V-Tech Whitewash: Panel Finds V-Tech Response “Very Effective” and “Very Successful”

“I think we know enough about the response to know it was very effective and a very successful response,” said retired state police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, the chairman of the review panel appointed to investigate the Virginia Tech shootings. That was in a May 11 article in the Washington Post called “Va Tech Panel Outlines Agenda.”

“Agenda” is about right. How does 33 dead over a two and half spree on a campus crawling with cops count as “very effective” and “very successful”?

About the same way as V-Tech is now apparently about “breaking down bureaucratic barriers among the courts, the school and the state as it relates to mental health information.”

More federal undermining of privacy laws, in fact. Just what we need from an administration already up to its intrusive eye-balls in domestic surveillance.

Massengill, by the way, is the man who led the Virginia State Police in the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon, and his fellow panel members are Tom Ridge, the first U.S. secretary of homeland security, a top policy maker in state higher education, an administrator of the FBI’s center for the analysis of violent crime and two medical experts.

According to Massengill, the police gave him a timeline that “helped convince him that they responded as quickly as they could after the two people had been shot in West Ambler Johnston Hall.”

Since the timeline is the lynch-pin of the panel’s bizarre conclusion, it warrants more examination than the media has given it so far.

That timeline first entered the public debate on April 26, 2007 in this report from AP: “5 Minute Delay Crucial in Tech Shooting.”

The article reported what is now regarded as the official version of the killings at Virginia Tech on 4/16:

Cho got to Ambler Johnston Hall a bit before 7 am; he killed his first 2 victims with a Glock 9 mm (a fairly ordinary handgun) with two rounds; his second bout of killing (30 people) was at Norris Hall and it took 9 minutes. Police supposedly took 3 minutes to get to Norris and 5 minutes to get into the building, where several entrances had been chained shut from inside.

Witness accounts are often contradictory or mistaken and a crisis, in recollection, can seem to have taken much longer than it actually did, but still, think about what’s supposed to have happened in 9 minutes:

Cho walked up and down the halls (2-3 minutes, at least); he poked his head into a few classrooms a couple of times and left without doing anything; he fired steadily but with pauses in between, methodically breaking through doors that had been barricaded (that should have taken a minute at least), shot, left and returned to at least two classrooms (another minute or so each); stood over and shot students and fired individually at each (a minute?) in at least two classrooms. Although the students were trapped inside, they were barricading doors, running away, throwing themselves over each other, or jumping through windows, so they were moving targets that required him to aim and move too. And reload.

And then he shot himself. His last victim, wounded and on the floor, said he watched the gunman’s legs move to the front of the classroom, then heard a pause, then shots. No one actually saw the suicide, so what happened must remain somewhat tentative.

Why Nine Minutes?

If Cho fired 170 rounds (or 255, in at least one account) in Norris Hall, as reported, he fired almost 18 rounds per minute or a round roughly every 3 seconds. I’m not a marksman, so I don’t know if that’s likely or not. If you also take into account that he was reloading and pausing, he must have been firing an even higher number of rounds per minute than that most of the time. And, if we go by the multiple wounds in each body (3-4), he must have made about 110-120 hits (out of 170 rounds). Even more, if we include the wounded. So far as we know, he was an amateur with, at most, a few weeks of practice. I am not sure if that scenario is plausible or not. And again, I’m not trying to refute the timeline so much as evaluating it. But I do wonder how officials can be so sure of it. And why.

This was a time line posted on Wiki (it’s since been deleted, but you can find it, with the original footnotes, on my blog, which has collected material relevant to the case):

* 9:42 a.m.: Students in the engineering building, Norris Hall, make a 9-1-1 emergency call to alert police that more shots have been fired.

*9:45 a.m.: Police arrived three minutes later and found that Cho had chained all three entrances shut.

* Between 9:30 and 9:50 am: Using the .22 caliber Walther P22 and 9 millimeter Glock 19 handgun with 17 magazines of ammunition, Cho shoots 60 people, killing 30 of them. Cho’s rampage lasts for approximately nine minutes. A student in Room 205 noticed the time remaining in class shortly before the start of the shootings.

