Saturday, April 21, 2007

UI Held Hostage Day 455 - "Be Nice"

April 21, 2:40 p.m.

"Be Nice"

"What did you tell him?" I asked my friend, as we talked over a little interpersonal conflict her son was having. She had given him just two little words of advice: "Be nice."

The words came back to me this past week as virtually everyone in America struggled, together, with the events at Virginia Tech. Amidst the things we come together to do at such times -- prayer services, lowered flags, bell ringing, moments of silence, memorial services, ribbons, and the media, always the media -- my thoughts ranged from resolution of grief to reflections on remedies.

I'm not going to reflect here on the "big issues" -- Would easier access to handguns make us safer or more at risk? Does the media's reporting of (or fictional programming involving) violence encourage additional real life violence? Was it a mistake to close down our mental hospitals and house our mentally ill in prisons instead?

The fact is that most of our restraints on anti-social behavior are dependent upon a fundamental human quality: the desire to preserve one's own life and happiness. A criminal wants to avoid the possibility of being shot by the police -- or spending years in prison. Once there is no longer that restraint, that desire to stay alive -- whether with a suicide bomber in Iraq or a mass murderer in Virginia -- there is very little that anyone can do to predict, let alone prevent, the carnage they can create (up to and including "weapons of mass destruction" in a briefcase or backpack).

So I'm going to focus on some things that every American can do, from the youngest to the elderly, something to do every day, long after the memorial services are over, the bells have stopped ringing, and the VT ribbons have been lost among the socks in the back of our dresser drawer.

To begin, consider these excerpts from Matt Apuzzo and Sharon Cohen, "Textbook case: Cho showed all of the signs," The Associated Press and The Southern Illinoisan (Carbondale, Illinois), April 20, 2007:
A 2002 federal study on common characteristics of school shooters found that 71 percent of them "felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack."

The report said that "in some of these cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school. In one case, most of the attacker's schoolmates described the attacker as the kid everyone teased."

Cho "would almost be a poster child for the pattern that we saw," said Marisa Randazzo, the former chief research psychologist at the U.S. Secret Service and co-author of the study, conducted jointly with the Education Department.

* * *

Classmates in Virginia, where Cho grew up, said he was teased and picked on, apparently because of shyness and his strange, mumbly way of speaking.

Once, in English class at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., when the teacher had the students read aloud, Cho looked down when it was his turn, said Chris Davids, a Virginia Tech senior and high school classmate. After the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho began reading in a strange, deep voice that sounded "like he had something in his mouth," Davids said.

"The whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, 'Go back to China,"' Davids said.

Stephanie Roberts, 22, a classmate of Cho's at Westfield High, said . . . friends of hers who went to middle school with him told her they recalled him getting bullied there.

"There were just some people who were really mean to him and they would push him down and laugh at him," Roberts said. "He didn't speak English really well and they would really make fun of him."
Now let me make clear what I am not saying. I'm not advocating more sympathy for Cho, or that "it wasn't really his fault," or that the sole cause of Cho's horrific act was the fact he was bullied in junior high. I'm not saying that if only he had been treated with greater sensitivity none of this would have happened. I'm certainly not saying those junior high classmates of his are responsible for 32 deaths. Cho obviously had a lot of problems besides his experiences in school. On the other hand, based on the federal study, how he was treated by his teachers and classmates over the years could very well have had some impact on the person he became.

In terms of one's sense of insecurity, there are some other numbers to keep in mind. The odds of any given individual college student being killed by a stranger in a mass murder on a college campus are, as we say, "somewhere between slim and none at all." There are some 30,000 firearm deaths a year, and about the same number of suicides (over half of which involve firearms). That's about 80 for every one of the 365 days each year. [National Safety Council, "What Are the Odds of Dying?"] The 32 killed at Virginia Tech constituted the largest number ever; seldom would it be as many as 85 in a year for the entire nation -- twice the number who die from being struck by lightning. By contrast, among 15-24-year-olds suicide is the third leading cause of death. [American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, "Facts for Families: Teen Suicide," July 2004.]

