BLACKSBURG, Va. — The student slouched into his chair, his face wrapped in sunglasses, the brim of his baseball cap pulled down so low his eyes were almost lost. The Virginia Tech professor who took a seat across from him did so because there didn’t really seem to be any other option.
But in three hour-long talks that began that October day, Lucinda Roy tentatively edged away from the lesson plan for her class of one, drawing the darkly troubled student, Seung Hui Cho, into a conversation about the human need for friendship and the pain of being trapped inside oneself.
Looking back, it may have been the closest anyone ever came to reaching him before he metamorphosed into the gunman responsible for the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
It is only now that Roy asks herself: What if ...? She has wrestled with that question endlessly in the past few days.
The story of the Virginia Tech massacre is a labyrinth of what-ifs. Many of them come with explanations any reasonable person would understand. There’s just one problem with such explanations: They do nothing to explain the horror of the most unspeakable acts.
There were signs, so many signs.
Or so it appears in hindsight.
There was an opportunity when two female students called university police. They were being hounded, they complained — there were repeated phone calls, instant messages, notes.
Then, in December 2005, Cho’s suitemate called police to say that Cho seemed suicidal.
Officers went to speak with Cho. He was referred to the local mental health center and then sent to a psychiatric care hospital.
A day or two later, he was released and returned to campus. Virginia Tech officials say his care was out of their hands, and they could not know that he needed more help.
And what could they have done? When George Washington University and New York’s Hunter College expelled students who appeared suicidal, the students sued.
What about the mental health providers beyond campus who dealt directly with Cho? Couldn’t they have done something?
Not unless Cho shared his morbid fantasies, and people like Cho almost never do, says Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychologist who has profiled mass murderers.
What if university police had pursued a case against him?
But that would have required the two female students to press stalking charges against Cho. And after speaking with Virginia Tech officers, the two women decided against it, police say.
Other female students said last week that they would almost certainly have made the same decision. Unusual behavior is not unusual on campus. No one wants to make trouble for others.
What if firearms laws had been tougher?
After Cho was evaluated at a psychiatric hospital in late 2005, a judge found that the student “presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.” That should have disqualified him from purchasing a gun under federal law, experts say.
But Virginia court officials insist that because the judge ordered only outpatient treatment — and did not commit Cho to a psychiatric hospital — they were not required to submit the information to be entered in the federal databases for background checks.
What if the university police and administration had taken more decisive action at any number of junctures?
The problem with Virginia Tech’s policing — and with most other college’s approach to security — is mind-set, says S. Daniel Carter of Security on Campus Inc.
On a campus, everyone is a big family. As a result, “the tendency is to overlook or downplay potential problems,” Carter says. “They don’t want to think that their campus community members — their students — could be that dangerous.”
Administrators and police did not decide to lock down the campus and notify students of the violence taking place around them until the shootings that left 31 more students, including Cho, dead in Norris Hall. What if they’d acted sooner?
It is the last in a heart-rending series of what-ifs. Together, they matter because we need to understand. Because to know what, if anything, could have been done differently is the only means we have for squeezing a drop of reason, comfort or understanding from utter senselessness.