On Monday Cho Seung-Hui decided to move on from writing violent revenge fantasies in English class to express his rage more publicly in an orgy of bullets, blood and death. He ended his own life and the lives of 32 others, and earned a place in the record books as one of the most successful mass murderers in history of the United States, passing George Hennard (1991 Killeen Luby's massacre) for the most firearm killings in a single incident.
In the aftermath there has been an awful lot of finger-pointing and blame assigning and suggestions of heavy-handed solutions to the problem which Cho represents. Some immediately blamed America's liberal gun laws, and Sen. Edward Kennedy suggested Congress might play a role in strengthening national gun control. To balance that out, others are blaming a recently passed Virginia law prohibiting concealed carry of firearms on the university campus which meant there were no armed citizens who could have stopped Cho's rampage. Dr. Phil jumped in before 24 hours had passed to blame violent video games. There was plenty of blame for the police for not figuring out what was going on more quickly, and acting to evacuate the campus or stop Cho's second round of shootings. Others placed the blame on the school administration for not planning better for such a crisis. There are even those who blame U.S. immigration policies for letting in too many foreign students. Whatever your pet issue, you can probably find some way to blame the shootings on it.
Whenever there is a tragedy like this the urge to place blame seems to overwhelm all common sense, all sense of proportion and even our awareness of some of the basic facts of life. We want to find someone who is responsible and punish them. We want to find some mistake that was made and correct it. We can't bring the dead back to life. We can't make Cho any deader than he made himself. So we look for something we can do – however ill-considered or meaningless — which will make us feel like we have some control over our environment. We want to think that we can make sure that there will never be another Cho or another massacre like this.
What we don't want at this point less than 48 hours after the events, is to face the simple truth. We don't want to admit that violence is a part of life and that no matter what lengths we go to, no matter what rights we sacrifice, and no matter what draconian policies we impose, we cannot completely control the world and we cannot prevent every possibility of random violence or even the simple threat of a madman going on a rampage.
Every day we live we're playing the odds. And the fact is that when it comes to mass murders, despite recent events, the odds are enormously on our side. Mass murders like this where more than 10 people are killed happen in the United States about once every three years and they've been happening at that frequency for generations. Most of them are not committed with guns. Bombs and arson are the most popular and the most lethal methods, used in seven out of the ten largest mass murders in US history.
We're all gambling with our lives just by going to work or walking down the street. Another Mark Barton could gun us down at our desks. Another David Burke could crash a plane into us on the drive home. Another Julio Gonzales could burn us alive inside our favorite bar. Don't feel safe if you don't live in the United States. In the last 30 years there have been similar mass murders in every major, populous nation. Don't think that stronger gun laws or even a police state are going to protect you. There have been similar killings in Australia, Canada, England, France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Japan, and Italy. And those are just the ones I've heard of and the countries where such killings are considered unusual enough to take note of. All of those countries have stronger gun laws than the United States and yet their home-grown crazies have found ways to kill lots of people when the urge took them.
The good news is that when you gamble your life on the hope that today won't be your date with the next Cho Seung-Hui, you're betting with the odds enormously on your side. In the last century the total number of deaths from mass murders (defined as killings of five or more non-family members) in the United States totals fewer than 500 people (not including the victims of 9/11, which is classed as an act of war or terrorism). During that time more than half a billion people have lived and died in the United States. That means that your chance of dying in a mass murder like the one Monday at Virginia Tech are about 1 in 1.6 million. According to the National Science Council that would be about the same odds as your chances of dying in a streetcar accident (if you can even find a streetcar to die in). The scary flip-side of this is that your chances are about 1 in 84 of dying in a car crash and 1 in 218 of dying in an accidental fall.
Does this mean that you don't drive your car or that you just lie on the ground trembling so that you can't have a fatal fall? I suspect not. If we actually assessed the odds of our daily activities putting us at risk of death, based on the reaction to the Virginia Tech shootings, we'd probably live in such terror that we couldn't even function. Either the media and our society are massively overreacting to what happened in Blacksburg, or we're going to need to go out and buy a hell of a lot of foam rubber and diapers for our new lifestyle.
Sure, everyone should take reasonable precautions in their day to day life. And yes, we can probably identify some problems with how the Cho situation was handled. But take a step back and think for a minute. Is it worth all the panic and witch hunts and casting of blame? Is it worth living in fear? Is it worth sacrificing the freedoms that make life worth living? All just to try (and probably fail) to prevent the occasional random lunatic from killing a few people or even a few dozen people?
The media makes its living off of spreading panic and unease and keeping us riveted to a parade of tragedy. What they do is take the freakish and improbable and splash it across a billion screens and front pages and bring it into our living rooms. That doesn't make it a real threat to anyone but those directly involved. For most of us that kind of tragedy will never be more real than the events in a soap opera or a police drama. The media frenzy over these events is a cynical illusion manufactured to get ratings and sell ad space. Don't get sucked in and lose your perspective.
Every one of the deaths at Virginia Tech is tragic. But it would be even more tragic for us to waste our own lives or sacrifice our freedom or quality of life because we're worried about something so rare and so unlikely to ever happen to us or even anyone we know. Live your life and enjoy every minute of it, because the odds are so heavily on your side that no amount of fear or worry is going to improve them much.