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The Pulpit
Pulpit Comments
April 26, 2007 -- Mean Time Between Failures
Status: [CLOSED]

Organizations are powerless to do anything before the fact for fear of OFFFENNNNDDDING anyone and fear of lawsuits. It is the way of our modern culture not to be able to protect itself. Sorry won't work.

lucky | Apr 26, 2007 | 9:24PM

My Father committed suicide in 2002. He shot himself while drinking a $100 bottle of wine and watching the sunset on a beach in Central California.

I saw the signs too; the drinking and reclusive behavior, keeping odd hours and a litany of other out-of-character activities. I had resolved to confront him ... "Tomorrow", I told myself, "I'll call him tomorrow". That was Friday. Saturday he was missing. Tuesday morning he was found by a jogger. The following Friday he was laid to rest.

Friends, tomorrow is not good enough. The mental health safety net we all assume will catch our brethren is us. We all have been in contact with someone who's life is troubled, and we, each of us, need to take additional responsibility when we see someone close to use on the edge of sanity. We are the early warning system. We are our brothers' keepers.

Like my story, the students and faculty of VT and in countless other cases around the world all knew that there was a specific individual at risk and not in touch with reality. We cannot say that there was nothing more that could have been done -- something must be done.

People in crisis like this need help, and cannot find it themselves. If you are ill equipped to handle a situation, find someone who can. A neighborhood church. A social services nonprofit. The local teen suicide hotline will support baby boomers in crisis if they can, or at least recommend an alternate support delivery system.

I'm tired of hearing responsibility being shirked with the comment "We did all we could." 'They' didn't last week. I didn't in 2002.

Survivor | Apr 26, 2007 | 9:34PM

A hate, vitriol and despair spider is likely to catch about half of the 30% still supoporting the present regime in the White House.

Larry | Apr 26, 2007 | 9:39PM

The first step is to build a more participatory culture. That's been a low priority of our society for thousands of years. The Internet provides us the tools for a more participatory society, but we've got to decide collectively that's something we want to do.

And participatory doesn't mean that one tenth of one percent of the planet uploads videos to YouTube. It means that 30, 40, 50 or 60 percent of the planet participates in some meaningful way.

What do you say? Should we collectively reach for greater participation? Can we figure out ways of having greater inclusion?

phil shapiro | Apr 26, 2007 | 9:45PM

Here in Australia a couple of weeks ago two 16 yr old girls hanged themselves in an apparent suicide pact. So very very sad. They left several postings on teenage web sites hinting at their plans. Each posting in isolation was ambiguous, but across time the trend was there. Should be easy to pick up using the sort of statistical analysis available these days. The trick would be to decide who analyses and who do they report to.


Glenn Sanders | Apr 26, 2007 | 10:11PM

Say what now huh?

Considering most if not all of these 'failures' are a product of bullying or social ostracism, your plan is to make it easier to bully and harass these individuals.

The fact of the matter by the time they are posting their intentions on the internet for all to see the people closest to them already know something isn’t right. The unfortunate part of all of this is that in general we deal with that as human beings not by stopping the bullying but by ramping it up. Your plan seems to be a way of amplifying the vicious circle that in the end creates the maladjusted.

hondophred | Apr 26, 2007 | 10:34PM

I've always enjoyed reading your column because of your ingenuity and perspective. This is perhaps the best example I've seen. As a college senior I would like to say, thanks for the insight.

Andy | Apr 26, 2007 | 10:41PM

Yes, this would work for those who posted their rants and plans on commonly known sites like MySpace, etc., but the VT guy had written alarming stories for class - he hadn't posted them to the usual sites.

I think here although a technological solution could help it isn't the first place I'd start. I'd start with why it was that despite the VT English department's attempts to follow through on their concerns they got nowhere: this was primarily a problem with the law and gaps in jurisdiction. No one was able or willing to incarcerate him, nor was he forced to remain committed to an institution for his and others' safety. There was no one who said or could say 'the buck stops here' - everyone passed the buck.

The other question is why is it that no one has yet been able to get traction on getting guns out of the hands of madmen and other misfits like this guy, despite these inane and increasingly common and deadly incidents. I personally would like to see all guns taken away from civilians, period, with SERIOUS consequences, not wrist slaps, for violations, but I know Americans will never get beyond their strange idea about defending themselves from their own government. Instead, I would propose the following adjustment to the cooling off period and to the background check required for gun permits and registrations: also require the applicant to post his name, address, and other identifying information on a well-publicized public web site for this purpose (maybe even require publication of these notices in local newspapers), and have the wait period be more like 30 days, during which if there is a single person who registers an objection to the applicant's having a gun permit, there should ensue an investigation before the applicant can receive the permit.

Alternatively, the applicant would be required to have 20 friends, co-workers, and neighbors sign affidavits attesting to the applicant's sanity, civility, and general law-abiding nature, as well as affirming that they have no knowledge of any personal or other situations that could push the applicant to violence. You could even have the gun permit renewal process require a similar number of affidavits.

Kim | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:06PM

Great, excellent... until you advocated that the government computers do data mining to snatch (mostly innocent) kids off the street and into the police station.

What the hell got into you, Bob? You want them doing that to the grownups next? Because Bush and Cheney would be MORE than happy to!

In every single case of kid mass-murder, everyone around the kid knew he was all fcuked up and about to blow. It is THOSE people who need to bring it to someone's attention, and the attention needs to be medical and supportive, not the police.

SSRIs internally and anti-bully intervention externally would have cured every one of these situations before they happened.

Faye Kane | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:07PM

The truly unfortunate aspect, is even if such a spider program existed, produced effective reports, and found a way of reporting to appropriate authorities, parents, schools et al, what would be the good? To whom would they turn?

What infrastructure there was - abysmal as it was - has been dismantled over the last 40 years and promises by politicians for sufficient funding for replacement community-based resources melt after memory of each disaster fades. Acceptance by the community (much less demand) for teaching mental health/hygiene exercises (especially relationship skills) has reduced rather than increased as state after state bans so-called 'sex education' in schools - but that is another topic.

Janice Kent-Mackenzie | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:07PM

You are kidding, right? This seems to be about the craziest idea I have heard in a while, just want to get confirmation as to whether you are serious.

Neill | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:09PM

As a Virginia Tech alumnus I was horrified by the events last week. I had friends and family in the area (fortunately none were too close). But I still worry whenever someone suggests trawling a net that will catch people before they do something. There's a lot of risk of harassing, frightening, or just plain embarrassing the wrong people.

In the end whether a system like yours is fair will depend on how accurate it is. But there's the problem: how will we train it, and how will be know? The kind of pattern-matching you're proposing takes lots and lots of training data. And you have to wait and see without intervention in order to mark the results! Only after you can demonstrate a highly accurate system should you use it. Even then it's accuracy will probably decrease over time since the patterns of communication by everyone (disturbed and undisturbed alike) are constantly changing.

I have to agree with one of the previous posters: the best line of defense is people paying attention to and helping the people nearby.

James Brundege | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:19PM

Thanks for killing most literature, movies, comic books, plays, console games, etc, etc, etc. Thinking about doing something and doing something are two incredibly different things, billions of people make that distincation when consuming or creating creative products everyday. Your idea would have so many false positives it would absolutely useless.

jozero | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:21PM

Data mining like that would probably work, although finding someone that way who hasn't done anything yet could lead to a tricky situation. What do you do with them?

By the way, Bob, this is not a "new" failure mode. Nutcases who blame innocents for their failures and take bloody revenge have been around for a long time. Just because this coward set a new record doesn't mean he represents a new phenomenon.

Kelly Parks | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:25PM

What you are suggesting Bob is similiar to Minority Report, there is a high possibility that you are just accusing innocent people. The variables and changing nature of the human mind is too complex to map out for a machine.

The human psyche is so complex and varied that you are setting the system up to fail and innocent people will be hurt.

The system can also be abuse. Lets say there is such a system in place to find patterns on an individual that might be unstable. Someone can abuse this by using it as a tool to hurt a ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, or ex-wife. They can create web pages and hate mail claiming to be their ex and if they know what the spider is looking for they can get enough attention to get that person in trouble.

Jake | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:40PM

People need to pay attention to people. The outcasts are the ones without access to real life friend networks. We all need our support networks. We all need friends. This brings balance. The Virginia Tech shooter did NOT have this balance. Humans are now too busy to interact person to person. We now react behind a keyboard and screen. How human is that? Posting dirty laundry on an internet website is going to get us all into more trouble. Who's going to save us? GoogleSleuth?

