If you poll the population, you probably won’t find anyone who believes in werewolves. Yet people believe in silver bullets—or want to. Whether it’s how to prevent the next senseless mass murder like the recent Virginia Tech tragedy—the subject of this month’s cover story—or fighting terrorism (let’s fight them over there so they won’t come here), or making peace in the Middle East (if only the United States would make a serious effort to get Israel and Palestinians to the table again), or solving cancer (with designer genes), or, of course, losing weight—we want the silver bullet.
Let’s take the last one first, just for fun. The first FDA-approved over-the-counter weight loss medicine flew off the shelves this June—people bought it without even wanting to know the price, pharmacists said, because it promised it would keep their bodies from processing the fat they ate. Never mind that it only works with proper diet and exercise, which allow you to lose weight even without a pill.
How about curing cancer? I recently heard a cancer researcher confess that after the human genome project provided a blueprint of “what normal was,” researchers thought they could simply target the abnormal—the mutated gene that caused each type of cancer—and develop a targeted drug or gene therapy to attack it. But researchers found that it was a lot more complicated—that in fact it wasn’t the same gene mutating again and again but rather there was a big role for infrequently mutating genes. Targeting any one gene, therefore, would have minimal effect. That finding, if not depressing, he said, was certainly “sobering.”
And that brings us to Virginia Tech. We look this month at what other universities are doing to try to detect signs that a troubled student could turn violent. Perhaps more importantly, we look at how universities need to prepare to respond to incidents they can’t prevent. Meanwhile, a presidential panel has just reported findings that track the issues already highlighted in public hearings of the Virginia Tech Shooting Review Panel, such as the need for more services for mentally troubled students, more attention to warning signs, more sharing of information among agencies and with parents of troubled students, and better reporting to keep the mentally ill from buying guns.
All of these measures sound reasonable and good. But we should not kid ourselves. First, they are easier said than done. We are great at identifying solutions—paying for them is another story. Second, there’s no 100 percent solution. As H.L. Mencken said, “There is a simple solution to everything—and it is wrong.” In truth, whether the problem is weight loss, cancer, or human behavior, there will never be a silver bullet.
Sherry L. Harowitz