The winds were April cruel in Blacksburg on Monday: too strong for helicopters to evacuate the most badly wounded that morning, too strong for candles that night. The vigils would have to wait; the students grieved in the privacy of their dorms. The stately, sprawling campus of Virginia Tech was littered with broken branches; yellow police tape ribboned through a tree as if the gusts had tied it there, mourning those who would not be coming back. The locals said the winds rose to carry the angels down so they could take the children home.
Hindsight blows just as strong through events like this. It's the nature of tragedy that it comes packaged in irony, sharp little stabs of coincidence that make it hurt even more: there was the Holocaust survivor who died trying to save his students from a mass murder committed on Holocaust Remembrance Day. There was the international-studies student who had seen the carnage at the Pentagon on 9/11 and wanted to be a peacemaker; he died in French class. There was the killer who signed into English class with a question mark, known by the few who knew him at all as one who hardly ever said a word to anyone--until the day he chose to start screaming and ended by shooting himself in the face, a final act of deletion.
What is the the cost of our curiosity and culture? One man was the villain; many of his victims were heroes, yet his is the face that is seen, the story that gets told and all too often the act that gets copied by the next broken loner with a grudge. The day after the shooting, bomb scares and other threats closed schools in seven states. As the news cycle surrendered to round-the-clock coverage, finding meaning in the mayhem was a performance art: Dr. Phil was warning about the dangers of a violent popular culture before anyone knew which culture had produced this particular killer. Bill O'Reilly whacked "America haters" and knee-jerk gun controllers before declaring his support for more "sensible" gun-control laws than those of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which allowed a suicidal kid with a history of mental illness to get multiple weapons without any trouble.
But the urgent search for meaning ran into the real, raw sense of senselessness. "They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time," President George W. Bush said plainly of the students who perished, and parents listening jammed their fists into their eyes and shuddered. There is no sweetness in sorrow, no matter how your child dies--on a battlefield, on a mission or on a Monday morning in German class. But there was something especially awful about meeting these students in the quick cable-news compression of remembrance and mourning. She was a belly dancer, he was a track star; there was also an Air Force cadet, a camp counselor, a songwriter--in every case a portrait of promise and purpose. They had not wandered into one of the nation's top universities by accident; they had engineered and calculated and coaxed their way into this school, and they were going places, until one day they weren't anymore, stopped by the accumulated debris and derangement of another life, another intent long in the making.
Cho Seung-Hui was the mystery hiding in plain sight, a man who wore a hat and sunglasses inside, a student with no Facebook page. Talking to him, said English department head Lucinda Roy, "was like talking to a hole. He wasn't there most of the time." Even students who had lived with him knew virtually nothing about him; the simplest conversations--Where are you from? What's your major?--got a monosyllabic response. A "hello" was a big deal. They never heard him talk about weapons or killing or violence--because he never talked at all. "We just thought he was shy," his suitemate Karan Grewal told TIME. It was not until NBC aired his last words and images the night of April 18 that they and everyone else had a chance to see all the ego, the anger, the desire to get even with the "rich brats" with their trust funds and gold necklaces and Mercedes. "You have never felt a single ounce of pain in your whole lives."
He had come to the U.S. from South Korea with his parents in 1992 when he was 8, first to Detroit and eventually to Centreville, Va., a suburb of Washington, where they owned a dry-cleaning business. The family looked American Dream--y: they lived in a tidy cream row house with a vegetable plot in back where they grew lettuce and tomatoes. The parents were quiet, their English limited, but they worked hard and saw their daughter Sun-Kung head off to Princeton as an economics major, their son to Virginia Tech to major in English.
Teach me how to speak
Teach me how to share
Teach me where to go
Tell me will love be there
Cho once wrote the lyrics of his favorite Collective Soul song, Shine, on the walls of his dorm room. But usually there were no decorations, no posters, no friends, no hobbies beyond the occasional late-night bike ride and hours spent downloading music.
To some, his remoteness was an irresistible challenge. Shane Moore, a 21-year-old from Woodbridge, Va., once had lunch with him basically on a dare from his roommate, who had known Cho in high school. The goal was to see if they could make him laugh. "I didn't know him," says Moore. "We'd try to talk to him, but he'd barely respond ... so one day my roommate challenged himself to get him to talk to us. We told him a joke." That day, they actually extracted a chuckle. But to other students, to know him was to fear him.
He popped up on the campus police radar screen on Nov. 27, 2005, when a female student reported that Cho had made annoying contact with her through the phone and in person. While she declined to press charges, another student soon complained of his instant messages. After police investigated, an acquaintance alerted them that Cho might be suicidal. When police returned and questioned him further, they asked that he agree to see a counselor.
Police requested a temporary detention order, and Cho was evaluated at a psychiatric facility, Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Health Center in Radford, Va. Following that evaluation, a judge indicated on a court document that Cho "is mentally ill and in need of hospitalization, and presents an eminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness, or is so seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for self, and is incapable of volunteering or unwilling to volunteer for treatment." The amount of time Cho spent at the hospital remains a mystery.