Very few days in American history truly stand out as marking a change in either how we view ourselves as a nation or how we were affected by a tragedy. December 7, 1941, was such a day. April 19, 1995, was such a day. September 11, 2001, was such a day. Unfortunately, April 16, 2007 was also such a day. It was the day when one mentally deranged student killed 32 others at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, more commonly known as Virginia Tech.
Sueng-Hui Cho was of Korean heritage and was studying English Literature at Virginia Tech. The fact that he killed 30 of his 32 victims in Norris Hall, which was a building primarily used for engineering studies, has made some people wonder if Cho had a grievance against the engineering department. We’ll never know for sure.
Cho’s day started early on April 16; he was up and leaving his dorm room by 5:15 a.m. according to statements accredited to his roommates. That pattern of behavior—being up and gone early—was something new to Cho; a pattern of behavior he’d adopted in the weeks before the shooting. No one seems to know what he did between 5:15 a.m. and 7:15 a.m. when he killed his first victim, Emily Hilscher, in West Ambler Johnston Hall. The resident assistant in that building, Ryan Clark, ran to see what was going on and was also killed by Cho.
Interpreting the First Shootings
Now picture yourself as one of the campus police officers who responded to the 911 calls. You arrive. You have two dead: one male, one female. Witnesses tell you they heard arguing and shots. You know that Emily had just returned to her dorm after spending the night with her boyfriend. Now imagine that on Emily’s computer screen are pictures of her boyfriend and you receive information that he enjoyed shooting sports. One of two things is going to be your primary suspicion: either Emily’s boyfriend killed her and Ryan or there was something else going on and Ryan killed Emily before killing himself. However it happened, you’re not looking for another shooter. The fact that no murder weapon is found on the scene points you more strongly toward Emily’s boyfriend. Nothing you’ve seen or learned points you to Cho.
The good news is that, with no weapon found on the scene at West Ambler Johnston Hall, the campus police know they are now looking for a “shooter on the loose.” S.W.A.T. teams are put on alert so they can be ready to serve warrants on Emily’s boyfriend if or when he’s found. The fact that the S.W.A.T. teams are ready to go is a fantastic blessing at 9:46 a.m. when the first 911 calls come out of Norris Hall after Cho starts his shooting spree.
Massacre at Norris Hall
When those calls came, campus police and two S.W.A.T. teams immediately headed toward Norris Hall. The west section of Norris is a three-story structure with two main entrances on the west end and one on the south face. Cho had taken chains and locks in with him and chained all three doors shut.
On the second floor, Cho managed to gain entry to two classrooms wherein he killed 30 students and shot another 25. Including Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark in West Ambler Johnston Hall, his total casualty count was 57. Within Norris Hall he reportedly fired 170 rounds.
That really got my attention—170 rounds = 55 dead or wounded. Even if he only fired one round per death or injury, that’s a 32% hit rate. An anonymous reliable source from Virginia Tech led me to believe that Cho fired three shots into most of his victims. If so, that would be 96 rounds for the total killed, leaving 74 rounds spent on the 25 wounded. With more ammunition-laden magazines found on his person, Cho was certainly prepared to deliver more death and injury. So, why didn’t he?
Police on the Scene
When the first arriving officers and S.W.A.T. teams got on scene they found the chained doors and realized they’d have to make a breach. The mainstream media reports that they used a shotgun to make entry, and it’s my understanding that a common patrol round—ØØ buckshot—was used. The blast of that 12-gauge round had to have been quite noticeable within the confines of the building’s hallways and obviously different from the sounds of Cho’s 9×19 or .22. The bottom line was that Cho knew the police were coming for him.
Once the door was breached, officers streamed into the building and headed directly to the second floor. They were certainly close enough to hear Cho’s last round fired—into his own head—but couldn’t have known that was what happened. For all they knew the situation had just transitioned from “active shooter” to “hostage barricade” and their approach tactics would have to change.
But with Cho having taken his own life, no hostage barricade existed; only the destruction and recovery effort left as a result of his assault.
Dealing with the Aftermath
The S.W.A.T. team medics had their hands full, as did the responding EMS/Rescue personnel. With 25 wounded—plus whatever injuries were incurred by students escaping out windows, etc.—plenty of first-aid assistance was both needed and rendered. An unexpected limiting circumstance—Mother Nature’s high winds that day—prevented med-evac helicopters from flying. How many areas have enough ambulances available to provide emergency transport to 25 wounded?
Since the end of the shooting and the beginning of the recovery process, the news media—as is their job—have diligently reported every tidbit of info they could acquire. When I arrived in Blacksburg on the Sunday after the shootings, I found that many of the bars and restaurants in town had put up signs essentially telling the media they were welcome to come in and eat or drink, but not to ply their trade. Indeed, by Monday April 23, the student government at Virginia Tech had issued a request for the media to leave the campus.
On April 23, as I walked around the campus, trying to acquaint myself with the locations of buildings and to get a feel for how the response must have played out, I was amazed and moved by the memorials that were in place.
