As the Virginia Tech horror unfolded yesterday, I think all parents everywhere felt its poignancy-- the ones stressing out about their children’s college applications, the ones watching fetal heartbeats on sonograms, the ones changing diapers, the ones exasperated at 2-year-old tantrums, the ones in hospitals waiting for MRI and biopsy results, and the ones who have to wonder where their sons and daughters have wandered-- when they will come home, who might hurt or mislead them, praying always that their underformed judgment might not take them into a dangerous zone, and that the simple luck of the draw will be on their side.
Two points. One, the right to bear firearms in this country has become a huge liability. Each of us has the human ability and justification to defend ourselves against danger or threat, but with a fully mobilized law enforcement system not to mention a military in place, the usefulness of this ‘freedom’ has once again proven itself lethal. I cannot fathom that a large percentage of those who question a woman’s personal right of decision to bear a child insist that they maintain the right to bear a weapon whose only purpose I can see is to kill another’s.
Some strange parallel here with last week’s posterboy/antihero Imus who abused a constitutional freedom to insult and slander over our ‘free’ airwaves...
This week a depressed and deranged individual used his constitutional right to take the for-the-most-part young lives of 32 individuals who were involved in a humanitarian pursuit of knowledge.
So the system failed twice. The ability to purchase a firearm should have been restricted if not prohibited. Why should a university conform to the gun laws of its own state? A university is an institution of learning, a body in and of itself. These students are from everywhere. They don't vote in that state. They believe what they believe. There is no time in a young person's life like university. They are free-- unburdened-- thirsty to learn, to explore-- becoming. It is their intellectual cocoon.The first pledged allegiance, as we found the hard way, should have been to the nurturing and protection of its students. Of course, neither the University nor the state of Virginia had the right to restrict the freedom of this misled individual who has now changed our history books.
Second point: One always gets nervous when one hears the suffix ‘est’. While the Boston marathoners were running to determine The Fastest, at Virginia tech someone won achieved the designation ‘Deadliest’. In a free society like ours, this becomes a Ripley’s entry. Like a dare. And for every single statistic in our record books, there is at least one individual out there intent on bettering that number. Just several weeks ago a student killed his girlfriend and her best friend because the friend cautioned against the relationship. There was the school killing in Pennsylvania. Columbine has been near-fictionalized.
I can’t help thinking my own kids are processing television coverage of this incident a bit like a film, because it is hard for them to distinguish the real from fiction. My 17-year-old wraps his brain around '24' but cannot quite understand the reality of terorism in this world. The 23 year-old Virginia Tech gunman somehow crossed a border from reality to some nightmarish fantasy, to the actual execution of this mass murder. And of course the simple use of a semi-automatic weapon made this easier-- closer to child’s play.
I know my own kids, in order to play on a sports team, have to pass some medical tests. To make sure that they are able to withstand physically the stress of athletic challenge—to protect them. But what about some mental stress test? Has anyone thought of this? And has anyone considered the effects of these anti-depressants and other drugs which are dispensed a bit like candy to applicants showing need. And need, as often as not, is simply their word against anyone's.
One of my kids had some trouble in the 7th grade. Minor bad-boy incidents. But the school didn’t like it. Maybe he is depressed, they suggested, when they called me in for counseling. Well, maybe I am, says my 13-year-old. So what? So we were led down the road of that year’s model anti-depressant called Effexor which led us 3 months later to the Emergency room where he was admitted and forced to detox in an adolescent psych facility where, coincidence of coincidences, 14 of 16 inpatients, most of them with the same Medicaid-type insurance as we have, had also been prescribed this new drug. One of them was even from my son’s class, He’d been picked up waiting to jump into the autumn waters of the East River. Something had gone amiss.
After 3 weeks and tons of red tape to get my child released, they couldn’t quite make a diagnosis. At this point the papers were full of horror stories about Effexor and its use among teens. That it caused hallucinations, nightmares, states of extreme agitation and anxiety, extremely high blood pressure and the symptoms of rapid heartbeat and asthma which brought us to the Emergency room. Rage. Tantrums. Suicides. It had been banned in the UK.
So we were free. With follow-up treatment. Next clinic appointment, without even looking at my boy, the Psych prescribes. For what, I ask? Well, he gets either anti-depressants or hospitalization. Those were my choices. Medicaid, second-rung style psychiatric treatment. All those poor kids in the hospital. A few had completely dysfunctional families. Caught in the system, their parents fed them whatever pills were dispensed. The streams of diagnoses: ADHD, ODD, Conduct Disorder, bi-polarity, etc. So I went down in their medical records as being an uncooperative, maybe incompetent parent who refused to follow psychiatric recommendations. But my kid was clean. He went back to school and misbehaved a little. By 15 he grew out of it. I often wonder about those other kids in the psych-ward. A few of them were already repeat-patients. Caught in the loop.
I’m not on the side of mass murderers, but I am sympathetic to mental illness. When it is undiagnosed or misdiagnosed or mistreated, it is not only contagious but deadly. It needs, like meningitis or measles, to be quarantined. Our kids need to be protected, sometimes from themselves. Somehow this one fell through the cracks. And our Republican government made sure that instead of proper mental healthcare, he received his right to purchase a weapon and inflict his rage on innocent victims, on the tragically aborted young lives whose mothers’ grief I can scarcely imagine. And for their friends and students everywhere, another End of the Innocence. Another reminder that even our Ivory towers are not only not immune but vulnerable. Innocence is always vulnerable. Freedom is vulnerable.
A tragedy of this magnitude does not easily translate into lessons learned. That will come a bit later. For now we have not just 32 or 33 but thousands of holes in Blacksburg, Virginia, and millions more in our hearts. At least some of the bulletholes in our future can be prevented.