< < Explaining the Virginia Tech Massacre

< < Workplace Mobbing
in Academe

< < K. Westhues Homepage


Panel Must Explore in Depth

Killer's Experiences at School

Op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond, VA

August 24, 2007

Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo, 2007

Sound scientific explanation of Seung-Hui Cho's shooting spree at Virginia Tech on April 16 is the best way to honor those who died. Good may come from the evil of that day if careful study of the facts yields more knowledge of why such tragedies occur and how to prevent them.

The panel appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine to review the killings may or may not produce such knowledge. Here are eight questions to ask of the panel's report, to be released next week:

• Will it portray the massacre as a horror beyond compare or as an horrific example of a class of events? Learning requires the latter: systematic comparison of this massacre with other ones, critical study of reports on them, identification of similarities and differences, and fresh insight beyond what is already known.

• Assuming the report takes this comparative approach, in which category of horrific events will it place this massacre? Panel Chairman Gerald Massengill led Virginia's response to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. Panel member Tom Ridge, former secretary of homeland security, has also been preoccupied with killings by Islamic terrorists. A war-on-terror mindset may thus shape the panel's report.

Let's hope not. Except in the death toll, Cho's mass murder was in a class apart from terrorist attacks. People who kill themselves and others out of too much belongingness -- too much surrender of self to a fanatic group -- differ categorically from those who do the same thing out of too little belongingness, out of estrangement from the groups enclosing them. Middle Eastern suicide bombers are in the former category, Cho is in the latter.

• WILL THE PANEL'S report chalk up Cho's crime only to personal pathology, or will it weigh evidence for a situational explanation? A crime like his is often attributed simply to the perpetrator's defective character. He is seen as a madman, monster, or psychopath. The truth is seldom that simple.

Cho had no record of violence in his 23 years. He was shy and withdrawn, like thousands of other Americans who never harm anyone. Not until December 2005 did Cho come to the attention of mental-health professionals at Virginia Tech. Even then, he was not diagnosed as dangerous to anyone but himself. Specific circumstances probably turned Cho's harmless introversion into lethal rage. What were they?

• Will the report scrutinize indications of Cho's possible humiliation in Virginia Tech's English department in the fall of 2005? From facts uncovered by journalists, this appears to have been a turning point in Cho's life.

Most people who go postal have been ganged up on by superiors and peers in the workplace. The snowballing collective aggression ("workplace mobbing" is the technical term) can be triggered by many things. Being an oddball is often enough. The result, in a tiny but momentous fraction of cases, is extreme counter-aggression of the kind Cho enacted with devastating effect.

The instructor in Cho's creative writing class that fall was no part-time adjunct but Nikki Giovanni, a literary icon, a recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees, a distinguished professor with prestige and fame enough to disgrace a student utterly. Cho clashed with her over his cap and sunglasses. She expelled him. Department chair Lucinda Roy approved of this and tutored Cho separately. Roy has said Cho felt he had been deeply wronged.

Will the Massengill report recount in detail what transpired in that creative writing class? Will it reflect interviews with all the students? Was Cho really photographing women's legs with his cell phone, or was this malicious gossip? Two women complained to police that fall about e-mails Cho sent them. Were these students from the English department, maybe even that same class? What did Cho write in those e-mails? Why was Cho not thrown out of his other classes?

• WILL THE Massengill report reflect investigation of the social dynamics of Virginia Tech's English department? A senior professor there, poet Anne Cheney, died in 2001, having complained of humiliation by colleagues. Will the report weigh the significance of Cheney's and perhaps others' experience in Cho's home department?

• Will the report reveal whether Cho justified his murders by specific references in notes and video clips to alleged persecutors? Killers who have been mobbed at work usually do this. Precisely what did Cho say in the letter he sent to the English department just before his killing spree?

• Will the preventive measures recommended in the report pertain only to campus security, crisis intervention, and emergency response, or in addition, to the social causation of murder-suicides in workplaces? We obviously need to know the most effective technical means of thwarting anyone plotting murder. Even more, we need to know how to prevent conditions that breed murderous intent.

• Finally, will the Massengill report get beyond pointing fingers of blame? The one person criminally responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre was Seung-Hui Cho, and he is dead. A comprehensive, evidence-based explanation of his murders looks to the future -- toward policies, procedures, and practices that bring out the best in people rather than the worst.

These eight questions are a guide for assessing how much sound, useful knowledge the panel's soon-to-be-released report contains.

ENDNOTE, November 2007: This electronic publication of the original article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch (24 August 2007) reflects correction of information on Anne Cheney's death and on the assessment of Cho by mental-health professionals.