- No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech
- Harmony, 336 pp.
Making Sense of Slaughter
Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the unexpected juxtaposition of violence and youth culture in our nation’s schools. When the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University occurred in Cole Hall (the same building I suffered through lecture-style general education classes as an undergraduate in the early 1990s), I started asking questions. Not just “How can this happen?” but “Why?” and “What could have been done differently?” and “What is my/the university’s/society’s role in this type of brutal tragedy?” and “What does this shooting teach us about students?” and “What does this teach us about the American education system?”
These are just a few of the questions that Lucinda Roy investigates in No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech which chronicles the public and private story of Seung-Hui Cho, a senior English major who used a 9mm Glock 19 and a .22-caliber Walther P22 to kill thirty students and faculty members on April 16, 2007. What’s so hard to understand is that after Cho killed two fellow students in Johnston Hall at 7:15 a.m., he returned to his room for nearly three hours while university administrators kept classes running. They didn’t even issue a mass warning about the earlier deaths until nearly two hours later, and that was an email that didn’t reach many students. After mailing a package of video files and documents to NBC, Cho left for Norris Hall at 9:45 a.m. and chained the entrances shut before opening fire in the halls and classrooms. For nine minutes he attacked faculty and students alike, finally committing suicide with a gunshot to his head.
On one level, this book does what I imagined it would. It belongs to a body of writings known as the literature of grieving (other examples include Nuruddin Farah’s Knots and Elie Wiesel’s Night). It tells stories of heroism, such as how Solid Mechanics professor and Holocaust survivor Professor Liviu Librescu braced the classroom door with his body while instructing students to leap to safety through the second-story window; he died after being shot by Cho multiple times through the door. It has moments of a kind of I-told-you-so attitude from Roy, who worked individually with Cho after poet Nikki Giovanni refused to allow him to remain in her class, saying she’d rather quit teaching than be around the “menacing” and “intimidating” student who snapped photos under the tables of female classmates’ legs. It also answers the questions of how a professor can write this sometimes scathing assessment of a university’s “chronic inability to respond swiftly to crisis situations” and continue teaching at that school. Roy admits that despite her twenty-plus years of service there and an admitted love for the people and the area, part of the sacrifice in speaking the truth might include her being forced to leave Virginia Tech. The multi-million dollar lawsuit following her termination would likely preempt any such move.
On another level, what Roy’s book does is deftly crack open the issues that underpin what happened: youth subculture, censorship, gun control, race, parenting, violence, and education. That’s where the red-hot core of this book exists.
Throughout the taut, driving style of this book, Roy’s frustration is readily evident. In a complex, litigious society such as ours, finding the right balance between (a) wanting to respect people’s privacy and desiring public safety; (b) a school’s obligation to students and a parent’s obligation to their children; and (c) remaining student-centered and holding back to protect/insulate yourself as an educator and human being, she laments, is a lot like a game of Russian roulette. We trust that people will follow the established rules and if they’re having difficulties, they’ll take it upon themselves to seek help.
Yet in the fall of 2005, Cho “repeatedly contacted the Cook Counseling Center” to obtain help with his growing depression after being coaxed by Roy and other colleagues. Roy writes: “Even after he actively sought help, treatment was not administered by the Cook Counseling Center, nor did Cho receive follow-up treatment from on-campus or local counseling services following the order by a judge that he be treated on an outpatient basis.” And, according to Virginia law, since Cho was not involved in an inpatient program, he was allowed to buy the handguns that he used to murder fellow classmates and teachers.
That’s the sort of culpability that makes me squirm—the same reaction I get when reading short stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Steven Millhauser’s “The Knifethrower,” which both explore the idea of communal guilt. But this book refuses to hold back since this is “a story which needs to be spoken,” as Roy writes in the prologue to her self-described “memoir-critique.”
If there’s a problem with No Right to Remain Silent, it’s that very idea of the “memoir-critique.” While certainly Roy’s mixed-race background and early-years teaching experiences in Sierra Leone helped shape her as a human being, the memoir sections feel, at times, out of place. Several essays about pedagogical issues and parenting don’t connect well with the rest of the text. And though her love for poetry is abundant in references to Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, and Hart Crane, her book-ending sestina falls a bit flat of closing this potentially riveting cri de coeur.
Another issue is that Roy’s actual interactions with Cho seem so brief that it’s hard not to wonder if Roy truly has enough material to go beyond swift portrayals of Cho, who simply stared back at her through sunglasses as she tried to uncover the root of his energetic, immature writings that accused other classmates of killing and cannibalism, saying he is disgusted with them and hopes they will all “burn in hell.” One of Cho’s own poems, a sestina entitled ”a boy named LOSER,” testifies to the self-loathing he exhibited that prompted Roy to assist him in seeking professional help and have a code word for immediate help from her assistant during her meetings with Cho. But even Roy recognizes that her first-hand knowledge of Cho is sketchy at best because all she got “were glimpses, and these were rare.” Perhaps this is why she includes so many personal stories that say more about her own life than Cho’s far more relevant one.
Being both witness and outsider, Roy feels she has no right to remain silent in the face of such a massive failing. Neither does the Virginia Tech administration, whose silence after the tragedy seemed more a denial of blame and a refusal to discuss the crucial issues at hand than anything else. And I applaud her for daring to write a book that quite clearly suggests that were there another such conflux of events on a U.S. campus today — a student suffering from depression, anger, self-loathing, and insecurity who feels trapped but cannot (will not?) find the necessary assistance to calm his ongoing agony and frustration — the ending could easily be as tragic.
Like any good argument, this book has a call to action: we must critically examine the problems in American culture and education or prepare ourselves to pay another unconscionable price.