A psychological profile of the lone gunman
Why this horrible massacre? Who is Cho Seung-Hui?
What triggered his shooting rampage? What can be done to prevent
There are many troubling questions but very
It is easy to dismiss this case as a deranged
psychotic gone off the deep end. Most people blame insanity for
Cho’s killing spree, while some Christians, like the Reverend
Franklin Graham, blame Satan for the evil deed. Where does human
responsibility come in?
I want to introduce a new perspective: Is it
possible that Cho’s experiences of rejection, discrimination
and injustice might have contributed to this tragedy? Certainly
nothing can justify Cho’s monstrous crime, but if we place
the Virginia Tech massacre under a cultural lens, we may gain some
deeper understanding of a tormented misfit and learn how to prevent
similar tragic happenings.
Based on what I have experienced and what many
other visible minorities have gone through, I am well acquainted
with the pain and anger of being victimized by racially motivated
discrimination. I want to trace the psychological development of
Cho and show how his negative experiences as an immigrant might
have contributed to the cancerous growth of his hatred against the
rest of the world.
A psychological portrait of a troubled young
I look at the face of Mr. Cho, I see anger and hate in his eyes.
I see sadness and loneliness in his pouting mouth. I also see a
deeply wounded young man who had given up on life.
According to his grant parents, Cho was always
an introverted problem child, who refused to talk. According to
uncle, Cho was an autistic child, but the family was too poor
to take care of his medical condition. Early intervention might
Transplanted to a new country at the age of
eight, the language barrier only compounded his communication problem.
His parents’ struggle for economical survival and experiences
of racial discrimination might have exacerbated Cho’s acculturative
His school experience only added to his misery.
According to a brietbart.com
report, he was picked on, laughed at, and bullied at the middle
school. Classmates mocked him for the strange way he spoke English
and told him “Go back to China!” Such public humiliation
to a child from a shame-based culture could be as traumatizing as
To add insult to injury, he might have had to
deal with rude customers at his parents’ laundry shop, since
many first generation immigrants depend on their children to do
the translation and handle customers. That might have further contributed
to his feelings of bitterness and hatred.
While other children of his age were enjoying
fun and games, Cho had to stay home handling dirty laundry. It is
simply a common practice for Asian children to help out with their
parents’ family business, especially for the first generation
immigrants operating laundry shops, grocery stores or restaurants.
This kind of experience might have attributed to his hostility towards
His sister was obvious academically smarter,
having graduated from Princeton. He told his roommate that he was
a business major while he was in English. Since most Asian parents
place a great deal of pressure on academic achievement, they might
have further damaged his self-esteem and unwittingly turned him
Professor Lucinda Roy, a co-director of creative
writing at Virginia Tech, told ABC’s Good Morning America:
"He was so distant and so lonely. It was almost like talking
to a hole, as though he wasn't there most of the time. He wore sunglasses
and his hat very low so it was hard to see his face." Was he
ashamed of his own existence?
He was described by his classmates as withdrawn
and antisocial. He avoided eye-contact or conversation. No one has
ever seen him with a girl or a friend. He was considered a sullen
loner with a mean streak. At a stage of development, when most people
have boy-friends or girl-friends, won’t he feel angry and
depressed for being a social outcast?
He took cell-phone pictures of his teachers
and classmates. He stalked girls from a distance. For these desperate
attempts to fill his needs for intimacy, he was expelled from an
English class and detained at a psychiatric hospital for mental
examination. Such humiliation would only fuel his anger towards
His plays and poetry were the only outlets for
his hatred and pain. He was referred to school counselling services,
but was there any Korean counsellor or psychiatrist who could give
him the kind of help and support he needed? Was there any adult
who cared enough to earn his trust and act as his big brother?
His infatuation with Emily Jane Hilscher and
his jealous rage probably triggered his first shooting spree. Once
started, he methodically carried out his revenge against the whole
student body and against the entire world.
His final violent outburst was the result of
many years of accumulated hatred and rage for a relentless litany
of rejections, injustices and grievances without any redress or
support. His murderous act was anger turned outward, while his suicide
was anger turn inward. It was also the final act of defiance to
restore his manhood and honor after all those years of feeling helpless
and humiliated. In his twisted logic, he wanted to take his last
stand and die as a hero.
Getting inside the killer’s mind.
The packaged multimedia manifesto lends credence
to the above psychological autopsy. In his 1,800-word rambling statement,
Cho allows us to get into his mind and have a glimpse of his rage
In one of the videos, he said in a low and monotone
voice: “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched
my conscience.” That seems a pretty accurate depiction of
the pain he had endured.
"You had a hundred billion chances and
ways to have avoided today. But you decided to spill my blood. You
forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.” Is this
the recrimination of a paranoid psychotic? Perhaps, but the fact
remains that there have been indeed many opportunities for meaningful
intervention, but no one really seriously stepped in to provide
the kind of help he really needed.
On another of the videos, he explained:
“I didn’t have to do this. I could have left. I could
have fled. But no, I will no longer run.” He decided to die
heroically: “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ to inspire
generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”
At the end of his short and painful life,
he tried to savage a sense of courage and dignity through senseless
violence. With the help of an experienced and compassionate counselor,
he could have discovered these qualities he had been looking for
through overcoming adversities.
Why they kill
James Alan Fox, professor of criminal
justice at Northeastern University, has identified five contributing
factors, according to his opinion piece in the LA
- Perpetrators have a long history of frustration
and failure and feel powerless to cope with endless disappointments.
- They blame others for not giving them a chance.
They blame ethnic/racial discrimination or gender bias for not
getting the breaks that others are.
- They do not have the emotional support from
family or friends. They are the loners, the misfits.
- The triggering event is often perceived
as catastrophic. It is often some major disappointment, such as
a low grade, losing a job or the breaking up of a relationship.
- They have access to a powerful weapon that
allows them to satisfy their need for revenge and make a powerful
statement about their grievances.
All the above factors are clearly evident in
Cho’s case. Obviously, not every one who has been exposed
to these factors will become a mass murderer, but some one with
Cho’s temperament and medical condition may indeed snap, given
the right trigger.
In all likelihood, Cho seems to have Autism
with a tendency towards violence. I am wondering whether proper
medical and psychological treatment might have averted the tragic
What can we do?
What can we do to prevent another mass
On the individual level, caring individuals
and professional counselors can certainly mitigate against the above
five factors. For example, meaning-centered individual counseling
might have helped him discover positive meanings from negative life
experiences and turn adversities into advantages.
On the institutional level, we need more
ethnic counselors in schools and communities to serve the mental
health needs of immigrants and ethnic minorities, who tend to stay
away from mainstream counseling services.
Thus, there is a real need for producing
more ethnic counselors and training non-ethnic counselors and psychologists
with the necessary multicultural competencies. This is something
Tyndale University College is planning to do.
On the societal level, we need to make
medical and psychological services available to all those who cannot
afford it. We need to address issues of poverty, injustice and discrimination.
Racism will always be with us, but at least we need to recognize
it and combat it whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head.
What is positive psychology’s answer
to those who feel that life has dealt them a rotten hand and that
they have been treated very unfairly? Like everybody else, they
too want to be happy and successful. As a caring society, we need
to make sure that no child is left behind, and no one is denied
the opportunity to succeed.
When we extend justice and compassionate
care to every one regardless of their ethnicity and condition, we
will make it less likely for another Virginia Tech or Columbine