THIS TIME, it's the sound that haunts us.

This time, there are no graphic images to indelibly crease the tragedy into our consciousness - no visions of airplanes flying into skyscrapers, of masked terrorists pointing guns at kneeling hostages, of a winding procession of black Amish buggies in a funeral cortege.

This time, it's the sound that won't go away.

The sound of gunshots, dozens of them in a moment both brief and interminable, captured by a student on his cell phone's video camera during the rampage at Virginia Tech.

And replayed in nerve-wracking frequency on television - CNN's Wolf Blitzer even ridiculously invited the audience to "count along with me" as each shot was replayed.

Still, it's one of the poignant ironies of the massacre: The absence of a defining visual image in a time when instant communication conveys news events to everyone, everywhere.

There are other ironies, as well:

* Our nation is convulsed by the death of 32 innocents, yet that would be a routine body count on any given day in Iraq. Indeed, a student said a buddy serving in Iraq called to make sure he was OK. Imagine. Calling home from war to check on the domestic casualties of our violent society.

* We're shattered by the sound of gunshots, yet that's background noise in so many neighborhoods in our own hometown.

So many ironies.

And so many questions.

Why didn't college officials shut the campus down after the first shooting?

And what motivated 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui to matter-of-factly mow down his fellow students?

The specific questions are useful exercises to those of us whose loved ones' fates weren't determined by the answers.

They give us something to do other than wring our hands, something to focus on other than the real questions that have no answers:

Why?

Why did it happen? Why did it happen to my beloved relative and not yours?

How does a young man become so twisted with rage that slaughtering strangers is his answer?

What can we do to save ourselves from more bloodbaths?

Typically, instead of uniting us in a search for answers, this horrific incident has divided us along predictable lines.

The dead hadn't even been identified before the debate began:

The answer, to some people, is fewer guns.

The answer to other people - incredibly, to me - is more guns.

But much as I fiercely believe in handgun control, I find the discussion just empty rhetoric in the context of the massacre at Virginia Tech.

Because unless every weapon is removed from the planet - every handgun, rifle, assault weapon, shotgun, whatever - if there's a psychopath who wants to avenge the perceived insults of his life by committing mass murder, he'll find a way to do it.

That's why I don't think more stringent security at Virginia Tech - or any campus - is necessarily the answer.

A strategy to respond more quickly to an emergency, yes. A better method of alerting students to danger, yes.

But in this case, I urge the university to take a page from the Amish tragedy - and tear down Norris Hall, where 30 students were slain.

In its place should be a memorial garden, where students can pause for moments of reflection, where the victims can be remembered in a setting of beauty.

It should be a soothing oasis of flowering plants and trees and gardens of colorful blooms.

And it should have a waterfall so that the peaceful trickling of water can someday quiet the echoes of gunshots, the sound that haunts us. *

E-mail porterj@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5850. For recent columns: