Within a month of the shooting, the school hired one of the most powerful public relations firms in the U.S., Burson-Marsteller, to spin the tragedy to Tech’s benefit, (I go into greater detail about Burson-Marsteller later). This spin-doctor team quickly developed the idea the school was as much a victim as those who had been killed or wounded. Indeed, the company did a training video with President Steger teaching him to answer media and public criticism that the school had not issued a campus-wide warning after the early morning double homicide—he was instructed not to apologize and to use such phrases as “the university grieves, too,” and “the university is a victim, as well.”
Burson-Marsteller was counting on the highly charged emotions following the rampage to carry their argument. The public was so horrified by the shootings that any argument that helped put the tragedy in the past fell on receptive ears. The slogan “Virginia Tech: Inventing the Future” was used to try and focus public attention away from the horror of the present. That slogan dovetailed with the feelings of the vast majority of the public who wanted to move on; who wanted to put the magnitude of this crime behind them. “Let the healing begin” became an emotional slogan to conceal the school’s guilt and to cover up the fact that there could never be true healing unless the crime was thoroughly and completely analyzed. That analysis, however, school and elected officials were determined to prevent.
The school first adopted a code of silence. Simply put, if you don’t talk about something, it cannot get into the public domain. As noted in an earlier chapter, the school had next to no contact with the injured and their families in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Professor Roy, in her book No Right to Remain Silent, writes, “It therefore became necessary for the president [Charles Steger] and some members of his administration to construct an ethical framework on which a culture of silence could be rebuilt. The most convenient strategy was one that had been used before—i.e., a rigorous enforcement of state and federal laws related to student privacy.” She goes on to note the irony in this solution as it was the same use of privacy laws that resulted in an inability by the university’s care teams, faculty, and disciplinary board to share vital information about (or on) Cho that might have helped him receive proper treatment before the shooting. As I have discussed in Chapter III this was, both before and after the shooting, a complete misinterpretation of both the spirit and the letter of the law. However, it was this bogus and obstructive interpretation that the school chose to use during the investigation of the shooting. To assert the primacy of a dead criminal’s right to privacy over the public’s need to understand what led to his murderous rage seems ridiculous, but what else were the administration and campus police doing when they did not inform Cho’s parents or the English department of Cho’s incarceration at the St. Albans Behavioral Center for the Carilion New River Valley Medical Center?
But, silence was not enough; Tech needed more. The school needed a scholar, a respected academic to explain why the Steger administration could not have foreseen Cho’s rampage. The Steger administration thought it had found the answer to its prayers in the writings of New York Times best-selling author, Nassim Taleb. Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, deals with events that cannot be predicted. A “Black Swan” event can be positive or negative; it is “deemed highly improbable yet causes massive consequences.” School officials, as they clamored to argue that April 16, 2007 was not foreseeable, were quick to call Cho’s massacre a “Black Swan.” The school used the “Black Swan” argument in rebutting the Department of Education’s findings that Virginia Tech, by not issuing a warning immediately following the double homicide, had broken the law—the Clery Act.
If you read Taleb’s book, he says that a “Black Swan” event has several characteristics. The most distinctive of which is that nothing in the past can point to its possibility. Here, the author cites a turkey that is fed lots of food for months on end, and then a few weeks before Thanksgiving, the farmer cuts off his head. For the turkey, nothing pointed to its imminent demise—the head-lopping was a total surprise; it was a “Black Swan.”
Virginia Tech neglected to tell the public that Taleb also says that “some events can be rare and consequential, but somewhat predictable, particularly to those who are prepared for them and have the tools to understand them…” Taleb calls these events “near Black Swans.” The events of April 16, 2007, clearly fall into that category. Furthermore, I would remind Virginia Tech that just because something is unlikely does not mean that it is not predictable. And, there was ample evidence that Cho might harm himself or others and the school found every excuse it could to avoid confronting those indications and doing something about them.
The school’s use of the “Black Swan” defense is equivalent to intellectual dishonesty. What a shame that a great academic institution would stoop to such duplicitous measures. Rather than support the school’s case, Tech’s willingness to distort the “Black Swan” is an indication of just how bankrupt Virginia Tech’s defense is. In fact, the school’s readiness to misrepresent the “Black Swan,” as it desperately grasped for excuses, only underscores the indefensible actions of the Steger administration.
Was Cho’s rampage not foreseeable, was his mental illness not widely known to school officials? How many times does Virginia Tech have to be reminded of all the warning signs? Does the school really have to be told again that a judge ruled that Cho was an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness? Has the school forgotten that Cho’s behavior toward women got him into trouble with campus police? Does the school not remember that in the fall of 2005, Cho’s writings in Professor Nikki Giovanni’s “Creative Writing: Poetry” class were so dark and menacing that students dropped out? What more evidence of prior knowledge does anyone need than the fact that Professor Giovanni contacted the Dean of the English department saying that unless Cho was removed from the class, she would resign?
Was the school not aware that Cho sent a very clear and vivid warning when he wrote a paper for a creative writing class concerning a young man who hated the students at his school and planned to kill them and himself?