William | Apr 26, 2007 | 11:53PM

Actually, this is one of your better posts and ideas. More and more I'm frustrated reading this blog about cool things that might be coming, but which never, ever turn out to be accurate or true at all. This idea, though, has real merit, and it'd be nice if the authorities would/could, say, trawl the MySpace type places for people with real issues like this, rather than just looking for cyber perverts.

Peter Payne | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:08AM

How coincidental is this, I'm a grad student up late fretting over finishing a final paper, avoiding it by commenting here. (No need to worry about me though, I have no desire to take anything out on anyone, myself included.)

But I -have- felt my share of despair over the process. And I also know that people would treat blatant knowledge of that despair with a big "so what" as best. Worst would be a Columbine-style media overreaction.

The fact is... if you trawled the web for despair, and hate and loathing too, you would get a thousand times more hits than you could use to predict anything, and to do something constructive about all that would require a lot more empathy than I tend to see out of most people.

Further, there is plenty of trash talk out there on the web. How do you tell the people who are just harmlessly blabbing to friends apart from those who have real problems?

John H. | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:18AM

Unfortunately, I cannot satisfy your #3 rule for posting comments.

Your topic is too serious for flip comments.

Perhaps it should be brainstormed by a selected group of folks who should know some of the answers - surviving school killers.

Bob Gustafson | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:18AM

No, Bob, I don't think that would help. I think that these kids would learn about such a system and avoid posting. Having a formal system in place to find these clues would drive these individuals to hide their cries for help in places where search engines couldn't do the work of finding them. Conversations with friends, private diaries, things of that nature. At least now, people who run into their posts can have a chance of reaching out to them.

What we need is a system that doesn't push people to despair. There's a reason why these shooters and suicides are students. We've got people who are nearly or fully adult, from their teens through their thirties and forties, locked into an infantilized position on the lower rungs of of the rigid caste system that defines modern American education. First in high school, then in college, then in grad school, and then in postdocs, these people struggle to get ahead. Many who were the best and brightest at the lower levels become objects of disdain to their classmates as they advance. People who do poorly in this system are also ostracized by those above them, branded unworthy by the people higher up.

You want to know why that grad student was mad at you? Because you did your job, Bob. You held him accountable when he just wanted to squeeze through, invisibly. As a grad student, he was likely smart and resourceful enough to do well outside of academia, but in school, you have to be a stand-out exceptional scholar just to be respected by those above you. And at each successive level, you have to be that much better to stand out.

College, master's degree, even as high as the PhD level, someone who can't learn the material or can't handle the pressure doesn't realize that to the outside world, they're a highly educated professional with a master's degree; they're inside the system, and they're just terrified of being labeled a dropout, of being lumped together with those who couldn't finish high school. And the pressure is so very intense.

For a hard working, academic kid who's reached his or her limit, neither high school, nor college, nor grad school, nor a postdoc, nor the struggle for tenure leaves much room for dating or starting a family or any of the normal things that human beings evolved to do when they were friggin' teenagers. Instead, adulthood is delayed a decade or two. Even close friends get left behind every few years as a student advances, and then we wonder why these people feel like they have nothing to live for, why they're bitter at the rest of the world.

Anyways, I got to get back to working on my PhD thesis, while my sixth year of grad school stretches out into a seventh. To be honest, I'm not sure if I'll make it to the degree. If school were all that I had going on in my life, I might have thought I was pretty worthless at this point.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not one of the people in danger of sinking into genuine despair or doing something foolish. Fortunately for me, I haven't spent my whole education just focusing on academics. I've got (in addition to friends) a gorgeous, caring, supportive wife, and a beautiful baby son. They keep me sane when the pressure mounts. I'm just tired of spending the best years of my life in a low paying research lab.

Will | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:19AM

I would be happy if they just posted everyone who purchases a gun and maybe allowed us to register for an email when someone in a particular zip code gets a gun.

I am sure that the people around the VT killer would have been registered to be alerted with an email if he ever obtained a gun and they would have contacted authorities when they received the email alert.

Let's use the Internet as a tool!
People can have their guns but let's make it public.

John | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:40AM

Let's not get out of control, though. Chicago School officials had an innocent student arrested for writing a "violently disturbing" essay.,1,696682.story?coll=chi-news-hed&ctrack=1&cset=true

Stephen | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:46AM

Thanks, Will. Well put.

Bob, you did what I would expect any good teacher should do. All my best teachers (and I was blessed with several) held me accountable for everything I did and gave me their best. And I respect them to my dying day for this, *because* they held me accountable. That kind of teaching has never been the root cause for someone going off the deep end. Never.

yDNA | Apr 27, 2007 | 1:16AM

Okay so the search engine has identified a person who is about to crack, then what? With a hard drive you can remove and replace it, what do you do with a human?

Wayne | Apr 27, 2007 | 1:20AM

When the human makes noise that it is about to fail, you do the same thing that you would do with an expensive hard drive. You remove it, you get it repaired at some greater expense than simple replacement, and you put it back in place. And then you watch it more closely than before because it has failed once and you don't quite trust it anymore.

It doesn't make the need for the hard drive less it just makes it more precious.

hottap | Apr 27, 2007 | 1:34AM

An insightful column into a tragic but sadly familiar event, and a great response from Will. Throughout human experience, until about 200 years ago, education was something you got mainly at home or on the job. School was for the well-off, and even then didn't take up too many years. If you chose a high-tech career like metal working, fabric production, or printing, you were apprenticed into a guild in your early teens, and earned while you learned. But most people were generally regarded as adult, and ready to take up the responsibilities and rights that that entails, by their mid teens.

Since then, the amount of science and technology that we have discovered and developed has grown exponentially, and this growth rate looks set to continue. In order for our societies to exploit the benefits of new tech, we submit our children to an ever-expanding educational regime, as Will describes. Their bodies tell them that they are adults, ready to enjoy the benefits and freedoms that this brings, but their elders tell them that they are children. I have been on the management board of my children's school for many years, and have often had the unpleasant experience of hearing disciplinary cases against students. Each time this happens I see that they are young men and women, ready to get on with their lives, while we try to arrest their development and persuade them that they are still children.

The amount of technology and information continues to explode, and in our greed to exploit it all, we will continue to artificially extend our offspring's childhood, but it can't go on forever. For example, women would eventually graduate only after they have become too old to have children. Long before that the pressure that people experience when forced into artificial infantilism and dependency for too long will cause them to break, in increasingly violent ways.

Better surveillance and prediction of breakage would serve to address the symptoms rather than the problem. I think that we need to better develop the postgrad study model, so that folk can get a basic competence in their chosen field, start to earn a living and to enjoy the independence that that brings, and continue with their studies part-time. We need to replace the rigid lecture room model with web-delivered courseware so that those still studying (and I would count myself in their number, even though I have officially retired at least once) can pursue their studies at times and places convenient to them, rather than at the convenience of the institutions that deliver the education.

Trevor Turton | Apr 27, 2007 | 1:34AM

It is time we took a serious look at the effects of the anti-depressants issued like candy to all comers. Both the VT shooter and the Columbine shooters were on these drugs, and the FDA warnings on the drugs shows that they can induce violence against self and others. See a psychiatrist's trenchant comments on this at

A much simpler approach would seem to be holding the drug manufacturer and the prescribing physician legally responsible for such violent attacks. There is very good evidence to show that they are creating monsters. There are many safe, natural ways to deal with depression through nutrition and vitamin supplementation.

Of course it is unlikely that any news media will expose this facet of these tragedies, beholden as they are to the advertising of the Big Pharma cartels.

Arthur | Apr 27, 2007 | 2:06AM

Your imminent crack-up detector already exists!

Employing the Google (TM) search engine on the terms hate+vitriol+despair

returns only 88,400 hits within which your article is 2nd ranked. At one second per hit, it would only take about a day to get through them all and sift out the real wackos for further investigation. But if the somewhat exotic "vitriol" search term is left out we're up to 1,420,000 hits which would take a bit longer...

Tom | Apr 27, 2007 | 2:18AM

Maybe I'm overly pragmatic but it seems to me that these shooters are just an inescapable part of life. If an animal in the wild were mentally deficient it likely wouldn't survive long enough to make it out of infancy. Obviously humans are a different animal, but when you have billions of instances of an organism some portion are going to be defective.

