I’ve been thinking about the violence at Virginia Tech, and about a violent man I once met. He was the boyfriend of a friend of mine. She brought him over to visit one afternoon, but his vibe was so repellent, so dangerous, that I didn’t want him near my kids, near me, nor in my home. I remember him sitting in my kitchen, his eyes moving over the furniture, the fixtures, evaluating everything, sizing everything up. My friend sat a little in the background, not saying much, anxious for us to like him. She was something of an innocent. She owned her own house, had a job, but (and this is my own interpretation; I can’t speak for her) felt she needed a man, a baby, and so invited this man into her home. He had come out of nowhere, had no job—she met him in a café. Over the next few months I often thought of calling her, of warning her about him, and my only excuses for not doing so was that I was pretty sure she wouldn’t listen to me, and moreover that I couldn’t imagine that it would end the way it did. It was obvious that he had all the power, had taken the reins. This is what violence, or the threat of violence does; it trumps good sense, good intentions. So I didn’t call her and he killed her.
I probably wouldn’t have been a hero even if I had got to warn her; other friends, closer to her than I, had warned her repeatedly and she had cut off contact with them. She isolated herself with this rabid dog, this madman, and didn’t want to listen to her friends: she didn’t want to believe in the worst. In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy’s last book but one, there is a killer who stalks his victims as implacably as death—and so defies comprehension, at least to the characters in the book, until he is right in front of them, and then they have to believe. I can see why, on that bucolic campus in Virginia, no one acted on the warnings. We can’t protect ourselves from people like Cho Seung-Hui, not completely, because the blessedly sane, the peaceful, don’t really believe in violence, don’t want to believe in it. The only thing to do, unless we want to live in eternal lockdown, is to mitigate its effects. That’s why we need gun control.
After the deaths in Virginia, I thought of how we can’t believe in the worst, and then I thought of my friend. She was a sweet woman, she traveled widely, she loved dinner parties, she thought deeply about the world, and none of these details can bring her back. Nor will the stories about the people who died in the classroom; this one’s favorite book was “Little Women,” this one a holocaust survivor. To tell these stories, to read them and to cry over them is to pay the victims a little tribute. It’s all one can do, after the fact. But everybody who was afraid of or for Cho, who saw the violence in him, who knew something wasn’t right and spoke up, the Cassandras, they have already done what they could do, what all of us should do. Because when someone speaks out, it is always possible that a paper will be filed, someone notified, a law passed, a gun taken out of a sick man’s hand.
Marian Berges is a Berkeley resident.