Gathered with this essay are my article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch just before the Massengill Report was released, the follow-up editorial in that newspaper, my critique of Nikki Giovanni's speech at the memorial convocation, and a relevant paper by a student in my seminar on the sociology of work, Amelia Howard. Farther down at left are external links to the Massengill Report and a few other noteworthy documents.
My purpose here is to call for additional study of the massacre and to point efforts to explain it in a direction different from the one that has so far dominated public discussion. The goal is whatever explanation best fits the facts, since only this can serve as an effective guide to preventing similar tragedies in the future.
EXPLANATION IN TERMS OF DEFECTIVE CHARACTER
The dominant explanation until now focuses on the identity or character of the lone killer. He is described as a madman, monster, demon, walking time-bomb, or psychopath — nouns that define him as totally other, categorically apart from normal people. Roger Depue's "theoretical profile" (Appendix N of the Massengill Report) is a good example of such explanation, an attempt to specify the precise nature of Cho's pathological self.
The most obvious weakness of flawed-character theorizing is that it cannot account for the timing of Cho's shooting spree. Why did he not plan and execute it when he was 17 years old, still in high school? Why not when he was 20? Why didn't he wait longer, until he was 50, and go postal in middle age? Why did Cho's defective identity suddenly manifest itself a few months after his twenty-third birthday?
A related weakness of explanation in terms of Cho's allegedly murderous character is that there is no evidence of it prior to the time of the murders. Cho had no record of violence. On account of his extreme reserve, mental-health professionals had assessed him as early as 1998, when he was 14, and as late as 2005, when he was 21. None of the experts diagnosed homicidal tendencies.
It was only after Cho committed his murders that observers discerned in him a murderous personal identity. This is like calling a substance dynamite after it explodes. If it could not be recognized as dynamite earlier, it may well have been something else, maybe a benign substance like garden fertilizer, sawdust, or ripening fruit, that detonated under an unusual combination of specific conditions.
Explanation of the Virginia Tech killings in terms of the killer's defective character has led institutions across the continent to search for new ways of identifying students who are dynamite in disguise, and for protecting campus communities from them when they go off. When should mass emails of warning be sent? When should a campus be locked down? How can Emergency Response measures be improved? Is tighter gun control the answer, or should students be allowed to arm themselves?
But what if, as available evidence suggests, there was nothing inherently murderous in Cho's character? What if he was not dynamite, just a reticent but harmless young man subjected to an explosive set of social conditions? What if dozens of students in the average university would be just as murderous as Cho turned out to be, under identifiable conditions? To the extent explanation in terms of Cho's flawed character is itself flawed, the preventive measures commonly proposed will probably not work. They may heighten suspicion and fear without improving safety.
EXPLANATION IN TERMS OF CHARACTER-SITUATION INTERPLAY
A more truthful (and therefore more useful) explanation of the Virginia
Tech murders focuses not on Cho’s character but on the interaction
between it and the situations he was in, not on his personal identity
but on the interplay between who he was and how other people treated him.
This character defect, however, did not make him a freak or monstrosity. He could communicate clearly and effectively on paper and by email. His writing skills were above average. He managed occasional conversations with his parents, sister, and suitemates. During his years at Virginia Tech, he phoned home weekly. He studied hard and was conscientious in fulfilling course requirements. His marks were uneven, but high enough that he graduated from high school, was admitted to Virginia Tech, and was close to completing his degree. He aspired to become a writer.
If Cho had been excused from oral presentations and class participation in his courses at Virginia Tech, as he had been in high school, he would probably have graduated without incident. Capitalizing on his writing skills, he might then have found a job that did not require him to speak in groups. With confidence gained from success in work, he might have gradually learned to form close personal relationships, and eventually fallen in love and married. There is nothing in the available evidence up to 2005, when he was 21 years old, that precluded his having a long and productive life.
