Time to leave

Posted: Friday, April 20 at 12:21 pm ET by Mike Taibbi, NBC News

At dinner Thursday night, Frieda Morris, bureau chief for the NBC News team covering this awful tragedy, was comparing the arc of this story to the coverage of the Columbine High School Massacre, eight years ago Friday.

"Four days into Columbine," Frieda said, "most of us hadn't had a substantial catnap, let alone a full night's sleep; it was nonstop."  All of us at the table at what was essentially a team dinner knew what Frieda was talking about; during the day -- the fourth day of so similar a story of immeasurable grief following an act of madness -- there was a sense both in the press corps and across this vast university campus that the main storylines of the Virginia Tech massacre had been identified, explored and broadcast or written.

Earlier in the day I'd run into an old friend and former colleague of mine, Rose Arce of CNN, when each of us was making a final visit to the makeshift memorials on the central Drillfield. "It feels like the story's over," Rose said, reporter-speak for that juncture in the coverage of virtually any major story when everyone in the first wave of journalists who'd rushed to the scene thinks for the first time about plans to head home. "Can that be, is the story over?  Why is that?"

Part of the reason, I suggested, is that though the scale of this atrocity is off the scale -- very quickly on the first day every news organization was calling it the worst episode of its kind in the country's history -- it was nevertheless only the latest such episode. If Columbine was the nadir of the phenomenon of school shootings, it's also true that in the past decade it had happened too often in other schools, in other cities and towns. In the new-media universe of cable, the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, the country had been through it before. 

At one point Thursday, while my piece for that night's Nightly News broadcast was being edited in New York, I looked at the script for a “Dateline NBC” story I'd written eight years ago on the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Like the killer in this case, Cho Seung-Hui, Harris and Klebold were desperate paranoid loners who left behind plenty of evidence of their building psychopathic rage, and had teachers and other authority figures wondering afterward about the "warning signs" that might have and perhaps should have triggered an intervention aimed at heading off disaster.  A psychiatrist had said of the two, "They were sick ... and they had the kind of sickness that unfortunately we never seem to catch, until they do something horrible."

I'd written, "'Horrible,' of course, does not come near to describing what they did. For days we've seen images of unspeakable grief -- a teacher and 14 children going to their rest instead of celebrating the richness of another spring.  Who could think to author mayhem on this scale? Who could actually do it?  And for what reasons that anyone can understand?  Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold took with them whatever answers they might have had when they turned their guns on themselves -- a final act of cowardice and cruelty, to make the pain of grieving deeper still."

In the Virginia Tech tragedy, Cho's rambling and profane multi-media "manifesto," sent to NBC News, made his madness plain but also failed to explain the specific trigger or triggers for his April 16 explosion of violence. So, as happened in Columbine, the struggle for everyone directly affected -- and by inference for the country beyond -- has been to find the least painful route through the stages of grief. In the classic construct of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, those stages start with denial and anger, pass through bargaining and depression, and end at acceptance. 

Now, it seemed to me, the awful familiarity of the school-shooting scenario-- familiar from our recent history -- had many here all but racing to get to the acceptance stage. By Friday there were handmade signs posted or distributed demanding that the media pack up and go home, to allow this community to continue grieving out of camera range. Students we spoke to looked for reasons to recite a school cheer, to reclaim a zone of safety within a "Hokie Nation" that could withstand anything, even this brutal assault.

Freshman Kristen Fields said "It's a little city within Blacksburg and we're all connected, even with 26,000 students. We all knew someone -- or knew someone who knew someone -- who was directly affected by this." Her classmate Mandy Wilmoth added with a forced smile, "It's our Hokie Nation!  I mean I feel completely safe here ... and I still do, even with something like this."   

Listening to the two freshmen talk, it struck me that they were understandably trying to urge their own emotions past the darkness of Monday's reality to a softer place for those same emotions to land.

Later, a senior named Lawrence O'Neil stood for long moments reading the inscriptions and messages on the Drillfield signing boards, moved under tents against the weather. One of those inscriptions read, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift." O'Neil told us he's coping with all of it by focusing on today's gifts, including the loving thumbnail sketches memorialized on the signing boards of classmates and teachers who pursued the richness of their own dreams, just as he had. As for Cho, the killer reaching for infamy from the grave through his written and video-taped "manifesto," complete with posed photos of a would-be 'avenger,' O'Neil was contemptuous.

"I made the decision not to watch any of it, because I knew it was just some psycho rambling on about how bad his life was," he said. By doing so, O'Neil said he refused to do what the killer would have wanted him to do... to make him, the killer, the story. "It disgusts me," O'Neil said.  "Screw him."

He rejoined some friends, went back to reading the inscriptions on the message board. The campus was supposed to be closed, classes canceled until next week, but there were still scores of people gathered at the several memorials on the Drillfield, even in the soft steady rain.  A lot of hugging, a lot of crying.  Suddenly it felt like our cameras were an intrusion; like we were an intrusion.

Time to leave.

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As officials, students and families struggle to come to terms with the tragedy at Virginia Tech, a team of MSNBC.com reporters and editors and NBC News producers and correspondents is on the scene.