For those of us with even a passing knowledge of psychology, Virginia Shooter Seung Cho’s plays read like a fictionalized retelling of DSM IV, the bible of psychiatric disorders. The characters exhibit signs of everything from paranoia, to pedophilia, to anti-social personality disorder, and psychopathy.
Lucinda Roy, one of Cho’s English professors was so alarmed by his writings that she referred him to counseling. Cho declined to go. Ms. Roy then contacted campus police. They did nothing. Distressed, Ms. Roy contacted university officials, who gave her two options: She could drop Cho from her class, thereby making him someone else’s problem, or she could tutor him. She decided to give him private lessons. But the prospect of spending one-on-one time with Cho was so frightening to Ms. Roy that she “worked out a code with her assistant: if she mentioned the name of a dead professor, her assistant would know it was time to call security.”
If this had been the only warning sign that went unheeded that would be one thing. But it wasn’t. Cho was admitted to the university’s mental health unit in late 2005, after receiving complaints from two female students. In fact, Cho had become such a problem on campus that “police told a news conference at the university that Cho was well known both to campus authorities and local law enforcement agencies.” But their hands were tied, because Cho never made any “explicit threats.”
This, my friends, is the system at work. And it’s a tragic example of just how horribly wrong things can go when bureaucratic regulations trump human instinct.
Many of us have spent the last three days obsessively reading accounts of the slaughter at Virginia Tech. We do so not out of morbid curiosity or voyeurism, but because we want answers: How could this have happened? And what can we do to prevent it from happening again?
I spent all day yesterday digging through the literature on school shootings in the hopes of finding some answers. The deeper I dug, the more haphazard and contradictory the information became. The only thing experts seem to agree on is the “school shooter profile.” What type of young man is most likely to go homicidal in the classroom? According to testimony given before the House Judiciary Committee Oversight Hearing to Examine Youth Culture and Violence in 1999, violent youth can be broken up into three major categories:
* The mentally ill
* Juveniles with “a long history of delinquent of disruptive behavior, with problems evident in early childhood,” and
* “Normal youngsters whose acts of violence surprise us . . . emotionally troubled and conflicted-alienated, angry, and depressed, [they] may be intelligent and capable, but they are not satisfied with their achievements and often feel unfairly treated by others.”
The other trait common to most school shooters is what psychologists call malignant narcissism, “a syndrome characterized by a narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and ego-syntonic aggression [often accompanied by] an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and a sense of importance.”
But one wonders how useful this information really is. By all accounts, Cho was the walking embodiment of the “school shooter profile,” but recognizing that didn’t enable us to avert disaster.
Should we blame the parents?
The more I learned about Cho’s twisted inner world yesterday, the more I found myself wanting to find someone (or something) to blame. J. William Spencer, a sociologist at Purdue University, thinks that when it comes to young adult violence, the onus should be placed largely on parents. “We know that the quality of the parent-child relationship is a good predictor of whether a teenager will participate in delinquent behavior. That’s why all the discussion following school shootings about installing metal detectors, or even banning backpacks because weapons can be hidden, is off the mark,” Spencer says.
Now, Cho was not a child. He was a man of 23. But after reading his plays, it’s difficult not to jump to conclusions about his childhood. His writing is riddled with references to sexual violations by male authority figures. Is this a sign he was molested? Maybe. Maybe not.
It would be so easy to blame Cho’s parents for his obvious mental distress, but we don’t know what part they played, if any. I’m inclined to think that, at the very least, his parents are guilty of supreme neglect. True parenting doesn’t end at the age of 18 — particularly if you have a child this troubled — so where were Mr. and Mrs. Cho in this picture? Right now, we don’t know, but assigning guilt is premature.
Who else might be the culprit? America’s gun culture? Rampant violence in the media? The Me-first culture run amok?
Is it the guns?
Katherine Newman, the editor of Rampage: The roots of school shootings thinks pointing the finger at guns is a cop out. Why? Because gun availability hasn’t changed enough to explain the spike in these types of crimes, according to Newman:
I know it seems as though that’s an odd claim, [because] there are many more guns in American society today. However, those guns are held by the same number of people. We have the same number of gun owners who now own more guns, rather than more gun owners. And so it’s hard to credit that as an explanation for why school shootings have suddenly become such an issue, unless you believe that somehow the possession of more guns by the same number of people is having a tremendous impact. And I don’t credit that explanation.
