Guest Column: Preventing the Virginia Tech tragedy

How do you prevent an atrocity? One person at a time. The answer isn’t law enforcement or even “mental health.” It’s spiritual. Read on. I’ll elaborate.

The Virginia Tech tragedy might have been prevented—but I see NOTHING in the media about the necessary ingredient. Mental health and law enforcement approaches to prevention didn’t work. What’s missing is a spiritual paradigm. I’m talking about something other than organized religion.

But first, I believe we must prevent a “social catastrophe.” Michael Welner, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist on Good Morning America said we should not cover the attacker. Even posthumously, we shouldn’t grant the person who murdered 32 people his wish to become infamous as an anti-hero. Notice: I’m not even mentioning his name! We need to dissuade those who would copy his behavior by not broadcasting his “message.” Let’s focus on the victims and survivors and ways of preventing such violence by others.

We need to unpack the deeper message from this person, a boy who must have felt powerless for years.

He was isolated. He had been teased and bullied. He rebuffed attempts to make contact. His behavior frightened people. It pointed to a sense of impotence, powerlessness and pain. One professor worked with him individually and alerted mental health and law enforcement of the danger. She empathized with others, and worked with him alone to protect others. But what about the boy? Mental health and law enforcement paradigms could not prevent this violence.

The spiritual approach that might have changed everything is called “Nonviolent Communication,” developed by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.d. He’s the man who, 36 years ago, advised the Welsh Teacher Development Center here in Rockford, turning it into a school that was featured in Life magazine! (See and his book The Heart of Social Change.)

What would have prevented this tragedy? Connection. I call it “heart connection.” No one developed a deep connection with this boy. Not that it would have been easy. Some people tried. But as we learn practicing every week in the “Compassionate Communication Practice Group,” it is possible to develop a “heart connection” with virtually any person.

Think about it. Who has influenced and moved YOU—especially when you felt alone, desolate, suspicious, helpless, isolated, hopeless? Invariably, it was a person who empathized with you profoundly enough so a connection could be made—a heart connection. Compassion in action. You felt “heard.” The person was not judging you: you were accepted as you were.

Diagnosing him didn’t work—it alienates. Our group practices Nonviolent Communication. We practice talking and listening, replacing ALL moralistic judgment with a different way of saying or hearing things—connecting with NEEDS and FEELINGS, our own and the other person’s. It’s a “power-with” approach rather than “power over.”

We learn, among other things, how to give empathy—to really listen to the other person. It’s not just a technique. Sure, at first we learn empathic techniques, but like training wheels you remove once you ride a bike with ease, eventually you can carry deep within yourself a quality of listening from the heart—really caring—and connecting with another person, hearing that person’s deepest feelings and needs.

The cries of that boy—coming out in many forms: silence, violent creative writing, fantasy, stalking, might have been decoded if one were able to tune into his soul. He turned the pejorative name “question mark” into a badge he carried. Like the “acting out” child who can’t get recognition by “behaving properly,” he acted out his need for connection, paradoxically blocking most people’s attempts to connect.

Connecting with him may have been impossible—but I wonder if anyone who had developed the capacity for deep empathy ever even met him. Carl Rodgers, the great psychologist, has inspired many to recognize the power of empathy, but many in the mental health field have never been inspired to develop this gift, rather learning about diagnoses, treatment planning, medications, etc. to help a “mental defective” (That’s the label that would have kept him from getting the guns). Talk about judgment! Mental defective! Whew!

Nonviolent Communication is anything but passive. It includes the “protective use of force,” as a necessary option to prevent violence. And yet its greatest power is helping people get off their high horse, learning to say things that are not judgmental, focusing on feelings and needs. It fosters a “heart connection.” When there’s a heart connection, violence doesn’t happen!

The “Compassionate Communication Practice Group” meets every Wednesday, 5 to 6:30 in the Benson Room of Emmanuel Lutheran, Sixth Street and Third Avenue (park and enter from rear). It’s free. All are welcome. As we grow, we hope to start additional groups.

Harlan Johnson is a Rockford resident.

from the April 25-May 1, 2007, issue

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