Knee Jerk Reactions

There is a reason why I worked so hard to abstain from commentary on the Virginia Tech massacre. I wrote two posts, one simply expressing my condoloences, and the other admonishing those who would hijack the incident to forward their own political benefit.

I took such a stance because of instances like this. Essentially, an honor roll student who was graduating with a gpa of 4.2 was recently arrested for participating in a creative writing assignment. He’s been charged with two misdemeanors, and his enlistment to the US Marines has been effectively canceled.

And for what? For doing what he was told. The assignment was pretty simple; students were asked to write whatever came into their head. They weren’t to correct the grammar, they weren’t to edit, and they were told that they had nothing to fear from being censored or admonished for what they wrote. So when eighteen-year-old Allen Lee wrote this, he had no idea the chaos that would follow.

Despite doing exactly what he was told, Lee felt the full repurcussions of a complete knee jerk reaction to the Virginia Tech shootings that occured two weeks ago.

Was it warranted? That’s the problem, it’s a tough call. I don’t think you’ll find a single article written about this story that won’t contain the following quote from the piece, “Blood sex and Booze. Drugs Drugs Drugs are fun. Stab, Stab, Stab, S…t…a…b…, poke. “So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone…, then had sex with the dead bodies. Will, not really, but it would be funny if I did.”” And even I had to admit that this opening bit was rather disturbing.

But again, I ask you, is the knee jerk reaction warranted? We, as humans, are often skittish creatures. In good times we are plagued with arrogance, and when we are faced with tragedy, all too often the lowest common denominator of our being comes to surface. We hold sacred, perhaps above all other rights protected by the Constitution, our right to free speech, and yet, at times of fear, we find ourselves compromising this right.

But this goes further than just free speech. This also goes to the heart of an agreement between a teacher and a student. An agreement that, due to fear, was broken.

Fear makes us do silly things. Even the physical reactions of fear are in todays world illogical. What is the benefit to sweating armpits and accelerated heart rate today when we are afraid? Sure, back in the caveman days, these were preemptive actions to physical exertion, they might have been helpful, but today, talking in front of people is widely held fear among all sorts of people, and trust me, sweaty armpits don’t help you at all there.

Socially, fear instills in us these crazy knee jerk reactions. You have terror management theory which essentially says that when you are mortally afraid, you’re going to vote like a moron, and you have this. Placing in jeopardy a young man’s education and career simply because he did what he was told.

I think it’s because when we are afraid, we stop thinking, perhaps another one of those primal reactions from bygone days when fear meant imminent physical threat and therefore no time to think, only time to act. But, much like sweaty armpits, today such behavior can often times only make matters worse.

The thing is, life today is too complex to think that such behavior is effective. We have on kid go to school, shoot thirty two, and within hours so many of us already have the answer to everything. Ban guns, hand out guns like candy, psychologically analyze every student on campus, bump up security, home school everyone. A million solutions without ever looking at the problem.

Even though Tim Kaine did the right thing by closing the loophole that allowed Cho to get his gun in the first place, it still didn’t fix the problem. It only addressed one of the many factors here.

So what should have happened in the case of Lee? Definitely not arrested. In fact, that should never have happened. What Lee did was in no violation of any law, particularly considering the fact that he was specifically told under the stewardship of his teacher to do what he did. At the same time, I cede the point that much of the piece was disturbing, and begged at least attention.

So the first and foremost thing to do is talk to the kid. Back when Columbine happened, a lot of parents blamed Marylin Manson. In Michael Moore’s documentary, he actually interviewed Manson, and when he asked Marylin what he would have said to the boys, Manson replied, “I wouldn’t say a thing. I would just listen to them … and that’s what nobody did.”

The idea I think is to talk first. In this instance, it would have alleviated a lot of trouble, as I’m sure many people would agree if they had read the piece whilst not in a hysterical state, knowing what is provided in the author’s notes (insight which you would most likely receive if you talked to Lee after reading the piece).

As it turns out, Lee’s not all that disturbed, the violent lyrics come from a Green Day song, some of the other negative sentiments are actually pretty common among the age, and actually, there is some rationality in it when he contemplates the political process behind some of his angst.

And it’s not like people don’t ever talk about inflicting bodily harm on others. A coworker of mine was rather fond of the phrase, “I will shoot you in the face,” when he got irritated. For instance, if he was reviewing paperwork, and saw something he didn’t like, he would call the offender into his office, show him the error, and say, “I’m going to shoot you in the face, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

Did any of us live in fear that he might actually bring a gun to work and start unloading in our faces? Nah. When I play scrabble with my wife and she insists she’s gonna kick my ass, do I start wearing butt pads (actually, yeah, but then I don’t because she never kicks very hard).

The point I’m trying to make is that in all this hysteria, the first step is to see if there really is a threat, and in this case, I think a quick five minute conversation would have kept this from being a news story completely.

But what if it is a threat. What if you are still disturbed after talking to the student? Have him psychologically tested. Considering that Lee was tested in order to join the Marines, and until this incident was good to go, I think that answers that. But in the case of Cho, that’s exactly what happened, up until that point, all the right actions had been taken. He was identified as someone who may need help, he was analyzed, and then that’s when the failure happened.

If someone is identified as a threat, THAT’s when you take action. And you take PROPER action. I know there’s a bunch of people out there that think that jail is the answer for everyone who isn’t like them, but that’s not the case. There are people out there that can become productive members of society with counciling, and yes, drugs.

The alternative, of course, being that we find that precious right to free speech just eroding a little more…

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