And while we're trying to imagine the grief of those 32 individuals' friends and family members, try this exercise. Recall the grief you felt for the 32 deaths of individuals who -- most likely -- were personally unknown to you. Now multiply that by imagining if some of them were your children, or bothers and sisters, or good friends. And now multiply that by 2000. That is the grief felt by the people of Iraq for the civilian deaths of 64,000 friends and relatives from the violence of the current Iraq War. [The best estimates range from 62,000 to 68,000 civilian dead. "Iraq Body Count Database," as of April 20, 2007.]

All of which brings us back to the admonition: "Be nice."

There are a lot of things most of us can't do. We can't bring to bear the professional skills of psychiatrists -- because we don't have the training. We can't, single-handedly, change our nation's laws regarding handguns.

What each of us really can do is to "Be nice."

Since writing this, my daughter shared with me (April 27) a link to a video about "Johnny the Bagger" that makes my point more movingly than my words can do.

We can "be nice" every day, to everyone with whom we interact. Will we occasionally be rebuffed in our efforts? Of course. But rarely. And the benefits are well worth that price. Because we need not be motivated solely by a desire to reduce mass murder. Befriending the lonely and the loners, the least popular of one's classmates; taking their side when they're being ridiculed, excluded, or abused; looking for opportunities to pay a compliment or say "thank you" to those who are most seldom recognized and appreciated; catching ourselves before uttering the words that project our prejudice and deliver another's pain -- these are all things worth doing for their own sake. Not only do they give a little boost to another, they make us feel better about ourselves as well.

Getting to know the students from another country, or from out of state, can be especially rewarding -- for us as well as them. Someone from another country, or for whom English is their second language, who knows no one at their high school or university, for whom everything is new and strange, and who is homesick and may be under the stress of enormous family and colleague pressure to succeed is someone who can really use a friend.

If your reaching out to others happens to contribute in some small way to preventing a future mass murder, that's a very big added blessing.

And that's why, with all of the adult chattering about VT, I was so pleased to see in Thursday's (April 19) New York Times the following:
As masses of mourners assemble at sites like Facebook and . . . a slogan also surfaced. It's a sign of the times, and has unmistakable poignancy for devotees of social-networking Web sites. It's simple: "Reach out to loners."

"After what happened on 4/16/07," read one page,"I'm gonna talk & reach out to every loner."

Others pledged to smile at people on the street, to greet quiet people and even to visit those who seem isolated.
Virginia Heffernan, "The Web: Online, Students Say 'Reach Out to Loners,'" The New York Times, April 19, 2007, p. B1.

That's the idea. The online kids got it. My friend just called it, "Be nice."

UICCU and "Optiva"

The UICCU-Optiva story is essentially behind us. There may be occasional additions "for the record," but for the most part the last major entry, with links to the prior material from October 2006 through March 2007, is "UICCU and 'Optiva'" in Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 406 - March 3 - Optiva," March 3, 2007.
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[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story . . .

These blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006.

Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.)

For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each contains links to the full text of virtually all known media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006.

My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006.

Searching: the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References." A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 is also available. And note that if you know (or can guess at) a word to search on, the "Blogger" bar near the top of your browser has a blank, followed by "SEARCH THIS BLOG," that enables you to search all entries in this Blog since June 2006.]

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Media Stories and Commentary

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1 comment:

John Neff said...

I looked up the numbers for US gun deaths in 2001
1) Suicide 16,869 (57.0%)
2) Homicide 11,348 (38.4%) some are the result of a murder suicide.
3) Accidental 802 (2.7%)
4) Legal intervention 323 (1.1%)
5) Undetermined 231 (0.8%)

I don't think children, drunks, mentally ill persons and felons should have access to firearms but I don't see any realistic way to accomplish that because of the large number (estimates are up to 200 million) of firearms of all types that are legally owned in the US.

It is likely that the vast majority of gun owners share my point of view but they are not willing to compromise with the anti-gun movement because a) they don't have to and b) they don't trust them to abide by the agreement.