April 20, 2007

What we've learned: Be nice to that weird kid in your dorm

Admit it. When you saw the carnage at Virginia Tech, you were afraid that something like that could happen here.

Your friends probably blew it off, saying how horrible it was that 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui massacred approximately 30 people.

Cho was a loner. He rarely talked to his suitemates. He did disturbing things, such as stalking women. He had an unhealthy obsession with violence.

Think about it. This ought to cross your mind:

“Oh my god. I know someone like that.”

We all have that friend who has that roommate. I did. A friend of mine from first year had a roommate who did disturbing things. Things like drawing swastikas in his notebook, which he would leave open on his desk. Things like looking at violent pornography while my friend was in the room. The University had already made him leave briefly, but he came back.

My friend was unnerved, so he stopped sleeping in the room after a while. I don’t think we ever thought of this guy as capable of violence

Just like Cho’s roommates.

What are you supposed to do about these students who are our peers but are clearly disturbed? We already know that some of Cho’s peers and teachers had complained about him, that university officials and police were well aware of the warning signs. But there he was on that fateful Monday morning.

Here at the U of C, if anyone complained about a student, the kid would probably have to talk to his resident heads, who likely aren’t qualified psychiatrists. If they thought the kid needed it, they might tell him to go seek counseling. Sounds like the same kind of well meaning but wishy-washy, we’re-just-covering-our-butts-in-case-of-a-lawsuit counseling that Cho apparently received.

In order to involuntarily commit someone, he has to be a danger to himself or others. But maybe we ought to start changing the law to include antisocial behavior. Cho never spoke to anyone, even his own suitemates. He isolated himself. He became angry and narcissistic, as shown by the pictures and videos he sent of himself to NBC news.

There are places where antisocial behavior is considered normal. The U of C is one of them. Are the students who sit in their room all day playing video games or sit in the library all day reading books really learning on a broader scale? Maybe this self-enforced loneliness is scarier to young people than we realize.

There are ways to fight this. Burn your “Where Fun Comes to Die” T-Shirt. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Go to concerts. Go do something. Just don’t sit there by yourself. Complain about how hard Chicago is, but don’t let it get to you.

There are people out there who’ve already lost this fight and really can’t be helped. College isn’t for them. A social life isn’t for them. I hope there aren’t many here who fit this description. You can turn off your computer and go outside. You can say “hi” to your roommates. You can generally be a nicer person. Starting now.

Maybe we all have to be nicer to each other. Maybe if my friend and I had tried harder to break through to his roommate, we would have gotten him to come out of his shell. Maybe the University just shouldn’t have let him back just like Virginia Tech let Cho back after he spent two days at a mental health facility.

Somewhere between toughness and love, there has to be a way to bring lonely kids back from the brink and protect the rest of us from those who can’t be salvaged. And it’s time to start doing a better job of figuring it out. Because I know someone like that, and you do, too. Though the staff at Virginia Tech knew that was what Cho was like, they didn’t bring him back.

And that’s probably what did Cho in.