Of course, by then there were also a countless number of blogs and websites dedicated to the Virginia Tech tragedy. It amazed me to read about how Cho was being counted among the dead students and his loss mourned. Those who mourn Cho’s death are far more forgiving or compassionate than I’ll ever be.
Understanding the Shooter
In trying to understand Cho, I think we might be passing over a few pieces of information that can’t really be interpreted in too many ways. Cho’s mental instability is well documented. That he was under the care of a mental health professional is not in question. What motivated him to kill two people in West Ambler Johnston Hall and then, two-and-a-half hours later, shoot 55 more in Norris Hall is something we may never know for sure. Some of his behaviors may point in certain directions though. Some facts cannot be twisted.
As noted above, for several weeks before his killing spree, Cho began to get up early and leave his dorm room each day. On April 16, he was up and out by 5:15 a.m. Why he killed Emily and Ryan in West Ambler Johnston Hall, and how he even gained access, has yet to be determined (as of this writing). Between the time of those murders and the attack on Norris Hall, Cho sent a package to NBC News. In that package was a videotape he’d made and his “manifesto” criticizing cruel students and insulting the Christian faith.
He attacked Norris Hall at 9:46 a.m. When it was all over, less than 10 minutes later, his body lay sprawled, head shaved, dead from a self-inflicted wound, with the words “Ismael Ax” in red ink on his arm. He also used a variation of that name to send his package to NBC News. Some have speculated that “Ismael” refers to the Ishmael of Moby Dick. Cho was studying English literature and would know the book well. The Ax can be explained in a number of ways. How about this one: Ishmael was one of the two sons of Abraham—yes, in the Bible. Ishmael was the son eventually sent away from Abraham and is revered in the Muslim faith. One story about Ishmael, as described in the Qu’ran, is the story of how Ishmael took plates of food to the idols in the mosque. When he came back later the plates of food were still full so he determined that the idols were false gods. He took an axe and destroyed them. Therefore, Ishmael’s axe was the destroyer of false gods or idols.
An Act of Jihad?
Is this meant to imply that Cho’s actions were a terrorist attack? No. However, it is unreasonable, without further information, to declare that Cho’s actions had absolutely no motivation beyond his mental instability. We can’t dismiss the possibility that Cho’s shooting was an act of spontaneous jihad simply to fit the facts as they exist.
Look at Cho’s videotape, even if all you can examine are the images. Compare them to videos released by homicide bombers and other “martyrs” and recognize the similarities: the display of various weapons; his presentation of himself as a warrior or soldier; images which show his willingness to commit acts of violence and his acceptance of his own vulnerability and death. These are all commonalities in martyr videos.
Does this mean that Cho’s attack has to be an act of spontaneous jihad? No. And, in fact, “spontaneous” may not apply anyway given how long he planned and prepared. I can’t help but wonder if the larger attack would have happened had Cho not encountered Emily Hilscher that morning and killed her. The disconnect in time and location between his murder of Emily and Ryan indicates to me that his attack at Norris Hall may have begun simply because he believed it was only a matter of time before the police found him. Having committed two apparently unplanned murders he was working with limited time before he’d be discovered and arrested, thus preventing him from carrying out his massacre.
We may never know for sure what spurred him to kill Emily that morning. It may have simply been that she recognized him as not belonging in West Ambler Johnston Hall and threatened to call the police. Ryan Clark was almost assuredly killed because he came to assist her—or to investigate the sound of shots.
Stop the Second-Guessing
In the end though, there are some things we have to recognize, accept and quit arguing about:
The police responded to the shooting at Norris Hall with all possible speed. Upon their arrival they faced a situation—three sets of doors chained shut—that their training had largely not prepared them to deal with in active-shooter situations. We have to change that. In light of other school assaults wherein shooters barricaded entrances, it’s reasonable to start including breaching possibilities in our active shooter response tactics. Police can only move from point A to point B so fast. Physics does limit us.
While many have criticized the police for not having done something faster or sooner, I have to commend them. I believe that they responded with all due haste, breached as soon as they realized it was their only option, and moved to the sound of shots in a motivated fashion.
Cho took his own life rather than face their guns, and the fact that he died with additional ammunition available indicates that his attack was cut short by the arrival of the police. That being the case, while we mourn the loss of 32 students, and help the 25 wounded who survived, we must also commend the responding officers and EMS/rescue personnel. Many of the 25 wounded pulled through because of emergency first aid and rescue service they received.
I believe the Virginia Tech Campus Police, their S.W.A.T. team, the Blacksburg Police and their S.W.A.T team, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s agency and the Virginia State Police and their S.W.A.T. teams all need to be commended. They performed as well as could be expected given contemporary policy and training. Not a single one of them should ever be made to feel like there was more that could have been done or that it should have been done faster. They did an exceptional job and the surviving students will no doubt appreciate them from that day forward.
About The Author:
Kevin Miller is the owner and president of a company that evaluates military and law-enforcement equipment. Drawing on his seven years of military service and more than 20 years of police experience, Kevin develops training programs while producing in excess of 150 published articles each year. Kevin also serves as the primary Use of Force and Firearms instructor for eight municipal police agencies.
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