A combination of four situations or circumstances at Virginia Tech appears to have brought out the worst in Cho's character, plunging him into such despair and craziness that killing looked good to him.
(1) Being mobbed in the English Department
From information that has so far come to light, Cho appears to have been the target of an uncommon but distinct and devastating social process called workplace mobbing. It is the impassioned ganging up of managers and/or peers against a targeted worker, the object being the target’s absolute humiliation and elimination from respectable company. It is a matter of turning a person who is different or troublesome into a nonperson, rubbing his or her nose in dirt. For more on this workplace pathology, click here or here.
Mobbing itself is rare, and it even more rarely results in the target going postal: that is, retaliating in a violent rampage, openly and indiscriminately murdering co-workers (sometimes singling out specific mobbers), then committing suicide or being killed or captured by police. Most mobbing targets simply quit their jobs. Others become chronically ill or depressed. Some commit suicide. Some knuckle under. Only a tiny fraction lash back.
Nor do all workers who go postal have a history of being mobbed at work. Charles Whitman gunned down 45 people at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966, before police shot and killed him. Kimveer Gill killed or injured 20 people at Dawson College in Montreal on September 13, 2006, before taking his own life. Neither Whitman nor Gill had been mobbed on the campuses they shot up. Their crimes have other origins.
Most of the people who go postal, however, in academic as in other workplaces, have been mobbed there in preceding months or years. Two famous Canadian examples are Pierre Lebrun, who shot five co-workers and himself at OC Transpo in Ottawa on September 6, 1999, and Valery Fabrikant, an engineering professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who murdered four colleagues there on August 24, 1992, before being captured by police. Recent examples from American academe include Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who shot themselves and 37 others at Columbine High School near Denver on April 20, 1999, and Biswanath Halder at Cleveland’s Case Western University, who shot four people there on May 9, 2003, before being shot by police. What these and most other rampaging workplace shooters have in common is prior experience of extreme humiliation by co-workers and/or managers. They had become workplace pariahs, outcasts, laughing-stocks. It was as if all in their working environment were chanting loudly in unison, “You are shit; we want you out of here.” Seeing no justification for such humiliation, the mobbing targets chose to take others along when they went away. They had, so to speak, lost everything. Going postal was a last-ditch means of regaining control.
By all accounts, the fall semester of 2005 was a turning point in the life of Seung-Hui Cho. The reason, so the evidence suggests, is that during that semester he was mobbed by professors and fellow students in the English Department.
The single main setting appears to have been Cho’s creative writing course. It was taught by Distinguished Professor Nikki Giovanni, a poet of such fame and scholarly authority that degradation by her would cut to the bone. By Giovanni’s admission, she and Cho locked horns, and the conflict between them was played out in full view of the class. Unable to understand or tolerate Cho's extreme introversion, Giovanni badgered him, asking him to remove his sunglasses, show his face, and participate in class as other students did. When he resisted, she decided he was, as she put it, a bully, an evil presence in her class. Eventually, Giovanni demanded that Cho leave the class. He refused. In a letter to her department chair, Lucinda Roy, Giovanni threatened to resign her position if Cho were not removed.
Cho was then summoned to a meeting in the chair’s office with two faculty members, Lucinda Roy and Cheryl Ruggiero. The latter took notes. Roy and Ruggiero undoubtedly intended this meeting as a way to assist a student in difficulty. Given Cho’s selective mutism, the meeting probably exacerbated the situation. To be singled out and made the center of concern was Cho’s worst nightmare. “Being quiet,” he wrote in an email to Roy, “one would think, would repel attention but I seem to get more attention than I want (I can just tell by the way people stare at me).” Cho told Roy he imagined she was going to yell at him. When she said she would tutor him privately for the remainder of the term and gave him a copy of her book, Cho appeared to her to be crying (Massengill Report, Ch. 4, p. 44).