I’m inclined to agree with her. But I still find it unfathomable that someone with Cho’s history – someone who’d caught the attention of authorities around town! – was able to waltz into a store and purchase two handguns within the space of a month. Guns may not be the driving factor behind these crimes, but lax gun laws certainly aren’t helping us. As a purportedly civilized country, it’s our responsibility to get a better handle on gun control.
Is the media brainwashing our kids?
The other cultural factor that frequently gets blamed for these types of killings is violence in the media. There are so many conflicting reports out there about the effects of media on children that it can be hard for the skeptically inclined to pick a side. But the evidence is mounting in favor of the theory that watching violence really does encourage aggression in children.
It can be difficult for us Gen-Xers to accept this. Many of us are not above the occasional game of Halo ourselves and you don’t see us opening fire at the local mini-mart. The difference is that we aren’t children. Those of us in our late twenties, thirties and beyond grew up in a time when we didn’t spend all of our leisure hours parked in front of the television or the Play Station. Or brains were given time to ripen without near-constant media interference. This isn’t the case today. In an era when workaholics are running the world, the Boob Tube and gaming consoles often end up playing the role of surrogate parent. Today’s kids spend an average of 17 to 18 hours a week on television alone. We can’t expect this to have no effect.
Unlike some doomsayers, Katherine Newman doesn’t believe there’s a direct correlation between watching make-believe violence and acting it out. She attributes the rise in youth violence to our on-going love affair with what she calls “the cult of the masculine, violent anti-hero.” We may say we’re looking to raise empathetic, emotive, peace loving boys, but that’s not what we pay to see in theaters: We pay to see Clint and Arnold and James Bond. If you were misfit kid, who spent his entire youth feeling sidelined and bullied and weak, who would you aspire to be?
What to do? Ban violence in the media? Don’t hold you breath, folks. As long violent content makes money, media moguls will continue pumping it out–and it makes a lot of money. We can gripe about excessive violence in American media, but it’s not going to go away any time soon. So in the immortal words of Crosby, Stills, and Nash: Teach your children well.
It’s all about ME
When researching school shootings, I couldn’t get the “Werther Effect,” out of my head, The Werther effect took hold in Europe after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. The story tells the tale of a well-heeled, self-involved fop who is spurned by his lady love, and sees no recourse but to commit suicide. Werther’s story so resonated with European youth that it inspired a rash of copycat suicides–some say as many as 2,000. It was like a cultural virus.
On one level, the school shooting epidemic can be seen as a similar sort of cultural virus. Each shooting seems to galvanize more disaffected youth. It’s as if seeing their fantasies writ large, they become convinced that the only way to empower themselves is to replicate the carnage on a larger scale. One event begets another and another, each worse than the one that came before.
The key difference, of course, is that Werther’s acolytes only punished themselves for their malaise, whereas this new breed of malcontent thinks we should all pay for their unhappiness. Why? Because our culture has become almost malignantly individualistic. In our rush to prepare our children to compete in this alpha dog-eat-alpha dog world, we have imbued them with an unhealthy sense of their own importance. Americans have always been success-driven, but somewhere along the line, the “Pull Yourself up By Your Bootstraps” mentality metastasized into the “Gimme” mentality. We have inculcated our kids with the idea that their needs are paramount. When their needs go unmet, they aren’t just disappointed, they’re angry–and far more inclined to blame others than they are to blame themselves.
One of the central messages that allows humanity to keep chugging along, appears to be getting lost in translation. Our children need to understand that their wellbeing is contingent on the happiness of others. Put simply, they need to hear: “It’s not all about you.”
I have little doubt that all of these factors fed into Cho’s explosion of rage. But they can’t be assigned all the blame. After all, millions of Americans contend with these cultural forces every day without cracking up. So, we are left to wonder: What was the catalyst?
It’s possible that Cho was simply born evil. I don’t mean evil in the biblical sense. I mean neurologically and morally defective: The kind of man born with a hole in his head and his heart where empathy and human feeling normally resides. It may be that he was one of the small percentage of human beings biologically engineered to become an interspecies predator.
If this is what the evidence points to when all is said and done, it will be both the scariest and the easiest explanation. The scariest because there’s nothing we could have done. And the easiest, because it implies there’s nothing we can do.
In the meantime, I cling to the idea that more monsters are made than born. And I hope that we can find a way to ensure that America stops breeding them so efficiently.