No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.John Donne, Meditation XVII
And who by brave assent, who by accident,Leonard Cohen,"Who By Fire"
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?
It's a terrible thing that every once in a while, a human mind snaps so violently that they take out others in their passing form this world. Shootings such as those at Virginia Tech yesterday, which claimed 33 lives, provoke deep reflection from those who hear about it. We all want to know what could make a person so down on humanity, so destitute that they would deliberately try to do it as much raw damage as possible.
However, people who decide to run on shooting sprees and then kill themselves are exceedingly rare. Only a tiny fraction of people do one-person massacres; it is usually institutions like governments which do the majority of the killing (see below). Mental breakdowns of different magnitudes might follow the same sort of power law as earthquakes, and perhaps there are some analogous reasons; releasing small amounts of tension in such actions as swearing being much more frequent than going on a shooting spree.
Obligatory Dig at Institutionalized Violence
It's interesting to compare the Virginia Tech massacre to the situation in Iraq in terms of raw mortality. It is tempting to visit sites like "Iraq Body Count" to get raw data. However, Iraq Body Count lists only confirmed dead registered with western-style authorities, and its upper limit on civilian casualties is 67 703 as of today. I'm not sure what their motives are, "never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity," but a Lancet article shows they're off by an order of magnitude.
On October 11, 2006, this article in the Lancet took a different approach: they did a cross-sectional study of 50 clusters in Iraq chosen at random. They essentially asked "who was alive before the invasion" and "who had since died due to the war", and then extrapolated to get an estimate of the true number of Iraqi killed to date. Since the clusters were chosen at random it's possible to get statistical confidence intervals.
Their estimate is that, as of July 2006, 654 965 (95% confidence interval 392 979–942 636) Iraqis have been killed as a consequence of the war. (About 90% of these through direct violence, and not through secondary causes like the famine and health care breakdowns which accompany war.) That's an average of over 1000 per day, or a death rate of more than one Virginia Tech-scale massacre per hour for more than one thousand days straight. In other terms that's 218 times the total death toll of the September 11 2001 attacks. I feel a little hypocritical devoting a whole post to the Virginia Tech massacre when the war in Iraq causes so much more senseless violence.
My Recommendation: Don't Change Domestic Policy
It seems like the appropriate reflex at times like this is to seek some remedy: some change in domestic policy which will ensure that shootings such as these will never happen again. The anti-gun activists will use this massacre to justify harsher restrictions on weapons, while the libertarians will claim that if each student had been armed, one of them would have been able to have dropped the gunman before he had shot too many people. The Virginia governor has declared a state of emergency (as if that's going to help now). People are madly using this event as a fulcrum to leverage their own political agenda, because there's a public consensus that something must be done.
Even if a non-invasive policy could totally eliminate rampage shootings, it wouldn't change life appreciably. However scary rampage shootings are, they kill few people: on the order of 10 per year. In contrast, traffic claims about 44 000 lives a year (US DOT report, page 8 of a .pdf). If on average Americas devoted about 1 hour to thinking about the Virginia shootings, a collective 438 lifetimes would be spent mourning the passing of the 33 victims. Allowing politicians to push through new measures to monitor us under the auspices of keeping us safe is at best a waste of time: we are already safe.
My heart goes out to everyone who has experienced a loss: the Iraqi victims especially (who I'm sure mostly just want a chance to live a life untorn), and to the many fewer traffic casualties, whose deaths are as senseless as any. Let's not allow our fascination with criminal psychology obscure the truth: that the vast majority of Americans live free from the risk (if not the fear) from violence, whereas 2.5% of the Iraqi population has been killed by the invasion. Don't let the deaths of 33 Virginia Tech victims become a political bargaining chip. Keep things in perspective, or we're going to offer up our freedoms and cheerfulness in exchange for the appearance of removing a risk that's not significant in the first place.