There is no evidence that Cho understood Roy's private tutoring as a form of rescue from another professor's wrongful treatment of him. On the contrary, Cho probably sensed that Roy shared Giovanni's opinion of him. A 1998 article in Virginia Tech Magazine described the special friendship between Roy and Giovanni, and said their affection for one another "goes beyond dutiful professional respect or admiration." Indeed, the article described Virginia Tech's creative writing community as "one big, happy family." To the extent that was true in 2007, Cho likely saw himself in the role of the family's black sheep, as indeed he was.
The next semester, spring of 2006, Cho got on the wrong side of another professor, Robert Hicok, instructor for his fiction workshop. A student who studied with Hicok the previous fall described him on a teacher-rating site as "a nice guy but you absolutely have to talk in this class. When he talks about class participation he doesn't mean answering questions every once in a while — he means blabbing on and on in front of the whole class every single class. The more you blab the better." Can you imagine how Cho would fare in such a class? Hicok consulted Roy about what to do with him. Cho probably got from Hicok the same message as from Giovanni and Roy: that he was utterly unfit. His final grade in the course was D+.
That same semester, Cho had similar trouble in a technical-writing course with Carl Bean. Bean's opinion (Massengill Report, Ch. 4, p. 50) was that speaking softly was Cho's way of manipulating people into feeling sorry for him, a way to avoid working on group projects and still get credit. Bean thought Cho was intelligent, but would "do as little as he needed to do to get by." By the evidence now available of Cho's studiousness, Bean was wrong. He mistook Cho's terror of speaking for laziness. Bean urged Cho to drop the course. Cho did so, his impression undoubtedly reinforced that everybody in his home department wanted to get rid of him.
What happened to Cho in the three classes just described is persuasive evidence that he was mobbed in Virginia Tech’s English Department during the 2005-2006 school year. Additional evidence could be cited from available reports and news articles, but the paragraphs above are enough for the present purpose: to point the way toward an explanation of his crimes focused on the interplay between character and situation instead of on character alone.
(2) Being mobbed in student housing
Mobbing is defined by contagion of opinions, so that virtually everybody in a workplace recoils against the very mention of the target’s name. It is the weight of collective ill-will that gives mobbing its power. If Nikki Giovanni had been the only professor who treated Cho as an evil presence, he might have withstood her aggression. An anonymous student described being humiliated by Carl Bean in the spring of 2006, saying he “rips you apart if you try to point out that he is wrong. No one is allowed to question him. I have friends that have suffered the wrath of this arrogant teacher like me.” Note the last sentence. This student had friends to commiserate with and probably other professors to rely on for support. Cho, by contrast, faced alone the shared contempt of his teachers and peers. This is what it means to be mobbed.
To make matters worse, he got a severe putdown in his student residence in late 2005, in the midst of his humiliation in the English Department. In what was presumably a clumsy romantic overture, Cho sent anonymous electronic messages to a fellow resident, a girl he had met through his suitemates. The Massengill Report (Ch. 4, p. 46) describes these messages as unthreatening but self-deprecating. Suspecting who had written them, the girl wrote back, asking if the sender was Cho. He answered, "I do not know who I am." Then, in early December, he left on the whiteboard outside this girl's room the poignant words of Shakespeare's Romeo:
The quote must have captured better than any others Cho had come across in his literary studies his feeling of desolation and unworthiness of the girl's affections. He knew she knew who he was, but he was too scared to say so. Still, like Romeo, he dared to hope she would reciprocate his interest in her. Otherwise he would not have left her Shakespeare's words. He was making himself vulnerable, taking the risk of human connection — the only thing that keeps anyone from going mad.
The young woman was frightened. She consulted her father, who consulted a friend of his, a small-town chief of police. The latter advised contacting the Virginia Tech campus police. The upshot was that a campus police officer met with Cho on December 13, 2005, and forbade him to have further contact with the young woman.
Later that same day, Cho text-messaged a suitemate saying he might as well kill himself. The suitemate contacted campus police, who took Cho in for questioning that evening, had him assessed by a social worker, then had him committed involuntarily to a psychiatric bed in nearby Christiansburg. He was held there overnight.
