“Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know
what you really are; and those few do not dare
take a stand against the general opinion.”
~Niccolo Machiavelli, Italian historian, politician, diplomat
Mistakes in judgment often are understandable and become deeply felt regrets because they were honest and made in the heat of the moment. In the case of Virginia Tech and its actions before, during, and after Cho’s rampage, however, it is difficult to describe the school’s mistakes, or its actions and inactions, as “honest.” In the immediate aftermath of the April 16, 2007 carnage, Charles Steger’s Virginia Tech was in shock, of that there can be no doubt—we all were. It is understandable that the Virginia Tech community could not accept that anything the school administration had done—or not done—played a role in enabling Cho to murder to so many.
In the first hour or so following the shootings, members of the school administration may have genuinely felt no guilt in setting the stage for Cho’s slaughter. Everyone wanted to deny the harsh reality of what had happened. That denial, however, appears to have quickly turned into a recognition of the horrible truth—the school administration did play a role in allowing the conditions to exist for Cho’s murderous rage. Indeed, the White family remembers President Steger meeting with the families late on the morning of April 17th. The badly shaken school president could say nothing that would give them solace. They remember a contrite school president responded to a question from a father, whose daughter was among the victims. The father asked, “Who is in charge?” To which Steger responded, “I am.” Then to a follow-up question, “Who is responsible for this?” Steger hesitatingly and reluctantly said, “I am;” an answer he would begin to deny and retreat from almost immediately.
School officials conducted periodic, informal meetings with the families, but they were void of substance, at times resembling pep talks. Michael Pohle remembers thinking, “No one is in control or has taken control, there is no organization, we are getting conflicting answers—the whole atmosphere is chaotic.” At one point Frank Beamer, the head football coach and long-time close buddy of President Charles Steger, addressed the families. That meeting, if well intended, was nevertheless particularly inane, only adding insult to injury. The White family described the meetings as being more like pep rallies, than meetings designed to impart information.
As that reality set in on April 16, 2007, the Steger administration appears to have quickly turned from shock to a cold and calculating campaign to cover up any and all of the school’s complicity.
The problem for the school was that a solid case existed for Virginia Tech’s culpability on many levels. From ignoring warning signs that Cho was a danger to himself and others, to the school’s failure to warn the campus on the morning of April 16, 2007 about the double homicide at West Ambler Johnston Hall—the evidence against the Steger administration was glaringly apparent. In fact, Tech’s failure to heed the numerous warning signs about Cho had come home to roost with devastating consequences.
Within hours, Virginia Tech set out to make the public believe a series of absurdities, such as the idea that no one in the school administration was aware of Cho’s violent tendencies, and that it was reasonable to believe a murderer on the loose would not stay on campus. Tech needed a story that on the surface appeared reasonable. The school would count on the fact that few, if any, would examine its specious argument.
Virginia Tech began to repeat meaningless phrases that it hoped would turn attention away from the Steger administration by focusing on loyalty to the school and playing on people’s emotions. The rallying cry became “We are Virginia Tech,” then, “The Hokie Nation,” and in an effort to put that dark day behind them, “Virginia Tech, Inventing the Future.” The slogans of deception were quickly in place; the propaganda took on the tone and nature of a football rally—something Virginia Tech knows a great deal about. (To be continued)