* Around 9:40 a.m.: Students in Norris 205, while attending Haiyan Cheng’s issues in scientific computing class, hear Cho’s gunshots. The students, including Zach Petkewicz, barricade the door and prevent Cho’s entry.

* 9:50 a.m.: After arriving at Norris Hall, police took 5 minutes to assemble the proper team, clear the area and then break through the doors. They use a shotgun to break through the chained entry doors. Investigators believe that the shotgun blast alerted the gunman to the arrival of the police. The police hear gunshots as they enter the building. They follow the sounds to the second floor.

* 9:51 a.m.: As the police reached the second floor, the gunshots stopped. Cho’s shooting spree in Norris Hall lasted 9 minutes. Police officers discovered that after his second round of shooting the occupants of room 211 Norris, the gunman fatally shot himself in the temple.

From this Wiki account (which is quite conservative and can be verified from other published time-lines), the shooting really could have taken place any time between at least 9:30 and 9:50 — a space of 20, not 9 minutes.

But even on its own terms, the official time line seems a little odd. If students heard gun shots (which could only have been at the very latest at 9:40), and if police reached the second floor at 9:51, that still makes 11 minutes, not 9.

Why, you might ask, am I quibbling about a few minutes? After all, no one could really have been sure of anything in all the confusion. True. But that’s all the more reason why insisting on those 9 minutes seems peculiar. Especially since we also have at least one account that the police got there later than this account suggests.

Confusion again? What about the video footage and reports
of the police hiding around the building? Or coming out of nowhere (BBC, April 17)? That doesn’t square with the official story saying they rushed straight from that 9-1-1 call to Norris. More confusion? Possibly. But each additional contradiction becomes that much less plausible as simple error.

But the insistence on 9 minutes does make sense if you think about the bigger picture.

If the gunman only took 9 minutes, then the onus on the police to explain their behavior becomes much less. It’s then no longer a question of what they were doing for the half hour or so in which Cho was rampaging through Norris Hall (not to mention the two hours before) but only what made them delay after they got to Norris at 9:45 (3 minutes after the call).

And that’s simple; the doors were chained shut. Ergo, they had to wait 5 minutes, while — by this reckoning — Cho finished off his 9 minute spree.

That this is the significance of having a 9 minute time line is pretty clear, since the police officers quoted in the article direct their criticism specifically at the 5 minute delay. The critics say it was those few minutes that most significantly increased the number of victims. Meanwhile, for some reason, they’re silent about what the police were doing for the two hours before.

Bringing in the Military

Then, tacked on to the criticism of the 5 minute delay is a discussion (for the first time in the media) of what is known as the “active shooter” paradigm in police operations. The critics say the 5 minute delay wouldn’t have happened if V-Tech had been treated from the start as an “active shooter” situation.

What is an “active shooter” situation? It’s a sniper or shooter crisis where swifter and more aggressive police tactics are required, because the perp is careless about his own life and, therefore, more likely to take as many down with him as he can. Those aggressive tactics, called “Immediate Action Rapid Deployment,” were developed in the nineties, but really came into prominence only after the Columbine school shootings in 1999. But they still aren’t operational everywhere, supposedly because of lack of funds and training.

But notice that “active shooter” is being referenced in the 4/26 article only in terms of the 5 minute delay. Why? Maybe because it’s a strategy with several advantages:

1. It lets the police take some blame, but not so much that the massacre looks like a case of negligence. That’s a move that makes it possible to take the focus off police failure and put it on policy changes requiring more laws, more force, and ultimately more federalization

2. It dampens public outrage at the individuals who really are culpable. A 5 minute delay simply isn’t going to work anyone up the way a 2 hour delay would.

3. It lets officials introduce the “Immediate Action Rapid Deployment” (IARD) paradigm into campus policing without undercutting the decisions taken by the administration or the police.

Now, IARD is a distinct step in militarizing police response and is very much a part of the trend to systematically erase the boundaries between wartime military actions and domestic policing. Domestic crises are more and more described and tackled in military terms, just as foreign military actions are being palmed off as policing operations.

Which is why the article goes on, ”This is a seminal moment for law enforcement as far as I’m concerned because it proves that minutes are critical”

Yes, it’s seminal. V-Tech is going to help put military responses squarely on campus.