Early the next morning, December 14, Cho was assessed first by a clinical psychologist, then by a psychiatrist, then brought before a special justice of the county circuit court, who ruled that Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness." At 2:00 PM that afternoon, Cho was discharged from the psychiatric facility. At 3:00 PM, Cho presented himself as directed at the counseling center back at Virginia Tech. He met with a counselor. According to the Massengill Report (Ch. 4, on which the account of the whole incident here is based), no written record of this counselling session exists, and the counsellor does not remember Cho. Cho had nothing further to do with police or mental-health authorities, not even when he committed his crimes fifteen months later; Cho killed himself as police moved in.
There is no evidence that Cho’s overtures toward the girl in residence were unfriendly or threatening. They were odd, but so are many romantic overtures by young people. If his and the girl’s attraction had been mutual, their relationship might have offset Cho’s humiliation in the English Department, and eased his depression. Even if the girl had declined his advances gently and personally, her rejection might not have cut so deeply.
As it was, his overtures triggered a traumatic 24-hour mobbing by strangers in positions of authority: his first ever arrest by police, involuntary detention in a psychiatric facility, successive examination by four different mental-health professionals in three different locations, and a court’s formal pronouncement that he was mentally ill. This was a degradation ritual that anybody would take years to recover from. Cho doubtless experienced it as a compounding of the humiliation he had already undergone in the English Department. It must have seemed to him that all relevant authorities at Virginia Tech, along with his fellow students, had reached a consensus that he was crazy, wicked, fit for nothing but to be cast away.
Two contrasting forms of participation in a workplace mob are distinguished. The first is voluntary action against the target, doing something not required. Nikki Giovanni could have left Cho alone. No policy obliged her to challenge him, nor to threaten to quit her job if he were not removed from her class. Similarly, the students who reported Cho to the police could have ignored him or registered their sentiments with him personally. Giovanni and these students exemplify the way of joining a mob we tend to think of first: spontaneous, self-motivated aggression against another that seems justified on some ground or other, though no official penalty would be applied if one simply found something else to do.
The other form of participation in a mob is action that forms part of one's job description. Lucinda Roy, as chair of English, had to do something in response to Giovanni's threat. Similarly, the police, mental-health professionals, and judge who dealt with Cho on December 13-14, 2005, were just "doing their jobs," fulfilling the duties for which they were being paid.
A common way mobbings play out is that one or a handful of voluntary participants, who typically have strong feelings about the target, call down on the target a debilitating bureaucracy, an organized array of social-control specialists who take aggressive action not from ill-will or deep conviction, but as routine performance of their job responsibilities. This was very much the case in the mobbing of Cho in the student residence, which compounded the effect of the mobbing in Cho's home department.
(3) Given lessons in violent attack and retaliation
The third circumstance that appears to have interacted destructively with Cho's character was the lessons in violence he learned in the courses he took for his degree. Even if blogger James Lewis overstates the case in his memo, Was Cho Taught to Hate?, it is a plain fact that Cho was heavily exposed in his coursework to literary depictions of extreme violence, and afforded opportunities to write such depictions himself, for academic credit.
Nikki Giovanni is well known for the violence in her earlier poetry. Among the quotations from her that Steve Sailer publicized after Cho's murders is the following:
Graphically murderous plays that Cho wrote in Edward Falco's course in playwriting, notably "Richard McBeef," are available online. The Massengill Report reprints a story Cho submitted in Robert Hicok's fiction workshop in the spring semester of 2006. It is about a character named Bud who feels angry at and estranged from his fellow students, and therefore decides to "kill every god damn person in this damn school." In retrospect, the story appears to be a preliminary fantasy of the plan Cho eventually carried out.
