Virginia Tech

by Jonathan Wallace

The mass killing of thirty two students and faculty at Virginia Tech last week, by a student named Cho Seung-Hui, has inspired the usual pundit and political thrashing and churning. Among the issues under solemn consideration are why he did it, what measures would have prevented him (sympathetic, punitive or tactical), why the police functioned so slowly, why he was able to kill so many people, what the role was of popular culture, and the impact of Virginia gun laws. After all this philosophizing, people start looking for legislative solutions, such as panic buttons in classrooms.

Why he did it. It is fundamentally impossible to get a complete answer to this question after any act of mass killing, as the answers are always staggeringly inadequate. Something is happening in the black hole of the killer's mind which can never be communicated beyond the event horizon. Cho's writings, complaining of the arrogance and entitlement of his fellow students and comparing himself to Christ, fail to give us any portrait of a man who was pushed too far, or had any legitimate grievances.

The most one can say is that some people choose to withdraw from the human. I wish neither to downplay or to glorify the role of chemistry here. I refuse to regard Cho as a killer automaton, no matter how badly his brain was misfiring. He took numerous steps which required large amounts of planning and choice, such as chaining the doors of the building shut before he began firing. I have no problem with treating people like Cho as conscious actors responsible for their acts.

Cho reveals a hole in the socio-legal system which stands as the cornerstone of a peaceful society. Most people regard the penalties for murder as horrendous, shameful, not to be borne. Murderers tend to fall into two major groups, those who expect never to be caught and those who act in a moment of emotion, impulse and irrationality so great that any view of the "shadow of the future" is absent.

Cho, like Al Qaeda suicide operatives, represents a third and very dangerous category. Because the individual is planning to die, the penalties are inapplicable, and there is no deterrent effect. Such people turn the criminal laws inside out. The penalty, instead of being something to be feared, in effect becomes the price to be paid for the right to commit an act. Just as a putative thoughtful thug could decide that seven years in prison was a fair price to pay for the right to commit an assault, people like Cho and Mohammed Atta believe that their own death validates any number of murders committed at the same time. In other words, if you are going to die, you might as well make a political or social point, or simply satisfy yourself, by taking any number of other people with you.

Another interesting result is that the community is robbed of the application of punishment it needs to restore the balance. When the defendant sits in court, being reviled by the judge, or, in a ritual popular in recent years, forced to listen to the anguished statements of the bereaved, the community feels an emotional satisfaction from the illusory "closure" granted by the ritual. When the killer kills himself, he takes away the opportunity for this ritual. We cannot feel the same satisfaction in his suicide, or even Mohammed Atta's horrendous death in the plane crash he caused, because in these cases the killer eagerly sought death. We want him not to want it.

What has faded away, or also been turned inside out like a reversible garment, is the extra-legal, usually religious, concept of a rulebook preventing murder. Mohammed Atta believed God would reward him for murdering as many infidels as possible, and even the one hundred forty or so Moslems who died at the trade towers, because they were murdered in service to a greater goal of killing infidels. Cho, despite references to Christ in his ramblings, probably had no specific concept of an afterlife, or any fear of hell or punishment after death. If there is no deterrent to suicide, and suicide is seen to validate murder, people who set themselves on Cho's path represent a unique and very difficult problem. There is no specific or easy way to deter them, and we are left with the different problem of how to identify them before they can act.

Sympathy for Cho. This leads us to the closely related problem of whether it is necessary or useful to feel sorry for Cho. I was interested by the outpouring of regret on the Internet, and specifically the people who adopted the action item of "hugging a loner" to prevent some future incident of mass murder. It seems that one of the people Cho shot was the only student in a playwriting class who had taken an interest in him and made an effort to talk to him. I think people like Cho are far beyond a level where any kind of sympathy, friendship, or attention can reach them or deter them. Al Qaeda suicide terrorists, as part of their cover, have socialized with the infidels they intended to kill, and probably enjoyed their company, without any feelings of conflict about the acts they ultimately intended.

I think compassion is the cornerstone of what makes us human, and of any moral or legal system worth anything, so I am aware of the conflict with what I am about to say. However, people like Cho are brutal, narcissistic and completely lacking in any perception that the people they kill are themselves independent entities with their own needs, aspirations and capacity to suffer. Mass murder is, along with torture, the human action which most elevates the ego of the actor over the identity of the victim. Cho, and I do not use this word lightly, was a monster. People like him secede from the human--and I believe they have some choice in the matter--and become like predators preying upon us. Any sympathy for them, and any attempt to root their choices in difficult childhoods or social ostracism, is a waste of time. If we lived in an African village and a local lion had learned to like the taste of human flesh, we would band together to take it down, not spend time feeling sorry for it.