When the news continually reports "we haven't found the motive" I wonder what crime they're investigating. Motive? His motive is that he felt he had been ostracized, humiliated and powerless his whole life. His desperate attempts to "connect" with people probably brought him more derision as people reacted in horror to his clumsy and creepy social skills. His mental instability, probably a contributing cause of his lacking social skills to begin with, left him unable to cope with the pain of not fitting in.

Based upon his press kit you'd have to conclude he felt victimized and bullied by all the other students. He finally struck back in a way that gave him power, notoriety and no doubt sent him to his grave with the satisfaction of knowing his terrifying shooting spree would insure his place in history.

Yes we should be more vigilant, yes we should do more to catch these students earlier, but I don't see how we can possibly eliminate these episodes. Whats more, they've hardly reached epidemic proportions. People blame VT for not handling the incident properly, well if I'm not mistaken in the 135 years before this incident, VT had never had a mass murdering mentally unstable student go on a shooting spree.

I hate to bring this up but in 2004 there were 2,397,615 deaths according to NCHS. If you do the math it means 6,568 die, on average, everyday. It's tragic that 32 bright and promising students died way too early, but sadly that too is part of our world.

MV | Apr 27, 2007 | 2:25AM
MP | Apr 27, 2007 | 3:14AM

Our culture, and perhaps other Western socities tolerate children who bully, tease and torment their own peers who do not fit into their narrowly defined ideas of "normal". Children pick up clues from adult society that it is OK to be bigoted and express their disdain for others who are different. Under direct adult supervision this meaness of children towards other children can be restrained or redirected. However, children, in our culture are often without adult supervision and so they can act out their intolerant behavior towards other children and inflict emotional and even physical harm on vulnerable kids.

I was one of those young kids that did not fit in and I learned to survive by trying to be invisible to my peers who acted like bullies. I had enough adult support to progress through the educational system all the way through grad school. After years of struggling I, and many others, have learned successful coping mechanisms. Will noted that one can still encounter bullying behavior in the highest levels of academia.

Reading about the VT killer's early life I could empathize with his withdrawl behavior after his early childhood treatment by peer bullies. Unfortunately, in his case his angst evolved into mental illness and ultimately violence & destruction.

A fundamental issue the VT case brings up is why our children are so cruel to each other at such an early age. Is the unchaparoned exposure of young kids to violent media and older kids being mean imprinting the wrong behavior patterns?

RB | Apr 27, 2007 | 3:24AM

Bob said: "Search the web for hate and vitriol and despair, do some clever parsing and analysis to figure out the where and when..."

...and then wait for web vandals to start trashing everywhere they don't like....

Seriuously, I do some small, regular editting of a Wikipedia entry. Almost EVERY DAY, some dork has vandalised something somewhere in the article.

And I read the other day: Vandals have figured out how to send "false traffic reports" on the network that your car navigators use to show traffic jams etc.

If you have any open system (these days), it will fill with grafitti or worse. Not like when I was a kid in the 1950s, and the (mid-sized) city was so safe, you NEVER worried where your kids were, you left your keys in your car, and you never locked your house.


William | Apr 27, 2007 | 3:43AM

I should like to see us use the technology of the digital age to mitigate the causes of disaster. It seems to me that your proposal is one of many that seeks to use that technology mitigate the effects of the disaster.

The best data that we have on student related shooting shows us that kids between the ages of 5–19 are 60 times more likely to be killed away from school and 370 time more likely to successfully commit suicide somewhere other than at school. In the coming years perhaps a billion dollars will be spent updating college security. I should be surprised if one out of 430 of those dollars will be spent on efforts to mitigate the causes of such disasters.

Total student, Number of school-associated violent deaths and number of homicides and suicides of youth ages 5–19, by location: 1992–2002

Christopher Effgen | Apr 27, 2007 | 3:44AM

At least some disturbed kids are visible long before they get to university. In a primary school of my acquaintance, there is a boy whose mother constantly complains to the teachers and principal, saying that he is being bullied by other students. It turns out that his own bizarre, unprovoked and sometimes aggressive behaviour towards others is at the origin of the repulses and retaliations. Virginia Tech brought out a "there he is in 15 years" reaction amongst the teaching staff. He is unlike other troublesome boys in this tough school, those who are likely to be the car thieves and hold-up artists. Known though he is, with his parents denying reality authorities cannot intervene since the transgressions are minor.

Outroupistache | Apr 27, 2007 | 4:44AM

I'm puzzled as to why neither you Bob nor any of the commentators pointed out the foolishness of letting war weapons in free sale. Here in France, the rightist candidate running for the Presidency pretends that babies are genetically scheduled to committing suicide! What will be the next step? Eugenism? In your country, will the NRA convince Pres. Bush that all the kids should come to kindergarden with a gun so as they could shoot any odd looking pal?

Vince | Apr 27, 2007 | 7:03AM

Look at It is a "search engine" to harvest feelings on the net. Incidently it is designed at Stanford.

Thank god more people feel better and good! What can you do to make at least one person feel better every day? What can you do to enable people to find a purpose in life every day? What can you do to help ensure you do not trample on the dreams of others every day?

Anupam Saraph | Apr 27, 2007 | 7:12AM

Alot of good comments. I think it always worthy to use our talents and resources to the highest levels on the most worth of goals. We fundamentally agree here there is a problem. Through consultation with some of the wisest heads here, we could come up with a plan and a proposal to get some dollars.

In the meantime the idea to start with the value and virtue system of the people involved (kids, parents, students, teachers, etc.) should also be pushed forward. And there is an answer to this already working though not on the size you envision to prove effective.

Edo River | Apr 27, 2007 | 7:38AM

The reason why people don't look for it is because a) they don't care and b) everyone has their own problems. We only care once it becomes our problem.

That's life!

People either learn that they're on their own and that they have to go out and get what they want or they don't and they either drown out their emotions with drugs/alchohol or if they don't do these things they burst and kill themselves and others.

I often think that instead of wasting loads of money keeping old people alive far longer than they should we should be investing lots of money into psychological care where kids and adults can be counselled and given the help they need to allow them to live a fulfilling life.

But it's also a problem with American society and the real reason why it really only happens there. The divide between the haves and have-nots is so much. At least in countries where everyone is poor, you aren't aware of a life you could be living. So people are relatively more miserable than anywhere else in the world.

John | Apr 27, 2007 | 8:08AM

Bob, you need to stick to techno-punditry. The problem is a lack of respect. That is a lack of respect for other people and for society's norms and taboos. This comes from the desensitization caused by hollywood and the media as well as from a lack of moral grounding that was furnished by institutions like the military, religion and nuclear families.

SharpDog | Apr 27, 2007 | 8:32AM

You really shouldn't make jokes about such sad events. Or was this some form of irony or satire of the level of discussion around school shootings?

Your surveillance system would not stop a single tragedy. If the parents don't care, the society won't provide access to help for all, automatic weapons are available to anyone and a culture of trigger happy cowboys touting guns is generally accepted then all you can do is brace yourself for more tragic loss.

Citizen B | Apr 27, 2007 | 8:35AM

Hey John - you're right(not!)- in Somalia, where people are killing each other daily, there is no great divide. But the kill each other anyway, and why? So they can be on top, or because they hate the other group. People will ALWAYS find some differentiating factor between 'us' and 'them'. It's in our nature. And some people will always use that difference ("they're white", "they're Jewish", "they're black", "they're Islamic", "they're Communist") to direct agression toward the other group.

And it's not a lack of respect, it's a lack of compassion, and it's jealousy, and all those other things that the Bible (gasp!) and other pacifistic religions teach us about. People raised in a vacuum are left to define their own moral code, and mostly it devolves to "I want it, it's mine" and "looking out for number one".

And B - it's not the guns, it's the brains behind the guns. Anyone remember the Tylenol scare? Not a gun was used, but several people died. You can poison a lot of people, and never pull the trigger of a gun. You can put bleach and ammonia in a ventilation system, and never fire a round. It's the person, and personal responsibility that are key.

The Golden Rule is the key: Treat others as you wish to be treated!

James | Apr 27, 2007 | 9:09AM

I think that there has been a decline in people's ability to empathize. We are desensitized to violence and don't feel strongly about it until it happens close to us. Look how many people have made it a personal crusade when an event has impacted them personally.