Obviously, for the overwhelming majority of students, exposure to violence in literature does not lead to violent crime. Similarly, the overwhelming majority of students who write poems, plays, or short stories about violence never act on what they have imagined. My hypothesis here is simply that a student who is subjected to intense collective aggression by professors, school officials, and fellow students, and who is at the same time allowed or encouraged to entertain fantasies of violence, is more likely to enact such fantasies than if they were absent from the curriculum. Hate and gore that a student who is treated with respect can laugh at and shrug off, may have quite a different effect on a student who is treated with contempt, to the point of provoking violent retaliation. This was probably the case with Seung-Hui Cho.
(4) Being humiliated and then turned loose
In a Mexican bullfight, the first task is to put fight in the bull, to heighten his innate aggressiveness. The loud and unfamiliar setting of the stadium has this effect. The matador taunts him, picadores stab his neck, and banderilleros plant barbed sticks in his shoulders. The bull feels pain and senses that he is marked for elimination. He is enraged and charges ferociously at the matador’s red cape.
Now all that remains is to kill the bull physically, with as much style as possible. Ceremonially, he has been dead from the start. Terminating the ritual at this point would be hard. The bull is no longer the same animal as before the bullfight began. His tormentors have drawn blood. He is a very angry bull.
The bullfight is a metaphor for the nonviolent humiliation inflicted on Seung-Hui Cho in the 2005-2006 academic year. But he was not finished off – not confined to a jail or psychiatric facility, not eliminated physically from Virginia Tech. Instead he was left alone to brood over the ritual torment inflicted on him, and to fantasize about revenge. This was not only cruel to Cho but dangerous to all in his vicinity, exposing them to the risk of retaliatory violence.
In dealings with humans as with bulls, it is foolish to let down your guard after mounting an attack. You should never turn your back on one to whom you have just done injury. It boggles the mind that the police, mental-health and judicial officials who swarmed Cho on December 13-14, 2005, and stung him with the stigma of mental illness, then just turned him loose. This was asking for trouble.
The same point applies to the treatment of Cho in the English Department. While hassling Cho severely in multiple classes over many months for his morbid muteness and macabre prose, while whispering behind his back about his alleged evilness and consulting with university officials about what could be done, the department took no action to allay or contain Cho’s rage.
The probable reason, unmentioned in the Massengill Report, is that earlier in 2005, the department had targeted another student, Joe Newbury, reached a consensus that he was dangerous, and turned him over to campus police and mental-health authorities, only to have their unwarranted attack on this student backfire – this according to the lengthy account published on the web by Newbury himself, following Cho’s murders. It is entitled The Truth about the VT Shooting. The similarities between Newbury’s case and Cho’s are startling. Most of the same creative-writing professors were involved, in particular Robert Hicok, Carl Bean, and the department chair, Lucinda Roy. Newbury suggests what may be the single most powerful hypothesis anyone has yet offered for why the Virginia Tech massacre occurred:
THE NEED FOR MORE INFORMATION
Focusing on the interplay between Cho’s personal identity and the situations he was in, the paragraphs above have identified four conditions that help explain why this young man committed mass murder: that he was mobbed in the English Department, mobbed in student housing, given lessons in violent retaliation, and then left to his own devices. I hypothesize that each of these four factors contributed to his decision to wreak havoc on Virginia Tech.
Obviously, many other characterological and situational factors are also relevant. An example of the former was Cho’s exceptional intelligence and self-control, which enabled him to plan the massacre methodically and kill many more people than the average in school shootings. Additional relevant situational factors include a publisher’s rejection of a submission from Cho and the availability of the Columbine massacre and other ones as models.
Conclusive evaluation of the four hypotheses offered here and of other hypotheses must await the uncovering of more information. I have based this essay on facts widely publicized in news media and in the Massengill Report, but much additional evidence needs to be brought to light.
