What drove Cho Seung-Hui to carry out the Virginia Tech Mass Killing?

A psychological profile of the lone gunman

© Paul T. P. Wong
Ph.D., C. Psych.
Toronto, Ontario

Thirty-two innocent people were executed by a lone gunman on a quiet university campus. The world remains in shock. People from all over the world remain in mourning. Korean communities everywhere feel a collective shame and fear of backlash. The aftermath will reverberate for a long, long time.

Why this horrible massacre? Who is Cho Seung-Hui? What triggered his shooting rampage? What can be done to prevent similar tragedies?

There are many troubling questions but very few answers.

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 man

As 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 his uncle, Cho was an autistic child, but the family was too poor to take care of his medical condition. Early intervention might have helped.

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 stress.

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 gang rape.

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 rich kids.

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 against elitism.

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 society.

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 and agony.

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 Times

  1. Perpetrators have a long history of frustration and failure and feel powerless to cope with endless disappointments.
  2. 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.
  3. They do not have the emotional support from family or friends. They are the loners, the misfits.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 end.

What can we do?

What can we do to prevent another mass killing?

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 to happen.

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