46. Caves

April 16, 2007

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

It was the worst storm Sandy Hook had seen since 1999. The Nor’easter cyclone surged into Newtown and gushed eight inches of rain, causing the first selectman to declare a flood emergency. Roads were closed, automated emergency calls went out, and the Sandy Hook Firehouse down on Riverside Road was used as an improvised command post, where the fire chief spent all morning dispatching trucks to pump out flooded basements, and shore up levees where the sandbags had washed away. Fortunately, the town never lost power.

* * *

High on a hill at 36 Yogananda, “Blarvink” was on Wikipedia. He had just made his first edit; Adam was reading the page for the Nickelodeon TV show Blue’s Clues, and to his dismay, right in the middle of the article, some anonymous user had added the words “blues clues is a brain washer for little children.”

He deleted the entry, and left a note for the other wikipedians: “there was blatant vandalism in the Origin section that I have removed.”

As the morning went on, with the storm raging outside of his bedroom window, he edited more articles; he had just make a minor tweak to the article for “Zygote” when, suddenly, news of the Virginia Tech shooting broke.

* * *

The death toll screamed from every headline: in ten minutes, the Virginia Tech shooter had claimed more victims than the entire Columbine attack. Not only was it the worst school shooting ever, but the gunman at Norris Hall had killed even more than the man in the sparkling blue truck who crashed through the window of Luby’s cafeteria, fifteen years before. Virginia Tech had now become the site of the deadliest mass shooting in United States history, period.

Diplomatic Reception Room — The White House

At 4:01pm that afternoon, President Bush appeared on television, and delivered a brief, solemn statement. “Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning,” he said. “When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community. Today, our nation grieves with those who have lost loved ones at Virginia Tech.” The administration immediately began preparations for the president to visit the campus, just a short flight from the nation’s capitol.

April 17, 2007

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The following morning, at a press conference, a police officer spoke the shooter’s name on television for the first time. Few who knew the young man were surprised to hear it. Indeed, several of the shooter’s former classmates had already made the assumption: that the kid they knew from the way he signed his name at roll, with only a question mark — the boy who never talked, yet was always angry — had finally done what everyone was afraid he was going to do.

They started to come forward and share their stories of interacting with the crazed gunman. “He would sit by himself whenever possible, and didn’t like talking to anyone,” said a senior who had been in a play-writing class with him. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard his voice before. He was just so quiet and kept to himself.” But that class was also participation-based, and so everyone’s writings were disseminated, in advance of being read aloud. When the silent young man’s classmates read what he had been writing, then they really grew concerned:

Before [he] got to class that day, we students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter. I was even thinking of scenarios of what I would do in case he did come in with a gun, I was that freaked out about him. When the students gave reviews of his play in class, we were very careful with our words in case he decided to snap. Even the professor didn’t pressure him to give closing comments.

One of the plays the shooter submitted illustrates why: it tells the story of a young college student, “Bud,” who one morning wakes up early, dresses in black, and goes to school, where he watches as “students strut inside smiling, laughing, embracing each other….A few eyes glance at Bud but without the glint of recognition. I hate this! I hate all these frauds! I hate my life….This is it….This is when you damn people die with me…” Bud then goes to an “arbitrary classroom,” where a teacher is teaching and, “Everyone is smiling and laughing as if they’re in heaven-on-earth, something magical and enchanting about all the people’s intrinsic nature that Bud will never experience.”

Suddenly Bud runs away, telling himself “I can’t do this… I have no moral right…” and as the story progresses, he meets a “gothic girl,” to whom he confides, “I was going to kill every god damn person in this damn school, swear to god I was, but I… couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Damn it I hate myself!” The girl drives him to her home, and they fetch her M16 rifle. The story concludes with the line “You and me. We can fight to claim our deserving throne.”

“It was like something out of a nightmare,” the shooter’s classmate said. And now, in the aftermath of the tragedy, he felt the same helplessness that he did then: “As far as notifying authorities, there isn’t (to my knowledge) any system set up that lets people say ‘Hey! This guy has some issues! Maybe you should look into this guy!’ If there were, I definitely would have tried to get the kid some help.”

