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At a loss in Virginia

VIRGINIA TECH President Charles Steger spoke for the nation late yesterday when he said he was "at a loss" to explain the shootings on his campus.

Whatever the proximate cause of the anger, despair, or frustration that led to a violent response, it is hard to imagine how anyone could annihilate so many fellow humans, so senselessly.

Like the Columbine High School shootings in which 15 died almost exactly eight years ago, the horror yesterday was augmented by the fact that it occurred at a place of learning, where people gather to improve themselves, working hard to become more skilled, more thoughtful members of society.

As details become known from Virginia, questions will grow more specific. Probably they will center around the motive and mental condition of the shooter, and about the weapons he used.

Did the gunman have a history that included any sign of mental instability? Was he treated? Did the school know of his condition and monitor his progress? Did anyone report problems or potential problems?

As for the gun or guns used, where did they come from and what kind of weapon were they? Not sporting arms, it would seem, but highly efficient killing weapons that should probably be in the hands only of law enforcement or military personnel in combat.

It is worth considering these questions in tandem. All too frequently, it is easier for a disturbed person, even a psychopath, to get a firearm than to get sound treatment for mental illness.

Security issues will also arise. In particular, school officials should review yesterday morning's events carefully. About an hour and three-quarters apparently elapsed between the first shootings in a dormitory and an e-mail that the administration sent out warning the school community. "It takes a little while to crank that up," Steger said late yesterday. Other efforts were also made to alert the campus, and Steger didn't know there was a continuing danger. Still, the e-mail was far too slow.

It may make sense to increase the use of metal detectors in some situations, but there is a limit to the utility and the wisdom of heavy-handed security measures. College campuses in particular are seats of freedom; they cannot and should not become fortified bastions, locking the rest of society out.

There has always been craziness in the world, but, as Sept. 11 , 2001, demonstrated so brutally, advancing technology can multiply mayhem in an instant. The Virginia Tech shooter also did his work quickly, wiping out a classroom in a few moments and, without a doubt, leaving the school and the nation at a loss.