What led to the horror that happened at Virginia Tech? Was there anything more than insanity driving the young man to murder of such magnitude? I feel so deeply sorry for all the students, staff, and family. Knowing that my friends, colleagues, and former students there are OK today is a relief, but doesn't lessen the horror.
I admit that, after the initial shock of hearing the news, I wasn't surprised that an engineering building was involved, but I had to revise my hasty conclusions once I heard that the murderer was an English major and an undergraduate. News reports now describe the young man as a "loner", which was perhaps inevitable. I hope that there will not be negative reactions to male Asian students as a result of this incident.
Many of my colleagues, and myself as well, have received threats of death and injury over the years. The response of my department has been to fire the angry student or postdoc or staff member, and I don't know of any cases when the police have been alerted. In one case involving me, I wanted to call the police, but my department chair talked me out of it, saying it could be seen as 'harrassment' of a mentally unstable person. I don't know if academia is more stressful than working in a bank or factory (or post office), but the collision of stress, anger, socially inept people, and the academic power structure creates many opportunities for tragedy. Add to that the easy availability of serious weapons..
There are so many situations in which students are angry about their grades, their personal lives, their futures -- how do you know when it is 'normal' anger that won't lead to anything and when it is something that imperils people's lives?
At the start of every school year, instructors at my university get information from the university counseling service about what to do when an undergraduate student is having emotional problems, and what resources to recommend to the student. I've never made use of this information, not knowing when is the right time or situation in which to bring it up. I certainly wouldn't recommend counseling for a student I perceived to be a 'loner' if I had no other information. But then you wonder whether anything could be done to stop these horrific explosions of anger and insanity -- and if so, who could have stopped it, and how and when? I ask that in the context of knowing that nothing is going to happen anytime soon to makes guns less available in America.
11 months ago