What I’m suggesting is that the more officials can take the blame off V-Tech, the more they can push for additional federal policies and laws.

So, if my thesis holds good, officials should also be taking that 2 hour gap between Ambler Johnston and Norris off the table as fast as possible, because that’s where the administration’s culpability is most obvious. Are they?

Indeed they are. In the AP account, the V-Tech review panel states flatly that shutting down the campus couldn’t possibly have done any good because the shooter could always have gone back into his dorm and shot the 900 or so people who lived there. I quote,

On Thursday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said that the massacre may not have been averted if the Virginia Tech campus had been locked down after the two shooting deaths at the dorm. ‘’Well, if the campus had been locked down — because the shooter lived on campus — I mean he could have gone into his dorm with 900 people instead of going into a classroom (and) he could have shot people there,’ Kaine said in his monthly listener-question program on WRVA-AM and the Virginia News Network.

Well, surely this is a straw-man. Locking down the campus was not the only option. V-Tech could also have made an announcement on its PA system for students to lock themselves into their rooms or stay off campus. A siren could have gone off to alert people, instead of an email notice. Police could have been rushed in to guard buildings (they should have been doing that anyway, since there had been a couple of bomb threats in the weeks preceding). How did they manage to shut down the campus so efficiently in August 2006, when survivalist and killer, William Morva, was on the loose?

Kaine’s tendentious announcement also overlooks another bunch of really serious failures on the part of V-Tech. How was it that on a campus where the student population had been disarmed by policy, there were no monitoring cameras nor armed security guards near the dorms, who could have stopped the shooter in the first place? Even measly little schools have them; why not this lush, plush campus with its own golf course, power station and airport and what the BBC calls “meticulously manicured” lawns?

How could V- Tech promise its students that the campus was gun-free, if they had no metal detectors or security checks to ensure it? How did Cho leave campus to post his video and re-enter loaded with ammo and guns and not set some detector or alarm off? How could he have even entered a dorm without a security card in the first place? And why were students entering and leaving Ambler Johnston until 10 AM (according to student reports) after the shooting at 7:15?

Is none of that worth noting? Would a little vigilance in any of those things not have helped at all? Does it really just boil down to those 5 minutes?.

Or is the media trying to frame what’s at stake? Seems like it, especially if we look at what else is going on.

Framing A Story

Quite early on, Time magazine had an opinion piece, “(Va. Tech’s President Should Resign,” John Cloud, 4/19) which — with little serious argument — explicitly directed the public’s attention away from the delay between the two shootings and toward the danger signals Cho was sending up for two year before the shootings.

Now, those two years are problematic, of course. But the useful thing about focusing on the two years is that the failure to follow up on Cho’s problematic behavior — unlike the two hour delay — can always be blamed on policies.

And in fact, people are doing just that. In time, we’ll find they’ve reached the conclusion that, mirabile dictu, none of this was V-Tech’s fault at all. It was the fault of laws, policies, programs, etc. etc…

Notice, for instance, this 4/25 report from MSNBC describing students standing firmly behind the V-Tech president and administration. It makes a striking contrast with earlier reports in which students repeatedly and loudly criticized the administration.

Looks a bit as if this show of student confidence developed later. But who’s pushing for the vote of confidence for the people at the top? Let’s see.

“Johnson plans to present the university Board of Visitors on Thursday with an online petition with thousands of signatures of support for Steger and Flinchum. Steger also received an endorsement from the governor.

“Charlie has been acting as a very, very good president,” Gov. Tim Kaine said. “This kind of event could happen anywhere on any campus, and there has been an innocence taken away from the students. But the positive values, and academic tradition of this university will help the community stay strong, and keep this university attracting students.”

I’ve written about this kind of media framing before. First, the media sensationalizes. This is the pulp drama of personal narratives, human interest stories, emotion, drama, color, personalities… Then, when we get to the heart of the matter, the focus quickly shies away to broad questions of law and policy. No one’s ever at fault now. It’s always a failure to communicate, bad laws, not enough funding — anything that lets the bosses off the hook.