In hindsight you realize that someone should have tried to help your former student. In hindsight we all realize that we have a responsibility to try to help people like Seung-Hui Cho without intruding too much. It's time to step up for the good of all, and try to predict who might be the next person who will harm themselves and others. I realize that nobody wants to feel like they are living in the USSR at the height of the KGB's power but we really need to do something.

Bob, you have some clout in our industry. Who do you know that could build the type of spider needed? We need to convince them to build it and then give it to the government. I know that the last statement will cause all kinds of uproar but we have to start somewhere!!

Rod | Apr 27, 2007 | 9:14AM

While the above comments regard the ethical and social issues, the technological work has already been researched (just one article of many on the topic - see the references):

In fact, I had a professor who applied the same text mining to blogs. We had no official psychiatric data, but eye-balling the results, it is pretty clear when someone is troubled. Additionally, roughly the same percentage of depression was found in blogs vs. normal population data.

This could be implemented fairly easily. Who would pay for it and investigate the results?

Ben | Apr 27, 2007 | 9:16AM

Gee, Bob. I sorta liked this one. The problem, whatever "it" is, cannot be summed up as a lack of respect or societal disinterest. So, I like the idea that such spiders could be developed to provide analysis of mass amounts of otherwise disconnected psychological data. Wouldn't it be hard, however, to actually do anything once having identified a fissure in the genial webworld. "Hey kid, our system has identified you as a potential big loser. Please fill out this form for a free intervention."

badbrain | Apr 27, 2007 | 9:21AM


Very interesting idea. Of course it wouldn't catch everyone, it wouldn't catch most perhaps, yet it could be useful. The reality is, though, that these people *are* telegraphing the info, but the relevant people often aren't listening. So the search engine wouldn't necessarily help. But you rightly point out that often there are warning signs. The other posters seem to have missed that: when some people go wrong, then controls that work for most people won't work for them. There's never been a time when there weren't people who commit crimes, whatever the social mores.

rick | Apr 27, 2007 | 9:23AM

I'm sorry Bob, you missed the point on this one. Certainly, we can detect troubled people more effectively this way. But then what? Someone at Virginia Tech (I don't recall who) estimated that there were 250 other students enrolled with Cho's loner profile. Obviously, we're going to have HUGE false positives. Next, while you have a perception that the failure mode has changed, that's a fallacy of the media not borne out by the statistics. (By the way, the deadliest school massacre was in 1927. Look up Bath School.) Suicides remain the standard failure mode, but the media has popularized the mass shooting for future copycats.

Chuck W | Apr 27, 2007 | 9:40AM

Long ago, when I wrote for/with (anybody remember Suck?), Columbine happened. I wrote at that time that a horrible meme had been released into the world. "Traditionally," a hurt and damaged person would kill himself--always because of depression,which is a dangerous disease--but often would do it, he thought, as a way of "showing them" what "they had done" to him.

If you're going to kill yourself anyway, why not take some of "them" with you? Not a new idea--murder/suicides involving family and lovers--have been going on for a very long time--but combined with semiautomatic weapons and a generalized image of "them," it's a new, unique, and dangerous thing.

Most suicidal kids do not seem to have thought of it before or hadn't realized they could get firearms before. Now they do, and can.

Something dangerous and evil has been loosed upon the world, or at least upon the part of the world with easily available weapons and tendency to turn madness inward not outward. "What rough beast" indeed.

TheDoctor | Apr 27, 2007 | 9:42AM

Sounds like a good idea.
My NET (pros v cons) reaction is to hope someone comes up with it.
Reasons to doubt: Why limit it to troubled youths? Why not look for signs of Liberalism? or Conservatism? Sad point, but.. In the long run, someone will if they haven't already, so net benefit, go ahead on the search engine for troubled bloggers.
We just have to remember that privacy is truly a myth, and if we are going to do something in public, remember, its PUBLIC.
Peace to you all.

Timothy Keeling | Apr 27, 2007 | 9:57AM

Good idea, although I personally believe that the best solution is forbidding civilian access to (all kinds of) weapons.

Information Retrieval (IR) has been applying clustering and classification techniques for a few decades. Nevertheless, the application of these algorithms for the production of text classes/clusters based on the author's feelings and moods is not trivial.

A fully automatic solution would produce far too many "false positives" and users will quickly ditch it as useless. A semi-automatic approach will spring much more accurate and useful results.

Unique Fish | Apr 27, 2007 | 10:11AM

I would be surprised if there is not a NSA project to search the internet for "profiles".

Maybe I am a cynic .... I think Bob hit the topic on the head. All societies have mental misfits. The internets makes it easier to get better firearms.

We will never disarm our society.

Jay Biddle | Apr 27, 2007 | 10:15AM

So you might identify the occasional, not so obvious problem case who might become a suicidal maniac bent on taking out others... What about the obvious and seemingly endless supply of those who use this as a war tactic? What about when suicidal bombing is not just culturally accepted but glorified? Such was the case with the kamikaze Japanese during WWII and such now is the case with militant Islamic radicals and other religious zealots. While technology may assist with this problem, the ultimate focus must be on bringing spiritual healing to dark and deeply wounded human hearts.

D. B. | Apr 27, 2007 | 10:27AM

I'd like to go back to the laptop->nuclear explosion metaphor. If laptops had the potential to act like small nuclear weapons, the first thing you'd think we'd do is take all the enriched uranium out of the laptops, so that if a laptop did go bad, its ability to do damage would be limited. The application of that to US society would be to (finally) get serious about controlling access to firearms.

Todd Glover | Apr 27, 2007 | 10:36AM

Throw more technology at it? Sounds like standard behaviour practised in the US (Terrorist attacks? Okey, let's thoroughly screen every passenger on our domestic and international flights, compare it's name to a huge database).

Sure you might be able to prevent some mass murders acting like this, but I recommend getting to the very cause and solve the problem at its roots.

Mario Aeby | Apr 27, 2007 | 10:44AM

How about MTBMF...mean time between mean failures as the stat?

As far as progamatically warning people in a position to help, I like the idea, but the implementation would be tricky. For example, pointed out by an astute colleague of mine...what to do about the Quentin Tarantino's of the world? How could a program distinguish the work of an artist from those of the deranged? Not saying it cannot be done, but just very difficult. Cast my vote for first putting the intelligence into better parsing of who is able to get their hands on weapons who require only a mere thought to kill.

The Buddhists have the idea that anger and hate are not the truth, that a mind under the influence of either cannot think clear thoughts; indeed, it is incapable of seeing the truth when in that frame of mind. In that view, the search engine Bob proposes would end up being the Anti-Google, in which the only hits would be completely irrelevant rants.

Aaron Miller | Apr 27, 2007 | 10:47AM

SharpDog and Citizen B have missed the point: preventing mass murders is serious business, and in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech killings, and the Columbine killings, and the others that have happened in the last 40 years or so, we need to consider seriously how we might prevent future episodes. And I happen to think Cringley's proposal was serious, and should be examined seriously.

The Brady Bill, which created the background checks on handgun purchasers clearly prohibited Cho's buying a gun. But Virginia hadn't shared his mental history with the Feds in this case because of quirks in the State law. It should be noted in the States defense that at least Virginia does share SOME mental health records with the Feds, unlike 28 states that share NONE of their records. Thus Cho fell through the cracks and was able to easily buy his murder weapons.

Maybe the VT rampage might not have been prevented by Cringley's proposal, maybe Columbine could have been. No single approach will work in all cases, but I happen to like the idea as just one more tool to get help for folks who clearly desperately need all the help possible.

VT neighbor | Apr 27, 2007 | 10:57AM

What a foolish, almost mindless suggestion! A computer program trolling the web and reporting people to (who? the "authorities'?) for expressing the "wrong" thoughts has to be everyone's worst nightmare. Like it or not, we live in a society where an accusation destroys lives as thoroughly as a conviction, and you propose an automatic accusation machine.

We can't solve violence or anything else by adding more people to a suspects list. Really, the only way to make a lasting and useful change is to ameliorate the pressures that drive these poor souls. But that's HARD, and no one is sure how to do it without making "inconvenient" changes.

Scott Schuckert | Apr 27, 2007 | 11:06AM

Sadly, I feel that these kinds of tragedies are a part of our culture. And I don't mean rap music or violence on TV and in video games: it's our culture that demands the violence and creates a market for it. Increasingly, it just feels like people are just "out to get theirs" and do whatever it takes to achieve that end. I think the pressures of daily living for people of all ages grows with each passing day.

