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Virginia Tech Shooting Questions Loom

Another sad school shooting has occurred (New York Times), this time at Virginia Tech, and with it, millions of Americans will ask the simple question, “Why?” Why do people want to kill so many others? Why do they get away with it? Why can’t we do more to stop such tragedies?

But as I’ve pointed out previously here and here (just 3 months ago),

The sad truth is that no amount of analysis of a person’s possible [illness or motivations] explains criminal behavior of this nature.

Whether or not the person who perpetrated the shootings has an illness or specific motivations doesn’t explain a tragedy of this nature. Honestly, nothing can. Most people deal with human tragedies throughout their lives and most people do not go on shooting rampages. A failed exam? A break-up with a girlfriend? Angry at the school for not letting him or her in? Even if there was such a “reason,” what would it explain? People normally don’t take such extreme criminal actions when confronted with a big life disappointment.

Some are looking to blame someone, and since the shooter is already dead, they’re turning to the school. But hindsight is 20/20 and while a campus double-murder is gruesome and certainly newsworthy, it’s not clear the school’s administration knew the murderer was on some sort of deadly rampage. After all, most murderers don’t go on killing sprees — they kill their intended victim, and sometimes a second or third who might’ve witnessed the crime.

It’s human nature to want “answers,” to want to make sense out of senselessness. To say, “If only this had happened instead of that,” and to mistakenly believe it all could’ve been averted.

But answers can’t be made of irrational acts such as this, and blaming people for not taking into better account one person’s irrational behaviors is a difficult argument to make. Psychologists — people who are trained in making sense of human behavior — are horrible predictors of such basic things as whether a person is likely to take his or her own life. As I said 7 months ago,

While it’s natural human behavior to try and make sense of such irrational acts — even by looking at the individual’s words online — you won’t find any answers there.

I’m sorry, but we still can’t predict human behavior in the way many people want. We can’t say, “Well, it’s obvious this person is going to commit so and so a crime,” (which would also go against the very foundation of our American society — innocent until proven guilty). It’s not obvious. It never is. Not until it’s already happened.

What we can do, and what people continue to do, is to become more aware of people’s emotional states, and to try and act more compassionately when confronted with someone who is in pain and in need. To encourage our friends and dorm-mates to seek out help when they need it. To not look at them in a different light if they do. And to remember that life is full of random acts of beauty and violence — it always has been, it always will be.

Our hearts go out to those at Virginia Tech today.

(PS – If you know someone at Virginia Tech or another school-age student, we also recommend this article about how to talk to someone about school shootings.)

Virginia Tech Shooting Questions Loom

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Virginia Tech Shooting Questions Loom. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 16 Apr 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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