That was the MO of the media during the torture debate. Questions about what actually happened were quickly framed out and the debate focused on creating better policies rather than on punishing the people who created the bad ones. It was ultimately only the alternative press which pushed the discussion back to where it belonged.

At V-Tech too, the mainstream public debate has been relentlessly about more federal laws of all kinds — more gun control… or federalizing the mental health data base… or militarizing security… or imposing speech codes.

Which fits in perfectly with where this government wants to go, as a recent piece by James Bovard, “Working for the Clampdown,” in The American Conservative Magazine (April 27, 2007) indicates. Bovard describes how the Defense Authorization Act of September 30, 2006 makes it easy for the president to impose martial law in the event of what he calls public disorder, which might just be something like an antiwar protest on campus (not for nothing was it the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that held a hearing on college campus security on 4/23 and on 4/26).

Meanwhile, Congressman Ron Paul’s Texas newsletter, “Straight Talk,” describes the dangers of an impending and unconstitutional ‘hate crimes’ bill (HR 1592) that has every potential to create a category of “thought crimes.”

With that in mind, you begin to see that despite the overwhelming focus on them, V- Tech is fundamentally not about these things:

It’s Not About More Gun Laws. The gun control argument runs: Were guns not growing on Virginian trees, this would never have happened. We need new laws: No guns for nut jobs.

But the trouble with this line of reasoning is that Virginia Tech is already a gun-free zone. Theoretically at least. The university beat back an attempt in just 2006 by the state of Virginia to allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus. Virginia’s gun laws already do prohibit deranged people from purchasing firearms. When Cho bought his two handguns, he was already committing a felony.

It’s Not About More Mental Health Reporting

OK, you ask, then how come Cho’s record of derangement didn’t stop him from buying two guns?

Well, that’s because he had no record. Forget the Feds. He didn’t have one with the state. No one gave him one.

But doesn’t that make the case for more laws regulating the mentally deranged? Not really. The real problem was that the laws already in place weren’t followed.

First, let’s be precise here; no psychiatrist ever saw Cho. A licensed social worker recommended sending him to a treatment facility (and got a special judge to do it), and then a PhD psychologist reckoned he was a threat only to himself (and had the same special judge release him) — all in about 24 hours flat. Some evaluation. It was not only shoddy on its face but in flat violation of state law, which requires an MD to do the job. (“Cho Seung Hui’s Commitment Papers,” Bonnie Goldstein, Slate, April 24, 2007). That’s strike two just there.

And now, strike three. Although Cho was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment, it turns out that no one kept track of whether he did or didn’t. Or kept records of any kind, apparently, all of which is a violation of existing state law.

More details have emerged about what happened at the three state institutions through which Cho passed (“Cho Didn’t Get Court-Ordered Treatment,” Brigid Schulte and Chris L. Jenkins, Washington Post, May 7, 2007).

These were V. Tech’s Cook Counseling Center, Blacksburg’s New River Valley community services board, and nearby Christiansburg’s Carilion St. Alban’s Clinic, which is where Cho ended up staying overnight. Each now says it had no reason, jurisdiction, or wherewithal to follow up. They all saw no evil, heard no evil… and did nothing at all.

Says Mike Wade, the Blacksburg board’s community liaison, “Since we weren’t named the provider of that outpatient treatment, we weren’t involved in the case.”

Says Terry Teel, Cho’s court appointed lawyer, of the court’s role in overseeing the treatment, “We have no authority.”

Says Christopher Flynn, director of V-Tech’s Cook Counseling center, “I’ve never seen someone delivered to me with an order that says, ‘This person has been discharged; he’s now your responsibility.’ That doesn’t happen.”

Really? What’s on paper contradicts all of them.

Re Virginia Tech, there are VA state guidelines with which state universities have to comply (Act H 3064 approved by the Governor on March 21, 2007, not even a month before V Tech):

The governing boards of each public institution of higher education shall develop and implement policies that advise students, faculty, and staff, including residence hall staff, of the proper procedures for identifying and addressing the needs of students exhibiting suicidal tendencies or behavior… Nothing in this section shall preclude any public institution of higher education from establishing policies and procedures for appropriately dealing with students who are a danger to themselves, or to others, and whose behavior is disruptive to the academic community.

