“We are going to the bottom of this,” said President Obama, just hours after the tragedy in Arizona this January. He then ordered Bob Mueller, the current director of the FBI, to help coordinate the investigation of the shooting and suspect, Jared Loughner. The intentions of the President and the government of Arizona were in the right place; this type of incident cleary mandates inquiry, but tracing through the most recent mass shootings and their subsequent investigations reveals that little is learned that is helpful in preventing future lethal episodes. Instead, what comes out of each investigation is a collection of fateful ‘warning signs’ that were not put together by either parents, schools, or close friends leading up to the crimes. Taken together, they form a pattern that serves a disheartening point: our ability to predict violence is extremely low.
Similar to the aftermath of Loughner’s shooting, when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and took his own life on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007, the Governor of Virginia ordered a full-scale investigation into the life of Cho and the incident itself. What came out of that report was evidence of a checkered personal history, inadequate communication between Cho’s therapists and teachers, and the ease with which Cho was able to acquire firearms (by state law it was actually illegal for him to do so). A few mistakes were revealed, such as how police and security personnel could have better handled the shooting while it was taking place, but regarding the signs that this man would commit such deeds, the report wrote: “Cho's writings and videotaped pronouncements do not explain why he struck when and where he did.”
Likewise, the two high school students that killed 12 of their classmates and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 provide another example of how those close to the killers were unable to notice anything amiss. Investigations of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High seniors that committed the massacre, uncovered that the two had been planning such events for over or a month, but even their parents had no idea anything of that nature or scale would take place. There are many high school students that are removed, play violent video games, and do not shoot their classmates. Filmmaker Michael Moore titled his documentary “Bowling for Columbine” because the two boys allegedly went bowling the morning of the shooting. Sadly, that fact accentuates the notion that people who do unthinkable things often act incredibly normally leading up to these events.
And so it is with Loughner. Evidence suggests that this was most likely a premeditated killing; Loughner had written personal notes that mentioned Representative Giffords’ name, and video footage of the shooting showed that Loughner was wearing ear plugs. But did Loughner exhibit traits that those close to him simply missed? Hardly; there are many people whose stories are quite similar to his: high school dropouts, talented musicians, marijuana smokers, and those who are mentally ill though not necessarily violent.
Our hindsight may appear 20-20 now, but these sad stories demonstrate that our foresight is close to legally blind. Obama said in his weekly video address following the shooting that “we have to keep our people safe, and see to it that the American dream remains vibrant and alive for our children and our grandchildren.” To this point, ordering investigations has not made our people any safer, but rather informs us how difficult it is to spot such tragedies before they take place.
Investigations of this sort, whether they are ordered because they are politically benign, or because they appear to be appropriate responses to such actions, do not help us from preventing future actions from taking place. What seems to elude the investigators, or does not grab as much ink as the killers’ mental faculties, is each one’s ability to possess guns. It is that act of each killer’s history that made him lethal.
Marcel E. Moran ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.