At one time, there was this idea that anyone who's willing to work eight hours a day should be able to live comfortably. I think that idea is dying, as there are plenty of people who work hard and are not comfortable. Likewise, many people feel they are forced into an unhappy position just to make their family comfortable.

I think it's all connected, really... our culture values instant gratification and the "quick win". The majority is too busy to sit down and read about what's going on around them, so most people get their news in 20 second blurbs, headlines and sound-bytes. I'd say that, as a whole, our culture is deteriorating. That's not to say it's non-existent, it's just becoming harder to find, and not always readily available.

The shootings by young people should probably be seen as an indicator. I think these problems will eventually spread to adults and possibly even young children. The only real way to "fix" it is to fix ourselves. Think long and hard about what we value, and live those values. Unfortunately, that's a change that takes a lot of dedication, committed leadership and several generations.

People always talk about 50 years ago, and how great things were: no one worried about their kids, they left their doors unlocked, etc. But the culture was different then. Most moms stayed at home, so you had someone to anchor the family together. The dad could work "regular" hours and still provide for his family. There was *time* for community-building. There was a stronger "we're all in this together" sentiment, as opposed to today's "I gotta get mine".

I just moved from a smaller midwestern town to Chicago, and I think it's made me more cynical: I just don't feel the same kind of neighborliness as I did back home.

Matt | Apr 27, 2007 | 11:21AM

Yes, because what America really needs is a technogical Thought Police and not any kind of gun control.

Iain | Apr 27, 2007 | 11:21AM

One one hand this sounds like a bad episode of NUMB3RS. Trying to apply some mathmatical/physics solution to a very human problem.
On the other it might work and any effort to stop the violence is a step forward from reacting to it.
Back in the day people like him were kept at home in the attic. That was a shame. A bigger shame is that we now tolerate (not except or welcome) these same souls into our class rooms without the information we need to protect students, ourselves, or them.

Scott | Apr 27, 2007 | 11:22AM

One one hand this sounds like a bad episode of NUMB3RS. Trying to apply some mathmatical/physics solution to a very human problem.
On the other it might work and any effort to stop the violence is a step forward from reacting to it.
Back in the day people like him were kept at home in the attic. That was a shame. A bigger shame is that we now tolerate (not except or welcome) these same souls into our class rooms without the information we need to protect students, ourselves, or them.

Scott | Apr 27, 2007 | 11:23AM

Being a retired reliability engineer your column title caught my attention. I beleive your suggestion has merit. I was thinking you could expand the use of reliability science. Such as statistics relative to frequency of potential failure (i.e. counts of violent expressions on thier WEB site) and perform Weibull analysis and ploting. I believe, though I'm not familiar with it, that this type of reliability analysis is performed within the service sector. I beleive they use it to determine maximum work loads for operations like customer service (?).

John Keller | Apr 27, 2007 | 11:38AM

This will be unworkable. The massive amount of false positives will be unmanageble.

Scheiner has an explanation of the problem geard towards finding terrorists this way:

John Nilsson | Apr 27, 2007 | 11:47AM

The idea isn't bad but what do we do with all of the false positives a system like this may generate. We are also seriously lacking a plan when we do find a person an the verge of failure

heffae | Apr 27, 2007 | 11:59AM

I wouldn't consider this failure mode new. Over forty years ago, Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and opened fire.

Paul Hutchinson | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:06PM

And maybe some "machines" break because they're badly treated. Like, brow-beating them into somehow magically acquiring spelling and sports abilities that are unnatural for them, without any real guiding hand to do so. Or being inappropriately punished for having artistic or mechanical inclinations, instead of leveraging the same to do well to school.

I do feel that schools need some outreach to the alienated, instead of the teachers winking at the pets, populars, normals, and jocks picking on them. There is a point where "it ain't my fault I ain't got no friends" goes from merely obnoxiously begging the question to a genuine break down and cry trauma.

Also the educational system needs to realize that not all "machines" are born wired right-brained, verbal, and brown-nosed.

doug holverson | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:12PM

Wow, this is just what we need, a system for searching and listing thought criminals! Could this integrate with the Google Earth map? Then we can just have all these people show up as a pin on your map, so it would be easy to go find them in your very own neighborhood. And if we all get gps in our cell phones, then it would be really easy to gather a few of your concerned friends to head on over and give these troubled people the help they really need, wherever they go. Isn't technology great!

So maybe Orwell was off by about 30 years or so, but don't worry, with perseverence, we will get there.

scott | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:21PM

I hear horrendous childhood abuse often given as an explanation for this behavior. It may also lend credence to the theory that anti- social behavior has a genetic factor. A psycologist friend explained that such people can go one of two ways. They can become multiple axe murderes - or they will try to save the world. I thank God every day that my wife was one who devoted her life to saving the world!

Wasel | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:22PM

yes, we should definitely start a db of all people with guns on their myspace page. Start tapping their phone lines if they make an overseas call, make sure they don't bring a bottle of coke on an airplane, if they can get on one at all.

Ben Franklin said "Those that would trade freedom for security deserve neither". Even in an unbelievably well done algorithm I bet I could not count the number of harmless people your system would stigmatize.

The real problem is people who think we live in a DisneyWorld where bad things never happen. We don't and we never did.

Of course it's horribly unfair to the families of those 31 people, but such is life, lots of horribly unfair things happen, every day. 31 dead children is common occurrence in Iraq.

Do you recommend taking actions that WOULD interfere with the lives of everyone just to POSSIBLY prevent a tragedy being visited on 0.00000001% of the people?

stwf | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:24PM

Hmm, better not. The remedy would be worse than the disease.

Given the loose correlation between the Columbine and VT killers, your proposed system could allow them to take their revenge on whoever was haunting them by framing them. In other words, create a murderous online reputation for the "jocks" or other types that they hated.

A more efficient system is for the gun vendors and local police to do better background checks (perhaps with reco letters from their teachers) and to follow-up in case the subject breaks down years after the gun purchase.

Tomas Sancio | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:24PM

Hmm, better not. The remedy would be worse than the disease.

Given the loose correlation between the Columbine and VT killers and computer proficiency, your proposed system could allow them to take their revenge on whoever was haunting them by framing them. In other words, create a murderous online reputation for the "jocks" or other types that they hated.

A more efficient system is for the gun vendors and local police to do better background checks (perhaps with reco letters from their teachers) and to follow-up in case the subject breaks down years after the gun purchase.

Tomas Sancio | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:25PM

Sorry about the double (oops, triple) post. The second one includes "computer proficiency", which is what I meant.

Tomas Sancio | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:27PM

Wow, welcome to 1984, stand still citizen the ThinkPol will be there shortly.

We already have a government that's slowly chipping away at the rights we have under a little thing known as the Constitution of the United States of America. Now you want to give them more ideas/tools to accomplish this? So today we use it for mentally unstable individuals. Tomorrow maybe we use it to monitor someone who's ideology doesn't mesh with our own. Oops, wait, we're already doing that. No, thank you.

We, as a society, need to stop ignoring these individuals when they exhibit the behaviors that foreshadow these kind of events. The warning signs were there, the people around the individual responsible for this tragedy just weren't paying attention. Seung-Hui Cho was detained for a psychological evaluation, so someone thought he needed help. The result - he was released for out-patient care. I'm guessing that really wasn't an effective treatment plan.

And for those people who are advocating better gun control as a solution, please. I could drive my car down a crowded sidewalk & kill more people with it than with a gun. Are you going to outlaw cars? The solution isn't to be found in eliminating the mechanism of destruction. A determined individual will find a way to accomplish what they see as the only viable solution.

Greg | Apr 27, 2007 | 12:35PM

Why not implant a chip in each one of us that records our vitals, behavior patterns, etc. and can send an alert to the internet whenever we deviate into "possibly suicidal" terriritory. Hell we could even utilize it for conducting financial transactions just like the book of Revelation discusses.

If you really want to save lives with computerized technology, create a traffic management network to exploit the embedded GPS systems that come with most new vehicles. The network could warn you about that sharp curve ahead especially when there is a car coming to it from the opposite direction.

The powerful potential of new technology is great but always has to be weighed against privacy concerns.

drewby | Apr 27, 2007 | 1:33PM

After reading some of the negative comments, I realize that I have read the article differently than some. Obviously, some imagine that the results of the hate crawler will be interpreted by a police, and the targets shipped off to Gitmo. When I read Bob's suggestion, I imagined Stuart Smalley seeking out the target and giving them a little of what they are sorely lacking.