Another student in the class had told a friend, simply, that their classmate was “the kind of guy who might go on a rampage killing.”

Adding to this chorus were several faculty members from the college’s English Department, where the shooter had been a topic of concern for years. The most pointed conflict occurred when he had taken an advanced poetry-writing course taught by the Prof. Nikki Giovanni, a prominent feminist writer. For the first six weeks of class — every day, as the professor recalls — “We would have this ritual”: the shooter would sit down wearing reflective wrap-around sunglasses, his hat pulled down low, so that he was practically wearing a mask. Professor Giovanni would have to pause her lecture, and come over and tell him to uncover his face, and she’d have to stand there next to him until he complied. She felt like he was “trying to bully her.” She was made even more sure of that when the young man started coming to class with a scarf wrapped completely around his head, like a desert Bedouin. A childish escalation.

When it was his turn to stand and read his poetry, he would “read from his desk in a voice that could not be heard.” And when he read his prose assignments, sometimes it was simply a description of how much he wanted everyone else in class to die.

Prof. Giovanni went to the administration, and said she did not want the young man in her classes anymore. She wasn’t asking: if they didn’t get him away from her and her students, she was ready to resign. “There was something mean about this boy,” she would tell TIME magazine, and she went on to explain that he was more than just a troubled student. “Troubled kids get drunk and jump off buildings. It was the meanness that bothered me.”

The shooter had targeted his classmates with his sinister behavior before, too: he had been caught surreptitiously taking photos of students with his phone, and there were rumors that he had been in trouble for stalking several girls on campus (though not the girl from room 4040 — investigators would never find any indication that she and the shooter had even met before).

The shooter’s roommates had intervened when they saw one of their female acquaintances had added the profile named “Question Mark” to their list of Myspace friends — they knew who that was. They messaged her right away:

MALE STUDENT: he is a creep i would block him just doing u a favor

FEMALE STUDENT: ahahha yeah

MALE STUDENT: well i would block him he got in trouble forr stalking recently so i just wanted to warn you

FEMALE STUDENT: yeah..hes called me…written on my door…all of that

kinda freaky

MALE STUDENT: written on your door? like your room

FEMALE STUDENT: yeah

MALE STUDENT: the RA’s are trying to do something about him

FEMALE STUDENT: yikes

at first i thought he was one of my friends joking around…and i only accepted him cuz i saw a few of my friends were friends with him

then he turned out all psycho

MALE STUDENT: i think he is is schophrenic or however you spell it

Cassell Coliseum — Virginia Tech

President Bush arrived on the campus of Virginia Tech that morning, stopping on the “quad” to sign the makeshift memorial the students had assembled: a six-foot “VT” logo that had been cut from plywood and spray-painted red (the school’s color), and left leaning against a tree outside of Norris Hall, where a collection of flower bouquets steadily grew as the mourners passed.

That evening, during a memorial convocation that packed the college’s sports stadium, the President of the United States gave remarks that struggled to encapsulate the magnitude of such a loss, bereft of any discernible reason at all for it having taken place:

…it was the worst day of violence on a college campus in American history, and for many of you here today, it was the worst day of your lives. It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering. Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they’re gone, and they leave behind grieving families and grieving classmates and a grieving nation.

The president sat in the front row for the rest of the ceremony. The evening’s closing remarks were delivered by Prof. Nikki Giovanni, who had detected the shooter’s aura in her poetry class well before it darkened the corridors of Norris Hall:

We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib, in the home his father built with his own hands, being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.

A standing ovation spread around the stadium to receive her final words for the night: “We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be.” In what would become an iconic moment from the tragedy’s aftermath, she improvised the ending: “We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail… We are Virginia Tech.”