Re New River: Virginia state law says that community service boards “shall recommend a specific course of treatment and programs” for people such as Cho who are ordered to receive outpatient treatment. The law also says these boards “shall monitor the person’s compliance.” (Wade claims that’s “news to him.”)

Re St. Alban’s, Virginia law says that if a dangerously mentally ill person ordered into treatment doesn’t go, he can be brought back before the special judge, and if necessary, in a crisis, be committed to a psychiatric institution for up to 6 months.

Let’s put it this way: If Virginia state guidelines for universities had been followed, Cho’s history would have been on record and campus police would have had an eye on him already. And if he had been properly evaluated and monitored according to state mental health requirements, he would have been labeled a danger to society and the state police would have stopped him buying a gun.

So tell me, why do we need more laws when people aren’t following the ones already on the books?

It’s Not About More Funding

Was it because there weren’t enough funds, as some argue? Community service boards apparently handled 115,000 mentally ill people in Virginia in 2005 at a cost of $127 million. That works out — very roughly — to about a thousand bucks per person. I don’t know if that’s shabby or not. But it doesn’t really seem relevant here. What could it have possibly cost in additional time or money to call up and find out if Cho had gone into treatment? Ten minutes and the cost of a local phone call.

The whole business is that amazing. No one seems to have known anything or done much of anything. No one seems to have followed up or even thought they had to. For instance, reports say the Cho’s family didn’t seek treatment for him because they didn’t have enough money, yet the family lives in an affluent Virginia neighborhood, sent their children to elite private schools, and gave Cho enough spare change for videos, a car, a cell phone, an escort service (at least once), firearms, an ungodly amount of ammo and training at a firing range.

Isn’t it much more likely that if Cho’s family didn’t get help for him, it was because of the stigma attached to mental illness, which is much greater among Asian families? And would more money really have made that better?

Let states spend as much as they want on community mental health. But don’t tell me Virginia Tech happened because of lack of money.

It’s Not About More Federal Data Bases

Some argue that reporting to the Feds has to be tightened because under federal law, Cho’s voluntary confinement would have automatically prevented him from buying a gun. (Richard Bonnie, chairman of the Virginia Supreme Court’s Commission on Mental Health Law Reform).

Well, in the first place, as we’ve seen, if he’d been properly evaluated, state laws themselves would have stopped Cho. If people don’t comply with state laws, why are they any more likely to comply with federal laws?

According to the FBI, Virginia is already the leading state in reporting mental health dis-qualifications to the Feds. But, the problems is that Virginia state law is a tad different from the federal law. It lists only two categories that would warrant notifying the state police — “involuntary commitment” or a ruling of “mental “incapacitation” — neither of which applied to Cho, who was confined “voluntarily” and wasn’t ruled incapacitated.

Immediately after V-Tech, Governor Tim Kaine (a Democrat) eliminated this distinction. He also said he thought V-Tech would help push through legislation he supports that would also subject firearms sales at gun shows to instant background checks (legislation introduced annually in Virginia that dies before a floor vote in the General Assembly).

(Interestingly, a move to expand Virginia’s mental health laws was already in the works in October 2006. It’s goal was to “modify the criteria for placing people in emergency care by eliminating a requirement that they pose an “imminent” danger to themselves or others,” precisely what’s now being demanded as a result of the V-Tech shootings).

But will making every state law automatically comply with federal law on this make things better or worse? I’m not sure. If people know that their mental health evaluations automatically go into a federal data base, will that make them even more reluctant to seek help they might need? Is it a provision that might be misused by vengeful spouses? And what if, in the present political climate, expression of certain beliefs — say, conspiracy theories about the government — were classified as signs of mental derangement? And suppose you could be forced into psychiatric evaluation for that? What if the hate crimes bill on the table now makes even thinking or speaking a certain way a sign not only of derangement but of criminal intent toward society. I’m afraid that the unintended bad of more federalization might come to outweigh the hoped-for good of standardization.