I can't be sure what Bob was thinking when he wrote it. "School principals and baseball coaches and worried moms" could be interpreted both ways, depending on what sort of TV you last consumed. In any case, gaining knowledge of a problem a necessary step to solving it, so I like the idea.

Kenny Lucius | Apr 27, 2007 | 1:39PM

@ Greg...while I agree with most of what you have to say, I respectfully completely disagree with your last statement...VT wouldn't have happened with a car. Never. When are we going to at least try some more intelligent forms of controlling handguns? Other developed nations that do have civilized ways of doing so do not suffer from preventable tragedies. Let's at least try it and not knee-jerk "no" every time the subject comes up.

Not Greg | Apr 27, 2007 | 1:47PM

This sounds like beginnings of a witch hunt, Bob. Not everything can be solved by putting data into Google Maps and looking for trends in psychosis. A system such as you're suggesting should be targeted at the level of interaction and participation; think "intervention". Though I can see how a system like this would be helpful in mitigating certain threats, I don't want my employer or my principal maintaining a psychological profile on me. The potential for the abuse of such a hypothetical system is very very high.

Nick | Apr 27, 2007 | 1:57PM

Not Greg,

As I stated in the my last paragraph...

"The solution isn't to be found in eliminating the mechanism of destruction. A determined individual will find a way to accomplish what they see as the only viable solution."

Maybe a car wouldn't have worked at VT. How about a couple pipe bombs? How about just setting a building on fire and blocking the exits? Human beings are pretty good at coming up with ways to hurt each other. Given time & resources I'm certain that an intelligent, driven individual could have created something that would have worked to the same ends.

I don't think that guns in the hands of unstable individuals is a good thing, you're right there. What I was saying is that the knee jerk reaction of "oh, if he didn't have the gun this wouldn't have happened" is a delusion.

Greg | Apr 27, 2007 | 2:01PM

Not Greg,

As I stated in the my last paragraph...

"The solution isn't to be found in eliminating the mechanism of destruction. A determined individual will find a way to accomplish what they see as the only viable solution."

Maybe a car wouldn't have worked at VT. How about a couple pipe bombs? How about just setting a building on fire and blocking the exits? Human beings are pretty good at coming up with ways to hurt each other. Given time & resources I'm certain that an intelligent, driven individual could have created something that would have worked to the same ends.

I don't think that guns in the hands of unstable individuals is a good thing, you're right there. What I was saying is that the knee jerk reaction of "oh, if he didn't have the gun this wouldn't have happened" is a delusion.

Greg | Apr 27, 2007 | 2:02PM

Apologies for the double post

Greg | Apr 27, 2007 | 2:03PM

No, nothing has changed and big brother won't help ...

What has changed is the failure mode. Twenty-five years ago the failure mode was an unhappy kid killing himself. Today the failure mode is an unhappy kid killing himself and killing 32 other people, too. The stakes are higher but we haven't really taken that into account in the way we, as institutions and adults, respond to these threats.

Sorry, but you can't extrapolate that something larger has changed over the years just because the two tragedies ended differently. The weapon technology was available for both to have had similar results and in both time periods a similar case is much more likely to end in simple suicide. Wasn't the previous record number of killings at a university, about 20-25 years ago?

Teenage angst always existed and always will: increased spying can only damage reputations and give more reason not to trust authority.

Other "remedies" I've heard sound equally frightening: giving campus security "swat team" weapons and rules of engagement? At a campus of tens of thousands of kids exerting their new independence, what could go wrong? Closing the entire campus at the first hint of trouble? Did we already forget the overreaction of Boston police to someone's advertising prank?

The solution is to care and to pay attention to those who are your responsibility: remember that next time the budget axe falls. Where were the Resident Advisors? Did they get adequate training in recognising when someone is in trouble and helping their charges? Where there a reasonable number of them? Where were the professors and TA's? Can't they recognize a student in trouble? Were the class sizes reasonable enough for a teacher to pay attention to individual students? Where were the parents, suitemates, and friends who might have noticed things were getting serious? In this last case, it can be especially tough to know what to do and when. Paying attention to others is the only thing that will prevent similar tragedies and the reality is some will be missed.

wgc | Apr 27, 2007 | 2:04PM

"unlike machines, people are not subject to statistical quality control, though maybe they should be."

This is the one thing no one is saying. For god's sake, th VT killer was in court and a judge found him a potential danger. Why the heck wasn't he locked up? Forget the hi-tech solutions, although you have a good idea. Just use what we have now, and don't be afraid of a little pre-emptive detention.

Pete | Apr 27, 2007 | 2:43PM

So what happens when this new search engine gets some hits on a kid that's going through normal junior high or high school misery and rants about it on his blog or MySpace?

Life sucks as a teen and in high school, and big brother watching and ruining the lives of kids they `suspect' might be unbalanced is a lousy idea.

My life sucked in junior high, and only got marginally better in high school. I'm in my mid 30's now and haven't killed anyone, but had the state stepped in because I ranted on a blog (we didn't have them then) it might well have ruined what became an otherwise decent life.

T.J. | Apr 27, 2007 | 3:02PM

Despite what a lot of the media, university admin.. and others keep repeating over and over again - there are professionals in the "health/wellness" field who can predict whether or not someone is liable to grab a gun and then shoot and kill dozens.

It is no mystery as to why! Just let someone get abused enough, for long enough and if the inner anger is not dealt with in one positive way or another - it is almost a guarantee that the pent up anger will surface in an explosive fashion.

Unfortunately, 98% of all therapists are so poorly trained/educated - and end up using "the couch approach" - whereby the therapist just sits and listens (pretends to listen with an occasional nod?). For the severely abused, the latter approach simply does not work! The pain is so great - they can't/won't talk about it.

The 2% group of effective therapists use everything but "the talking patient on the couch" - to assist the abused in getting the anger out in a positive way.

One doesn't need to wait for someone to put up a web site to see the danger signs. These people, with severe abuse issues, stand out like sore thumbs in any classroom.

Aside from incompetent therapists - then one has to take a good look at the schooling system. In America - if one gave the wrong answer in class - they were whipped by the teacher! At the turn of the century marking was brought in to replace whipping for getting the wrong answer. The school administrators knew that getting poor marks (lower than expected) was just as effective punishment as whipping.

Last but not least, adding fat to the fire, is the whole idea of forcing people into a so-called competitive educational system. 98% of teachers insist using teaching methods that are proven not to work - best summarized by the term - "the factory approach to schooling".

Harry Pasternak | Apr 27, 2007 | 3:49PM

Google knows!!

Touring | Apr 27, 2007 | 3:56PM

Bob, I have to disagree.

One, people are not machines. We all react to external factors differently, and what might be the trigger for tragedy with one person might very well be a trigger for change or positive action with another. We cannot assume that everyone's 'internal specs' are the same.

Two, the Internet is being used as a means of self-expression. Weblogs, journals, art galleries such as DeviantArt... the list goes on and on. Our kids are using this medium to express their angst... the problem is determining the SOURCE, whether is is true abuse, or just the usual 'growing pains' of any teen.

Three, I believe that these are symptoms of our society as a whole. We as a species are sick and dying, subject to stress from overcrowding, competition, uncertainty of future, and a host of other reasons. The analogy is of a rabbit, who will literally absorb her own pre-born young rather than birth them into an environment where they will die. We are at the point where people are breaking under the pressure, and the ONLY way to truly deal with the problem is at the source - take... the pressure... OFF.

Web-searching for hate sites and finding patterns of behavior are just another way of building an indicator light for society. But society as a whole needs to find relief - these hot spots will continue to pop up in the meantime.

And yes, I agree, our pathetic "assembly line" concept of public schooling, coupled with an environment where it is all too easy to segregate the haves from the have-nots, the popular kids from the geeks, the bullies from the bullied, needs to be completely re-examined and overhauled.

George Erhard | Apr 27, 2007 | 4:19PM

It's not really true that the scale of the damage has changed. It has always been possible for someone to crack and kill a lot of people; the only difference is that today you're more likely to hear about it than you would have fifty or a hundred or more years ago. It is not difficult to find instances of individuals wreaking this scale of destruction, or worse, going back millenia, if you are willing to look.