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Nancy’s son opened the Super Columbine Massacre RPG! discussion forum, and found that the game’s designer, Danny, had posted a public statement in response to the Virginia Tech shooting:

Will this community endure in the years to follow? Will we care enough about each other tomorrow to reach out and connect with those who ‘don’t fit in,’ who ‘don’t seem normal,’ who ‘always keep to themselves?’ The answer is ultimately up to all of us. I do not believe that the cause of such atrocities are ultimately unknowable; I believe there are complex but clear conclusions to be drawn from the school shooting epidemic. I hope in the years to follow we are willing to be honest with ourselves in confronting this challenge. In summary, no school shooter has ever said, ‘I feel connected, understood and valued for who I am.’ This much should be instructive.

The level of attention being paid to this latest and worst iteration of the tragedy was rising almost to the level of Columbine itself, and summoned many of the same debates from 1999 back to the surface, still unresolved. The forum thrived.

April 18, 2007

30 Rockefeller Plaza

On the morning of the 18th — two days after the assault on Norris Hall — a package arrived in the mail room at NBC headquarters, in a flat, cardboard envelope. Like all incoming correspondence, it was scanned through a metal detector, and once cleared, came to a clerk for delivery; they promptly noticed the parcel’s return address, and postage date: 9:01am 04/16/2007 BLACKSBURG, VA. The name of the sender read “A. Ishmael.”

The mail room clerk looked inside the large envelope, and then called security. “We saw a number of pages inside the package, and a loose disk,” the manager at the network would tell a reporter. “I knew it was going to be a problem as soon as it landed in my hands.”

The shooter’s typed “manifesto” ran 23 single-spaced pages. And, judging by the small portion disclosed by NBC that day, the shooter wished to convey a motive that he himself did not seem to fully comprehend:

Oh the happiness I could have had mingling among you hedonists, being counted as one of you, only if you didn’t fuck the living shit out of me.

You could have been great. I could have been great. Ask yourself what you did to me to have made me clean the slate.

Only if you could be the victim of your reprehensible and wicked crimes, you Christian Nazis, you would have brute-restrained your animal urges to fuck me.

You could be at home right now eating your fucking caviar and your fucking cognac, had you not ravenously raped my soul.

After rambling for several more paragraphs about unidentified “charlatans” who supposedly “raped” him, the shooter compared himself to Moses, and pinned the blame for his actions on “you” — everyone except himself, and the followers he hoped to lead into oblivion:

By destroying we create. We create the feelings in you of what it is like to be the victim, what it is like to be fucked and destroyed. Because of your annihilations, we create and raise new breeds of Children who will show you fuckers what you have done to us. Like Easter, it will be a day of rebirth.

The rage went on and on, but never quite reached coherence. It was a muffled, inflamed view of humanity, reflected through the eyes of a person who had actually spoken to very few human beings in their life, the familiar cry of the “angry loner” — the guy who is just certain that everyone is having a good time, except him — only with the volume cranked way up, well past the point of distortion.

Then, finally, removing any need for speculation, the shooter proudly named his inspirations: the Columbine shooters. Right and Left were “martyrs,” and he himself was the latest in their lineage, the most calculating and savage to have yet enlisted for their “revolution of the dispossessed.”

As for the remaining 21 pages of the manifesto that NBC decided to hold back, the network would only say that it contained “over the top profanity” and “incredibly violent images.”

Along with the typed pages that fell from the A. Ishmael parcel, there was also a DVD-R disc, containing a gallery of 43 pictures taken by the shooter — mostly “selfies.” The photo series begins innocently — just the shooter smiling for the camera — but then it takes a turn, one familiar from the Dawson College shooter’s online profiles the year before: the shooter pointing guns at the camera, and striking dramatic poses with a knife, and then a hammer. One image in particular seemed to show the gunman the way he perceived himself; when it hit the news, it was quickly solidified as the iconic image of the mass shooter: a figure wearing black, hat turned backward, ammo vest bulging, and standing with arms outstretched, a murder weapon in each hand and a scowl on his face. Crucified, and ready for revenge. Against no one, and everyone.

Also on the burned DVD were 27 QuickTime video files — each a brief scene of the shooter filming himself reciting his manifesto to the camera (though he seemed unable to look directly into the lens). NBC would release two minutes, out of the twenty-five total; on that evening of Wednesday the 18th, the videos aired on virtually every news station in the country, the shooter’s face filling the TV screen, admonishing the human race in his droning, monotone voice, as he fumbled to play the role of a warrior, to whoever would listen.