The Massengill panel unearthed precious little information not reported earlier. Of the dozens of students who took creative-writing classes with Cho, the panel did not interview a single one. It did not disclose the contents of the letter Cho mailed to the English Department on the day of the massacre, nor provide transcripts of the tapes he mailed that day to NBC. Amazingly, the Massengill report made no reference to Joe Newbury’s account, readily available on the web when the panel did its work. In contrast to its detailed description of the murder scenes, the panel's account of Cho’s life at Virginia Tech is sketchy, full of gaps and omissions.
Not only was the Massengill panel's presentation of relevant data patchy, its explanation of the data it presented was obtuse. Its final report includes a fairly complete list of school shootings in the United States, but no systematic comparison of the Virginia Tech shootings with other ones. The report showed studied avoidance of situational explanations. Commenting on Cho's statement of his motives in the tapes sent to NBC, the panel wrote: “He wanted his motivation to be known, though it comes across as largely incoherent, and it is unclear as to exactly why he felt such strong animosity” (Ch. VII, p. 10). The Massengill Report left countless stones unturned and lots of room for further collection and analysis of the facts of the case.
THE NEED TO MOVE BEYOND SCAPEGOATING
The main reason for the inadequacies of the Massengill Report, and for simplistic attribution of Cho’s rampage to his allegedly evil character, is the human craving for scapegoats – a phenomenon that René Girard has analyzed with enormous insight. The heaping of all blame for the troubles in a group on one or a few individuals, lets everybody else off the hook. Demonization and eventual elimination of the scapegoat symbolically cleanses the group as a whole, and strengthens the members’ solidarity with one another.
To point out that Seung-Hui Cho was mobbed at Virginia Tech is to say also that he was scapegoated. The words are synonyms. At least from the fall semester of 2005, Cho was an outcast in the English Department, an “evil presence.” He was not unknown, not a quiet boy passing beneath other students’ radar. He was known and noteworthy, singled out, marked out, exceptional, as a model of how not to be. Other students passing him in the corridor would have thought to themselves, "We are here; he is there." Cho sensed this.
This scapegoating, I have argued above, led to Cho’s depression, his suicidal tendencies, and in a downward spiral, to his crazed effort at revenge.
Once he committed mass murder, the scapegoating mechanism kicked in with overwhelming force, affecting everyone who watched the news, and confirming the prior demonization beyond all doubt. See? He was even more evil than we thought. Only a true devil, the most hideous monster imaginable, could possibly do what he did. We can only be glad he is dead and pull together to heal.
An adequate explanation of the Virginia Tech massacre requires becoming conscious of the scapegoating mechanism, transcending it, and then calmly picking through all relevant evidence, toward a factual, reasoned account of what happened and why. It requires accepting the awful truth of what John Donne wrote, that no man is an island, that every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, that every man's death diminishes me.
This does not mean trying to excuse Cho's inexcusable crimes. Nor does it mean trying to shift blame and scapegoat somebody else. It means trying to get at the truth of what happened: empirical identification of the sequence of events, what led to what. Sound scientific explanation honors those who wrongly and unnecessarily lost their lives or suffered injury at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, and gives promise of preventing repetition of the tragedy.
Toward this end, Herman Melville’s classic novella, Billy Budd, merits close reading. Like Cho, Budd was tongue-tied. When nervous or upset, he could not make words come out. Also like Cho, he was authoritatively identified as a villain before he did much of anything wrong. In Billy’s case, it was by the ship’s master, John Claggart. Cho and Billy Budd are alike in a further way. They both retaliated violently and became murderers.
Cho was real, Budd fictional. Cho's crimes were many times worse; 32 people killed as opposed to just one. Cho committed suicide; Budd was hanged. In the midst of these differences, there remains one further important similarity between the two cases. Melville quotes a newspaper account so deeply affected by the scapegoating mentality that it fell short of truth:
The official reports and press coverage of what happened at Virginia
Tech resemble too much the newspaper report of what happened on HMS
Indomitable. This webpage points the way to more accurate and adequate
accounts and explanations.