The danger in what I have just said is that it promotes the dehumanization of groups or types of people in our eyes, and therefore makes it a little easier for us to behave like Cho. This is not true if we restrict this analysis to people who have already acted, like Cho. It is a more dangerous philosophy if we start regarding people who haven't done anything as monsters, and act accordingly. (There was some tendency on the part of the right wing radio bloviators to demonize immigrants, and particularly Asians, in the week after the shootings. Cho had been here since he was eight, and if you are going to blame influences, was arguably "constructed" much more by American culture than South Korean.)

How do you deal with potential Cho's? The short answer is that there is no easy way to do so. Despite the glorification, for the last sixty years or so, of chemical predictors in brain science, we really have no way to tell which strange loner, or even which young man with violent ideation, will become a mass murderer. When we start acting as if we know more than we do, the result is we will start warehousing a lot of people who would never have harmed anyone.

In many cases of mass murder, the killer's arc--from misfit to murderer--is short, or secret, or both. One thing that makes Cho's case somewhat unique is that a group of professors and administrators at Virginia Tech believed they saw his violent propensities, communicated with each other and even had him committed for psychiatric evaluation in the year before he killed. Yet he was still there, able to buy guns, videotape himself, make plans. When he finally killed the first two victims, and then took a two hour break, no suspicion fell on him; the police identified as their only suspect the boyfriend of the first girl he murdered.

There were two classic malfunctions in the system. The first was that information existed but was not shared with all the people who needed it. The head of the English department, for example, may have been unaware that Cho had been committed for psychiatric evaluation by school security. Even more consequentially, when Cho went to buy guns, a background check also did not turn up the psych evaluation.

The second malfunction was that even where the information was available, there was no clear precedent or consensus as to what action to take, and Cho was permitted to remain on campus and continue attending classes. Here it seems possible that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of individual versus community rights. With twenty twenty hindsight, it is fair to say that Cho's right to remain in school should not have trumped everyone else's desire to stay alive.

Sixty years ago, students could still be excluded from universities for undisclosed and highly prejudiced reasons. My father had a vivid memory of an interview with an unusually honest but bigoted dean, I think at Yale, who told him "Your people"--Jews-- "contribute nothing to this place." The perception, in the 1960's, that decisions about exclusion from communities such as universities should not be made based on race, ethnicity or religion was in my opinion one of the big triumphs of our social development. Perhaps we went a bit crazy after that identifying additional classes to protect. The decision that the mentally ill had rights similar to those of ethnic minorities has done some good, certainly, but also a great deal of damage. It resulted in the freeing from institutions (many of which were cruel, revolting and unsanitary places) of mentally ill people who ended up homeless on the streets of New York City. It also led to the outcome that Cho could not be expelled or suspended from school. As is so often the case when rights law is involved, in the end Virginia Tech may have kept Cho on campus more from a fear of litigation than any concern for him.

Cho, though he had done nothing definitively violent, had certainly given enough hints of his mental arc. He had taken photographs of girls' legs underneath the table in classes, hounded them via email and instant messaging, engaged in other strange and inappropriate behavior, and his assignments for English class were so violent in their imagery that at least one teacher suspended his usual practice of having the rest of the class read Cho's contributions. I think that Virginia Tech should have been able to decide to exclude Cho from its community based on the totality of this behavior, particularly the actions he took to harass women. (Whether to exclude an otherwise model citizen for writing deranged plays is a different kind of problem. Some successful playwrights, such as Sarah Kane or Adam Rapp, might have been kicked out of school.) Of course, if Cho had been sent home, he might still have obtained guns and come back to campus. There are no simple solutions to the problems he raises.

Much has been made of the one time he was involuntarily committed overnight for evaluation. A psychiatrist interviewed him and decided not to keep him. This means that his commitment never rose to the level at which it was required to be reported to federal authorities or would have shown up on a firearms check.

I can testify, from first hand experience in the ambulance world, that psych evaluations are a very imprecise art, not at all a science. We are trained to ask people whether they are having any thoughts about hurting themselves or others. Few of the people we interview are psychotic enough to answer in the affirmative. Anybody who can assume a sincere enough manner to persuasively deny the homicidal thoughts they actually have will skate away from such an evaluation, unless of course they have already pulled a knife on someone. The behavior for which Cho was evaluated--harassing girls via instant messaging--realistically was not enough for the psychiatrist to hold him, even when coupled with the bizarre writings submitted in English class. I am arguing that the standard for suspending or expelling Cho from school should have been lower than that for holding him for extended pyschiatric observation.

Cultural influences. I have seen the movie Oldboy and fail to remember any immediate or powerful connection to Cho's own imagery. Nor is there any proof Cho actually saw this movie. In general, the churning about whether killers are influenced by particular movies is boring, trite and unprofitable. Of more interest is the issue of the feedback loop between violence in film and in our imagination.

I don't believe movies actually create belief so much as they echo it. Filmmakers tend to be very acute in giving audiences what they want. The increasing violence of our movies echoes the increasing violence of our culture. Feedback effects mean that by echoing something, we may also magnify it or legitimate it. Cho did not become a monster because he saw Oldboy; he already was. Possibly, monstrous actions may seem a little easier, more within reach, if prevalent in the culture.