It's easy for people to point to the availability of guns as a destruction multiplier, but it's not the guns; even in the absence of guns deranged individuals can commit mass murder. For example:


Here the individual used a flame accelerant to light a building full of people on fire, and killed more people than both Columbine and VTech combined -- 87 people in all, and not a shot fired.

Deranged people can cause a lot of damage, and always have been able to do so. And they have done so with whatever they happen to have on hand, be it guns, axes, fire, poisons, or explosives.

Maybe we can set up early warning systems to detect them, maybe not; luckly the scope of the problem is still pretty limited, even if it doesn't seem so when you watch the news. You're still way more likely to be killed walking across the street.

Jim Frost | Apr 27, 2007 | 4:23PM

Bob, it's really much simpler. There's a bug in your constitution. Next year, it's going to kill more than 30,000 Americans.
Ingenious and all as it is, your solution is a workaround. Much better to fix the bug.

Miker | Apr 28, 2007 | 7:36AM

Bob, i am an engineer who does research into various systems of security. All i can say about your idea is "wow"... and not in a good way.

The idea you propose is a classic over-reaction to a highly publicized event. Every day there are on average 75 deaths in the US alone due to firearms. every day. yes 32 deaths in one place comitted by one person is a saddening event but is also statisticly insignificant in comparison to the total number of violent deaths. The idea should be to prevent as many deaths as possible due to firearms, or violence, or just deaths in general, but to attempt to automate a search for "hate speech" is far more likely to result in a majority of false positives, flagging unhappy and disaffected teenagers (which is to say most teenagers at one point or another). it amounts to profiling, and accomplishes little while serving to further chill free speech as is already evident with the arrest of an Illinois High School senior this week.

We need to remember that when we see news that highlights sensational or extreme acts of violence, we should not allow fear to influence our approach to security. Your idea does just that, and while your experience with a particularly unstable student has understandably affected you, it should not be allowed to affect your judgement. There are many methods that we might use to keep people from harming others and themselves... profiling is one that consistantly fails.

rob13572468 | Apr 28, 2007 | 8:18AM

My comment would be concerning all the kids that have killed for what ever reasons. I guess that my only question would be, parenting? After all who should know these people better than their parents? While this would probably open more questions than answers, parents don't get to choose when to be parents to their children. It starts with the child’s birth and ends the parent’s death.

Unfortunately it seems that in the era of political correctness, the fear of upsetting the family of one individual outweighs the safety of numerous other families.

Awesome column by the way.

Jeff | Apr 28, 2007 | 12:47PM

These young men are/were sick and the tools that you proposed may help identify them early and the system has to change to get serious help to them. What happened at V-Tech was so sad.

Kempton | Apr 28, 2007 | 1:08PM

"Bob, it's really much simpler. There's a bug in your constitution."

It's actually simpler than that. The bug is hatred and fear, and the sources are politicians who need hatred and fear to get reelected. They are supported by the military, who need hatred and fear to sell product, and by the press, who need it to "sell papers".

You want to know what motivated this shooter, watch FOX news, listen to Don Imus, review the list of the biggest Republican campaign donors.

Note that there's no difference between this fear and hatred and that of the Taliban, none whatsoever. If you want to make the world a better place do your part to see that the fear-mongers are sent to Guantanamo, not because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, not because of their race or religious beliefs, but because of their overriding belief that their self-interest justifies the means.

Roger | Apr 28, 2007 | 1:12PM

Detection, prevention and deterrence, and intervention are all very different. Detection is impossible unless you have "pre-cogs" like in "Minority Report". Prevention requires absolute control by government over ALL actions (no thanks!). Deterrence only works when the person fears a consequence in this life or the next. Intervention only works after an event has started, and is only effective if it is immediately available. Current law REQUIRES mental health professionals to "mainstream" all but the most extremely mentally ill in the name of "compassion" so they won't "feel different" or "inferior". This endangers everyone. Interestingly, Virginia just passed a law prohibiting parental notification of student's mental illness conditions. How nice......

Eric | Apr 30, 2007 | 9:58AM

If you ran a web spider to locate hate, your result set would probably include most of humanity. Everyone has bad days. Everyone who posts on blogs and message boards has posted a few unkind sentences now and then.

The question is, what do you do with those whom your spider identifies as potential failures? Lock them up? Take away their right to bear arms? Internet content hardly seems like a justification to strip away someone's civil liberties. Do you give them all counciling? Who's going to pay for that? And once you start punishing people based on the content of their speech on the Internet, how many people will just stop posting anything on the Internet?

Mark | Apr 30, 2007 | 10:12AM

There was an interesting interview last night on 60 minutes with a Congresswoman from NY. Her husband was killed by a mentally ill person with a handgun on the Subway several years ago. She has tried twice in the past to get Congress to pass a bill that would put involuntarily committed people (mentally ill) on a federal registry that would then ban them from buying firearms.

This would only solve part of the problem, if someone is determined enough, they will find a way to accomplish their sick goals.

This bill was shot down (sorry about the pun - trying to fulfill rule #3 for posting), not by the NRA, but by some federal agency about mental health basically protesting that these records should be kept private.

A simple solution to this, and other cases of people that shouldn't be allowed to buy firearms, is to enter them into a no-gun federal database. No details of WHY they aren't allowed a firearm are in the db, just that a gun store owner is not allowed to sell to them.

Once these people prove themselves mentally stable by a court, etc., they can certainly be removed from the list.

matthew | Apr 30, 2007 | 10:59AM

This possibly could be slightly positive, but not for the reasons Bob states. As Mark says, there's an awful lot of this stuff, nearly all chaff; and almost nothing you can reasonably do in a free society about it without specific threats and dangers.

If the "failure mode" of people has changed (I'm not necessarily sure it has, it might just seem that way), we should be examining how and why. I suspect that a component of each of these "alienation massacres" is that these people were denied the attention they thought they deserved in life, and their killing sprees were at least in part an attempt to make people give them attention, take them seriously, whatever. To the extent that publicizing and directing traffic to the whining drivel that these people have to say results in their perception that they're being heard, it might have a positive effect. In terms of actually detecting and preventing possible spree-killers? Nah.

How does one more effectively address the attention issue? We as a society need to react differently to these tragedies when they occur. Having a multi-day fetishized news cycle about the perpetrators and the event doesn't help--it shows other people that they, too, can be the author of the next such media event; the next Columbine or Virginia Tech. We need to stop legitimizing the points of view of the brutal killers: wondering what external forces, like bullying or lack of dating success, "drove" them to kill. Moral relativism and the pop psychological assumption that something like a mere "mechanical failure" turns someone into a spree killer feeds into this phenomenon. People like Klebold, Harris and Cho deserve only our contempt and derision, and our best stab at remembering them only as anonymous garbage, which is what they were.

Dylan Partridge | Apr 30, 2007 | 11:44AM

Genius idea. If you create that site, I would use it and click all the links to support the advertisers.

Cheryl | Apr 30, 2007 | 12:14PM

It's not just schools and kids -- major corporations and mature adults have similar issues. For example, consider the shootings last week at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and months earlier the Lisa Nowak issue. How about an internal school or company web-site where troubled people can visit and post (privately) about their issues, with the message being sent to an independent person (instead of their Dean or Supervisor) for attention. After all, loners (I am one so I know of what I speak) would rather be able to post their problems electronically instead of speaking-up in person. Sometimes you just don't know who to turn to, and even when you do, they may be unapproachable or uncaring.

John Pennington | Apr 30, 2007 | 1:08PM

I just don't know why the FCC hasn't got it yet! Get rid of all the "crap" and "free spaces" on the internet and the tv and whatever. This will get rid of numerous problems and criminals. Where do you think the kids and sick people today get these ideas? We need to clean up our airways and for God's Sake, bring HIM back into our lives, schools and courts. Simple isn't it; You never heard of the terrible things like this going on when my parents were kids.

Limit our airways for professional educators, politicians, doctors, etc. You get the idea!

