeed. They are relatively cheap, relatively accessible, relatively plentiful, relatively simple to operate, and terribly dangerous. Even handguns can have clips of a dozen bullets or more and speed loaders or multiple clips make them wildly lethal. Move up to a shotgun or machine gun and the power they wield becomes simply nightmarish.
So a modern gun is easy to get and easy to use, and it makes a solitary individual proportionately vastly more lethal than previous personal weaponry could.
A gun also, secondly, makes him virtually invulnerable. Everyone else on campus is unarmed—of course. A state university is the definition of an open, free, safe society, and Virginia Tech itself was a “gun-free zone”—even licensed handgun owners could not carry weapons. So one individual with a gun is much more dangerous than his “oneness” would have been in societies in which the most potent weapons were, say, bows or swords. You can rush an archer and you can fend off a swordsman with whatever is at hand. But there’s not much anyone can do against bullets, especially armor-piercing or other special slugs against which there is little defense.
A gun, thirdly, provides an easy way out. The gunman, having spent his anger, can turn the gun on himself and blow his brains out in an instant.
This is an important consideration. Anyone considering going on a rampage in the past faced the question of what to do once the killing was done. Escape, sure: but one would be on the run, perhaps forever. And if you were caught, society would exact a terrible price.
Suicide was the alternative. But every previous means of quick suicide meant suffering. Falling on your sword meant excruciating pain; hanging yourself ineptly resulted in slow strangulation; jumping off a height meant perhaps not dying quickly, or not dying at all—each of these were pretty awful to contemplate. But one quick jerk of the trigger and…the hope of everlasting sleep. Not much of a deterrent.
As a theologian, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the problem of evil in terms of God’s providence, our free will, and the like. I’ve even written about it. All of those questions remain and they deserve the best answers we can give them.
In the shadow of the Virginia Tech massacre, however, we might pause to consider that there is something new under the sun, a technology that makes this sort of terror not just possible, but likely.
And yet what this new technology does is magnify what has been there all along: the age-old evil in humanity—in all of us.
So yes, we should spend more, and better, on mental health facilities. Yes, we should help campus ministries and churches reach more lonely youth. Yes, we should aid parents struggling to raise troubled children. And, yes, we should rethink gun control laws.
But no matter what we do about the place of guns, especially in American society, we must brace ourselves for more of the same. Whatever was wrong with Mr. Cho is not going to be solved merely by policies and police.