Bangor, Maine

The writings from the Virginia Tech shooter ricocheted around American popular culture, and eventually, they landed on the desk of the author of Rage (and former high-school English teacher) Stephen King. In his role as contributing editor to the magazine Entertainment Weekly, he published a column that sought to address a question, one that he noticed seemed to follow in the wake of such tragedies: “Where, exactly, does one draw the line between imagination and disturbing expression that should raise red flags?”

King first reflected on his own childhood, admitting that his writings from middle school (such as his early drafts of Rage) “would have raised red flags, and I’m certain someone would have tabbed me as mentally ill because of them,” had they had been produced in “this sensitized day” of 2007. King pointed out that despite these apparent “warning signs,” he had interacted just fine with his peers as a student.

At any rate, it was his experiences as a teacher that more informed his response to the gunman’s schoolwork; he shared a memory of one of his own students, a boy who “raised red flags galore in my own mind” with the level of violence in his stories, tales about “flaying women alive, dismemberment, and, the capper, ‘getting back at THEM.’” Mr. King couldn’t do anything about it at the time, but he was quite certain: “If some kid is ever gonna blow, it’ll be this one.”

Except the boy never did. King ascribed the peaceful outcome more to the circumstances at the time; 1972 was “in the days before a gun-totin’ serial killer could get top billing on the Nightly News and possibly the covers of national magazines.” (That these words were themselves printed in a mainstream magazine article might have sounded hypocritical, but by then, likely, most of the damage had already been done.)

Turning his attention back to the gunman at Blacksburg, King dismissed the man’s writing aspirations entirely. “For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do.” Meanwhile, the VT shooter didn’t seem “the least creative,” and his writings didn’t seem to King to provide any real insight into the shooter mindset:

Dude was crazy. Dude was, in the memorable phrasing of Nikki Giovanni, ‘just mean.’ Essentially there’s no story here, except for a paranoid a–hole who went DEFCON-1. He may have been inspired by Columbine, but only because he was too dim to think up such a scenario on his own.

April 20, 2007

American Psychiatric Association

On the eighth anniversary of the Columbine attack, as the Virginia Tech shooter’s media package continued to circulate, and dominate the news cycle, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) sent what they characterized as “an open letter to the news media urging them to stop airing the disturbing writings, photographs and video,” referring to the parcel the shooter had sent to NBC:

It is evident to many that the Columbine tragedy was a powerful force in [the VT shooter’s] writings. The media have an important role to play in limiting the power of such tragedies by choosing not to sensationalize them. […] However, some outlets, including NBC News, continue to use the materials. […] The massacre at Virginia Tech is newsworthy and it is the media’s job to report on it, but we believe the media have a responsibility to balance the public’s need to know against the potential danger of provoking copycat behavior. The APA urges, for the public good, that all media cease airing the graphic materials from the shooter.

Meanwhile, as the investigation progressed into the Virginia Tech shooter’s past, another indication of Columbine’s impact on his adolescence came to light: in 1999, when the shooter was in the eighth grade, and just a month or two after the Columbine shootings, his parents received notice from his middle school about some “disturbing” writings he had produced. The report states that the assignment the shooter had turned in “depicts suicidal and homicidal ideations,” and “celebrates the Columbine shootings in April of this year.” According to one staff member, the shooter had then expressed that he “wanted to repeat Columbine.”

But the earliest signals that something was wrong predated Columbine by a few weeks. They came from the VT shooter’s art therapist in March 1999: she had been working with the fifteen-year-old over the past year, and noticed he “suddenly became more withdrawn and showed symptoms of depression.” At the same time, she witnessed his artwork taking an abrupt stylistic turn: his drawings, all of a sudden, were always of spiraling circles — like the opening of a tunnel, or a cave.

* * *

Two days after the APA’s plea for media restraint, a boy in Connecticut turned fifteen years old. The winds of the Nor’easter had calmed outside his window, but he was still following every second of the Virginia Tech coverage, as it unfolded, and he had never been so excited in all his life.