In any case, to my mind, the real problem lies with the special justice who released Cho and then decided he had to attend outpatient, not inpatient, treatment. Whether Cho was sent to V-Tech’s Cook Center or not (Cook’s not returning calls), mental health advocates and state officials call it pretty unusual to order outpatient treatment for someone labeled a imminent danger to himself. Usually, it’s an inpatient order, says Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. And, a 1994 survey of special justices found that outpatient treatment was ordered in just 8 percent of the commitment hearings, among other things, because they’re hard to monitor (Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission).

In short, measured just by current laws and care standards, Cho’s evaluation seems to have been shoddy and the special justice’s remedy poorly conceived.

And I don’t see why more laws would change that.

In fact, part of the problem looks like too much regulatory apparatus and too many state bodies with orbits designed to mesh that ended up clashing, on one hand, and too little common sense and care, on the other.

The three agencies involved at V-Tech shared responsibility like the three crones in the myth shared one eye — they fumbled so much as they passed it around that they dropped it.

In short, what we have here is a full-throttle display of the Diminishing Utility of More Bureaucrats and Laws (DUMBEL), whereby what was everyone’s responsibility became no one’s job.

Meanwhile, the policies that should be discussed are not.

We still have no account of what medication Cho was taking, although his room mates have told us they saw him taking a pill regularly in the mornings.

And we have even less discussion about a matter of crucial importance now:

How to hold the state accountable for laws it expects us to follow but doesn’t follow itself.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Lawyer Says Virginia Tech’s Immunity to Lawsuits Over Shooting Is Not Absolute,” April 24) describes the potential for litigation at V-Tech and quotes lawyers who suggest that the university showed ‘gross negligence.’ But of course, the panel’s swift and well publicized exoneration easily trumps that in the public debate.

Meanwhile, the media, which rushed to shove microphones and cameras in the faces of grieving friends and family, hasn’t shown much interest in reporting on what victims are up against if they do try to press their claims: The doctrine of sovereign immunity.

A relic of common law, it’s designed to protect a state university like Virginia Tech from litigation by the public. States have relaxed the doctrine to allow state hospitals, for example, to be sued for malpractice; still, any plaintiff at V-Tech, I am reliably told, would have to establish a case of gross negligence and would have only 6 months to press claims. That means any stalling by the university helps it avert a lawsuit by reducing the amount of time victims have to collect information and prepare a case. It’s very likely that the victims don’t even know about the doctrine.

And, by the way, the doctrine of sovereign immunity holds that a state can do no wrong because the state creates the law and thus cannot be subject to it. On that count at least, it looks like the State of Virginia is already perfectly in synch with the Federal government these days.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance journalist and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005) and Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (with Bill Bonner-Wiley, September 2007). She has also contributed chapters to One of the Guys (Ed., Tara McKelvey and Barbara Ehrenreich, Seal Press, 2007), an anthology of writing on women as torturers, and to The Third World: Opposing Viewpoints (Ed., David Haugen, Greenhaven, 2006). Read other articles by Lila, or visit Lila's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Les said on May 14th, 2007 at 7:18am #

    The most important change that could come out of the massacre in addition to strict restrictions on gun purchasing could be an awareness that older men fathering babies creates sometimes genetic defects so horrendous that a monster is created. Someone who suffers and in this cases inflicts that suffering on many other people. We need to wake up to the fact that older men fathering babies is a not good and genetic illnesses in the offspring of all kinds results. Cryobanking sperm should be done by all healthy men in their mid 20s to 30 for later fathering of babies. Seung-hui Cho was abnormal and we are not aware of the male biological clock and its connection to non-familila autism and schizophrenia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancers, etc.

  2. Alison Hymes said on May 15th, 2007 at 10:57am #

    Very good article. It’s distressing however to see the eugenics argument raised in response to the shootings yet again. Let’s see, one person who may or may not have had schizophrenia which may or may not have had anything to do with what he did, who may in fact have been autistic or narcissistic, and some folks want to prevent anyone from being born who might have schizophrenia ever again. So we lose John Nash and countless other geniuses who have added to the world’s knowledge, we go back to Virginia’s dark ages which only ended in the 1970’s when the last person labeled menally defective was involuntarily sterilized, and we pour hatred onto a group of folks that is already struggling to survive the prejudice against people with mental illness in our country. What a great idea!