R Cafarelli | Apr 30, 2007 | 1:54PM


j | Apr 30, 2007 | 2:06PM

I just finished grad school and would like to say something on behalf of the students. If I had to take a guess who is likely to be crazy I would put my money on the professor. When you walk into a class you can always tell the professor is the worst dressed and the craziest looking. Some of them look homeless. As Bob suggested with his comments about growing weed, which he just left in there without comment, you have a group of people who believe they are above the law. Many of them were involved with radical politics that totally failed and they continue to push wacko agendas. A few years ago I worked with a woman who learned her computer skills in prison. She was a leader of the SLA, which was based in San Francisco, and had been convicted of murder. You'd never guess cause she looked like a typical late middle aged woman, maybe a professor. According to Patty Hearst she blew a woman's head off and called and said it was ok because she's a rich pig. When they rounded up some of these people after 9-11 many of them were working on college campuses. Of course, this is where the 9-11 hi-jackers came in too. One of the wacko things going on now is the refusal to cooperate in regards to immigration on campus. You can't even use the words illegal alien, which is a legal term. At the same time there is little problem harrassing young American men, which is obviously why they are falling in number on campus so quickly.

frank palardy | Apr 30, 2007 | 2:16PM

I would also add the SLA stands for Symbionese Liberation Organization. The idea of symbiosis is exactly what they call diversity today. This is the basis for bringing all sorts of foreign students in and just about everything else they do. Of course, this isn't a coincidence. The same people that supported the SLA are running the schools now. It is true most of the leaders were killed in a shoot out with the LAPD some time ago but the spirit lives on in the UC and CS systems. SLA sibling mEchA is the biggest group on campus by far. Death to the Fascist Insect That Feeds Upon the Lives of the People! (actual SLA slogan)

frank palardy | Apr 30, 2007 | 2:36PM

Has it ever occurred to you that most of the anti-social literature on the web is probably just relatively ordinary people letting off a bit of steam after a bad day?

Wouldn't we just love to end up on some government sponsored psycho-list because we posted a short story with an unhappy ending to some website...

Stick to identifying the weirdos that you actually meet in real life. That's where the action is.

al | Apr 30, 2007 | 4:36PM

In the '80's, the President cut funding to public mental health institutions nation-wide. Tens of thousands of marginal people landed in the streets. In addition, places where your troubled grad student could go to be evaluated and maybe helped were cut back or eliminated. They continue to be de-funded through today. How many counselors or mental health professionals are available to students on campus today? Many schools have no one, where many existed before.

We have let ourselves become a nation of individuals that feel personally robbed when someone who needs it gets public help. Then we ask why someone who {killed themselves,killed others in a rage,did something else really bad} were able to get to the point of being able to do that without being detected and helped. Detected and helped by whom? We fired them all! Pay your taxes, loosen your wallet, and participate in your government.

Peace, out.

dustbunny44 | Apr 30, 2007 | 7:48PM
Mike Cane | May 01, 2007 | 9:51AM

I think the idea is a good one. Given this UTube, personal Blog age. I think we need to treat guns
long barrel and short barrel like cars. In my state I can't get on the road without passing a test, getting a license to show I am competent, insurance to pay for my mistakes, and a bi annual inspection of the vehicle. If we did the same with guns, one of those hurdles would caught this man.
Yes, the present system for cars does not stop all the nuts, and drunks, but it thins the herd. Maybe this guy would have been stopped.

Cataloger JP | May 01, 2007 | 1:14PM

I assume that NASA hires competent psychologists who have coercive access to the astronauts, yet they were unable to spot what a clinical psychologist described as someone who was completely crazy. Furthermore psychiatrists were unable to agree that John Mack who treated his patients for alien abduction was a kook. The psychology profession never dealt with the members of their profession who induced false memories in their patients. Here is a quote from the News Hour just after the VA shootings:

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Stan Samenow, is there often a history of mental illness?
STANTON SAMENOW: There's absolutely no reason to assume that at all. Many of these people are victimizers, in many ways. They oppress others; they try to control others.
But it's not mental illness unless you want to torture the definition of mental illness. These are not people who are psychotic. These are not people who have lost contact with reality.
They do have unrealistic expectations of other people. They have this all-or-nothing thinking, but that is not mental illness.

Samenow had never even examined the shooter.

Unfortunately psychology is not a science. If I or a family member had serious psychological problems, in desperation I would find the best psychologist or psychiatrist available, but depending on these disciplines to help solve legal, or criminal problems is more than they can or should be asked to deliver.

Charles Calthrop | May 01, 2007 | 8:47PM

So sorry, you're solving the wrong problem

From your own example:

- you knew there was something wrong with 'the guy'
- the dean knew there was something wrong.

Both tried to 'move the problem out of the way', without addressing it's core.

And now, you're proposing to design some 'automatic', web-based 'intelligent' computer system to (also) detect this kind of problems?

You are -so it seems- ignoring the potential for abuse of this kind of 'intelligent' automatic monitoring systems: Who precisely is going to set the criteria for your 'potential danger' detector?

Again, you are delegating the 'dealing with the problem'. The true problem seems not to be detection: in your example, detection of 'the problem' worked just fine (twice..). It was the 'taking adequate actions' part that failed. So long as this kind of problems is only acted upon when a bullet is heading somewhere, the response is always going to be either wrong or too late, probably both.

You where lucky: In your example case the 'deadly force' was aimed 'inward', but the choice of target was made by a not all too stabile personality.

I will -this once- 'go easy' on the litany against too easy access to firearms. I hope you do realize that there is no way of combining:

- providing easy access to them
- preventing that a small fraction of them will end up in the hands of 'instabile' people.

I am aware that many 'domestic' objects can also be used as a killer weapon, the difference is that a firearm was made for the purpose.

I've heard the 'from my cold dead hands'; My answer: 'please take care with what you pray for'.

faasse | May 02, 2007 | 3:20AM

Who can identify a false positive and who pays for the damage of a false positive? The logical failure is to assume that because VT guy did X anyone who does X must be at risk. You would have to show that ONLY (95%) people at risk do X for it to be a useful test. This is a basic failure of logic = grade F.

napata | May 02, 2007 | 4:09AM

I agree with most comments here, this all starts with childhood and the values the parents, family and community impart on a child, especially the parents, children absorb so much and learn so much by example when they are young, and it is often this lack of base that leads to these violent demonstrations later on in life. So I would start there... like Ghandi said "Be the change"... I think Bob's intention was merely to try and identify potential problems with certain individuals so the necessary care/therapy/treatment could be attempted on the individual either by contacting a center nearby to where that person lives, and the parents too, to find out from them whether they were aware of these "hate" thoughts. Then further healing steps could be taken.

Like most ppl said though, this will only work if the intentions and ethics are for the good and betterment of people in society and there isn't a hidden agenda to control. Also in most cases it will be difficult because like I mentioned the change also has to come from the parents and often they do not want to change their selfish life style... and even then this web spider might contain too much noise or require huge competent resources to determine when a person is just releasing stress without a desire ti hurt, or is into writing horror stories... it's very very subjective. I could go on and on but my point really is start with the basics in your own homes, become more conscient of your actions especially when children are with u because that is what they will take as "normal" behaviour...

Jose Correia | May 02, 2007 | 7:42AM

Bruce Sterling is way ahead of you. In his book "Distraction" the US government has exactly the search technology you describe. Unfortunately they lend it to some less savoury friends, who then compile their own lists of dangerous crazies. So far so good. But now, if you don't like someone, you can get a list of crazy people and then send them email alleging that your target is a communist / drug dealer / pervert / abortionist / nazi / whatever, and ought to be killed. From then on your target gets stalked by dangerous kooks intent on murder.



Paul Johnson | May 02, 2007 | 3:35PM

No need to have a search engine. Just record the IP of everyone who visits Tech Central Station.

A student I have been worried about asked if he could write about Sean Hannity. The student thought it would satisfy the assignment requirement: find a site on the internet that was put up with the intent to help mankind in a significant way by someone who is offering the fruit of his/her research in a selfless way. I'm thinking health, housing, or food and he's thinking some oddball thing stuffed into his head by a professional troll.

Bob Calder | May 04, 2007 | 8:01PM

Yes, I agree, what we need is a computer that monitors the activities of all human beings, constantly scanning for aberrant behavior or attitudes.

We should start by compiling a list of telltale behaviors that indicate mentally instability.

Here are my two contributions for the nutcase behavior list:

1) People who file law suits against their previous employers to retain use of a nom de plume when they don't feel comfortable of using their real name of Mark Stephens.

2) Claiming to have a Ph.D when you don't.

Fissile | May 09, 2007 | 8:53AM

Hmm. Isn't it funny that this happens a lot in your country? So, instead of creating your high tech surveillance thingie you should struggle to understand why is it that your "hard drive" burns out so often.

By the way, people are not hard drives.

Daniel | May 10, 2007 | 2:15PM