Mass Killings Are Not Incomprehensible

June 1, 2007
Volume 24, Issue 7

On Monday, April 16, Seung-Hui Cho, a 22-year-old English major at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 27 students and 5 teachers before taking his own life. The reaction to this latest mass shooting included the opinion that what this young man did was beyond comprehension.

On Monday, April 16, Seung-Hui Cho, a 22-year-old English major at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 27 students and 5 teachers before taking his own life. The reaction to this latest mass shooting included the opinion that what this young man did was beyond comprehension. On the day after the massacre, Katie Couric, reporting from the memorial service held on the Blacksburg campus, insisted that the mourners were trying to make sense of something that was completely incomprehensible.

Not really. We define who we are by acting on the world, becoming ourselves in the process. The final, destructive acts of those who kill others and then take their own lives are no exception. What they do is as meaningful, purposeful, and comprehensible as any act that is judged positive and creative.

We can safely infer that at some point before the shootings, Cho saw no future for himself. He bought 2 guns and numerous clips of bullets. By that time, he had made the decision to take others-many others, judging from the extent of his firepower-out of this world with him. Ending his own life was not enough. He had to act on the world and redefine himself by killing a significant number of others at the same time, in what would become the country's largest mass slaying.

"You made me do this," he wrote in a note that was found in his dorm room. Cho could not separate the need to end the anguish, anger, and despair that he apparently felt from what he saw as its cause: a world in which individuals, rejecting him, had congealed into the enemy. Cho probably did not know most of the people he shot. In his self-transforming rage he had lost the ability to distinguish one person from another. To understand why mass murderers do what they do, one has to see which boundaries they choose to traverse compared with the way that "normal" people struggle to stay within those boundaries, often doing so unconsciously.

Even as he was exiting the world on his own carefully chosen terms, Cho was intent on leaving his imprint. Killing 2 people and then yourself gets you on the national news for a few days, rating a footnote in the history of violence in this country. Killing 32 people and then yourself makes you a major figure in that history.

CBS reporter Peter Van Sant spoke with the intuitive understanding that Cho's murders and suicide were meaningful, purposeful, and comprehensible acts when he pointed out how that day had run on Cho's schedule: in shooting, he had called the shots. And not just for one day. Going out, Cho threw a wrench into the works to ensure that, for many people, the world he was leaving would never again be the same.

René J. Muller, PhD
Baltimore

Dr Muller has evaluated over 3000 psychiatric patients in the emergency departments of 3 Baltimore hospitals, often assessing the risk patients pose of harming themselves or others. His next book, Doing Psychiatry Wrong, will be published later this year.