THE TRAGEDY at Virginia Tech continues to unfold almost on a loop across our television screens, radios and computers. The latest reports sadly paint a picture we've seen before: a loner who appeared aloof and disturbed to his classmates and teachers.

But over the last few days, I've watched the devastation at Virginia Tech become fodder for an indictment of our entire way of life. Observers have framed this tragedy as a reflection of American culture, American parenting and American kids far removed from Blacksburg, Va.

There is no denying that this was a tragic event. But we need to remember that this was the work of one person.

Cho Seung-Hui committed these acts. We did not, and one bad actor shouldn't be an indictment of us all.

As Professor James Fox of Northeastern University told me when I sought his analysis this week: "Let's recognize that the real culprit here is the shooter.

"He's dead, so the tendency is to try to find other people to blame. And I guess there [are] lots of people down there on campus to hold under the spotlight."

What worries me is that in our efforts to grieve, cope and work toward preventing something like this from happening again, we've already begun courting the same old solutions: clamping down on guns, fencing in the campuses or purging violent video games, sex and pornography.

To be sure, our culture needs a scrubbing. But most Americans can watch a violent movie without making it real. And relative to guns, isn't the reality that those few disturbed among us, if not by firearms, will find another way to spark a tragedy?

We don't yet know why Cho Seung-Hui chose to use guns on Monday. But considering reports that he started a fire in a dorm room, and was a regular computer user, it's clear he would likely have found another way to carry out his plan had he wanted to.

It seems to me that the immediate challenge is to better identify the individuals who will act out like Cho Seung-Hui. We need to know who will watch a violent movie, a vengeful character portrayal or a murderous news account and try to inject himself into that part of the plot - 99.9 percent of America will not.

Reports of Seung-Hui's vulgar and violent "creative-writing" submissions prove again that the kooks among us almost always show outward signs of the violence inside them. We have to pick those indications out sooner, even if that means stepping on a couple of PC toes.

And we need to get back to punishing the evildoers we've already identified.

It's a joke when we are forced to reflect on whether 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui had a tough go of it as a kid.

Coddling like that isn't the oh-so-soft message we should be sending.

BUT AN AGGRESSIVE hunt for bad guys shouldn't be an invitation to sacrifice freedom in the educational setting, either.

We can't allow one person on one college campus to force us to overturn the liberties we've built our country and our lives on. As Professor Fox reminded us, the odds of falling victim to violence on campuses are still minuscule.

Episodes like these "are the sad and tragic price that we pay for our freedom," he said.

"We don't want to turn our campuses into armed camps, fortress-like places. That will detract from the educational experience and indeed students won't want to go there . . .

"Hopefully, it never happens again. I'm afraid that it will. But I don't know where, I don't know how, or by whom. And that's why this thing is so unpredictable and so difficult."

Here's hoping we don't turn our free society upside down as we try to cope with what happened in Blacksburg. Especially when we need to find the ones who might act it out again.

And finally, no matter what the press, pundits and pajama-media crowd tell us, "we" didn't do this. He did. *

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5:30-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.