What I find more interesting is Cho's pictures of himself posing with gloves, vest and guns. A slightly built, unremarkable outsider with extremely low self esteem created a self portrait in which he looks scary, in control and--lets admit it--cool. The invisible guy made himself highly visible in this picture. What's worse, through the propagation of these pictures, his videos and his writings by the media and the Internet, he got the attention and legitimacy he presumably craved in life. I sympathize with the victim's families who feel that what Mark Twain called the "lionization" of murderers is tantamount to second assault.

Gun laws and rights. This also has to do with the deeply held perception, echoed in our movies, that guns are the great equalizer, solver of problems, settler of scores, a cool extension of human power. It is a given in our society that it is cool to have a gun, to pose with a gun.

Thoreau famously said that "Men have become the tools of their tools". It is possible to observe in every walk of life that our tools influence the way we think about things. Edward Teller wanted to use nuclear weapons to create harbors. Programmers always want to use the tools they are most familiar with to solve all problems, sometimes quite inappropriately. I once worked with programmers who so loved a particular computer, they used it to implement a data and graphics-heavy mapping application for which it wasn't nearly capacious enough. Going from one screen to another sometimes took forty minutes. Any tool which we know and love begins to seem like the solution to all problems, and we conscientously start extending the range within which it will be used. "When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

I believe that in this sense, a love of handguns promotes an insensitivity to human life, which can be heard in the everyday language of gun-store owners and firearms enthusiasts as they talk about "double-tapping" or the "stopping power" of particular types of ammunition, or exchange opinions on the circumstances in which it is defensible to shoot someone. (For example, if you shoot someone on your property, be sure to drag him inside your house before the cops arrive.) A classic illustration of a tool "wanting" to be used to solve even problems created by the tool itself arose when I went on a gun enthusiast mailing list to discuss what I regarded as quite moderate, consensual means of controlling the availability of guns in urban areas: a number of outspoken people on the list offered to shoot me.

Guns didn't create Cho, any more than movies did. However, the observation frequently made by the Second Amendment crowd, that murderers deprived of guns will use knives, etc., breaks down in this case. Cho would not have been able to kill thirty two people. Guns are certainly an accelerant.

I have come reluctantly to believe that the Second Amendment was probably intended by the Framers to create an individual right, however ill-advisedly. Nevertheless, I believe that Cho should not have been able to obtain guns. So do some of the Second Amendment types. To others, the deaths of thirty two people at Virginia Tech is just the "price we pay for liberty".

Self-defense. Another right wing radio bloviator described helpless victims hiding behind chairs, waiting for "the government to save them". Good job, blaming people for getting shot to death. In Second Amendment World, every other student and every professor would have had their own handgun, and would have started blazing away at Cho (and probably at each other) the moment he started his assault. One of the reasons I like a government is because I don't want to live in a world where everyone has to carry handguns for safety. As I have said before, a paradigm which may work well for thinly populated rural areas definitely seems to break down in crowded urban ones. The collateral slaughter caused by a classroom of people blazing away at Cho could easily rival the damage he did.

However, it was rather disconcerting that he was able to kill thirty two people. I wondered at first why there was no Flight 93 style resistance. If any ten students had ganged up on Cho, dashing at him with chairs and throwing backpacks, he probably would only have been able to shoot three of them before the others took him down. Since he killed between a third and a half of the people in several of the classrooms he entered, the odds would have been fairly good.

I think there are several reasonable explanations why this did not happen. First, the people on Flight 93 were highly motivated by the knowledge that they were all going to die if they did nothing. Without this certainty, it is human nature to look to oneself and not to act collectively in the face of a gunman. As erroneous as it may be, the odds for surviving if one hides behind a chair must always seem higher than the odds of survival if one acts collectively. Secondly, there was some successful collective action at Virginia Tech: there are stories of students acting together to hold a classroom door against Cho, and some of them, nearer the door, sustaining bullet wounds while doing so. Finally, according to one newspaper account, the entire assault lasted less than ten minutes, hardly enough time for people to realize what was happening and decide on a course of action (the passengers on Flight 93 had a much longer time to think about what they were going to do).

Legislative solutions. Mass murder on campus, though seemingly becoming more common, is still vanishingly rare. Whenever politicos and the media start churning about something, we always enter a silly land of public policy in which we consider spending billions of dollars to avoid unlikely evils. Though we hold to the ethos that every human life is precious, there is little chance that the federal government will be willing to pay for an armed security guard and metal detector at the door of every university building in the nation (let alone a knock-out gas system to tranquilize assailants and victims alike until they can be sorted out). However, two areas where effort and money could reasonably be invested would be in laws making it easier for universities to expel students like Cho, and requirements that psych evaluations, even if they don't result in commitment, be a matter of federal record, disclosed to a gun store considering a sale to a potential purchaser. Either of these modest and relatively inexpensive approaches might avoid some number of future incidents.