Campus Massacre (33 killed)
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Date Posted: 04:45:18 04/19/07 Thu
Author Host/IP: NoHost/188.8.131.52
Experts struggle to provide clear instructions on how to identify potential killers and stop them before they pick up a weapon.
Slowly, the details are trickling in.
Police say his name was Cho Seung-Hui, and he was 23. He was a senior and an English major at Virginia Tech. He lived in one of the dormitories there. He was from South Korea. We stare at his picture and see an ordinary-looking young man with glasses looking back.
At this point, we don't know what kind of person he was, or what made him so angry. We do know, from witnesses and authorities, that he was very calm and composed as he slaughtered his fellow students and Tech faculty members.
We will learn more about this young man who allegedly killed 32 people, then himself, Monday morning in Blacksburg, Va. And there will be much, much more that we will never know. There are some things, however, that we can learn from those who have devoted decades to studying the minds of mass killers.
"I've spent 25 years studying this topic and written five books about it," says James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. He says there are a handful of factors that are common in almost all mass murders. There are things that go on in the minds of these killers that are consistent—from Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine, to Charles C. Roberts IV (who shot 11 young girls in an Amish school in Pennsylvania), to the young man named Charles Whitman who climbed a tower at the University of Texas at Austin more than four decades ago and open fire, killing 16 people.
"Typically you have someone who has a long history of frustration and failure, failure in school, failure in relationships. They have a diminished capacity to cope with disappointment," Fox says.
"Secondly, they are people who blame others for those failures, they externalize blame, they never see themselves as responsible, they see others who didn't give them the right opportunities, the right breaks, and they're angry, they're full of blame and resentment."
The conventional wisdom that these people are "loners" is accurate. "They lack support systems in their lives, they tend to be isolated … They don't have close friends and family who can help them get through the hard times," Fox said.
Robert R. Butterworth is a Los Angeles psychologist who runs International Trauma Associates. He works with violent criminals to provide answers and insight.
"A lot of times these people are somewhat aloof from people. They're very sensitive to slights," he says. Things that wouldn't bother most of us become torture to these would-be killers. As Butterworth explains: "A lot of times they come from families where there's been some violence. … They're not friendly, they're usually socially inept, they have problems a lot of times with females and sometimes they have a fascination with guns."
But another expert cautions that mass murderers don't always share similar biographies. "There is no commonality in terms of background: Neighborhood, parents, race, education, economic status," says Stanton Samenow, a clinical psychologist and the author of the book Inside the Criminal Mind. He has been studying killers since 1970.
But Samenow agrees that all of them have a view of the world in which being in control of others is critical to their self-image. "These men interpret any affront or adversity very personally. It threatens their very sense of who they are. They think in extremes. … They are constantly angry at a world that, from their perspective, does not give them what they are due."
Fox points to other personality factors. There is usually some kind of precipitating event that pushes the killer over the edge and, in his twisted thinking, gives him no reason to go on with life.
"They don't care about living anymore but of course they want to get some sense of vengeance. They see themselves as a victim."
And why was the Virginia Tech killer so calm as he went from room to room, shooting down students and professors? "These are people who know right from wrong. They also know the potential consequences to themselves if they are caught," Samenow says. "When they commit the crime, they are certain about their course of action. They are deliberate and purposeful. They may have planned the crime well in advance. At the time they commit the crime, they are calm—having shut off all fear."
Suicide seems often to be the last act of mass murderers. That final moment may be their last way of staying in control. "I have been told by more than one offender that he would rather 'go down in a blaze of glory' than surrender," Samenow adds.
The issue that most experts agree on is always intricately woven into the fabric of these killers' lives: "They have access to …. a gun sufficiently powerful to kill a large body count," Fox says. "The more people they kill, the greater the level of satisfaction they feel and derive from the crime."
America's mass murderers include a long list of primarily men—who are angry, thousands of people who feel slighted or unappreciated. What is different about these men like Cho who explode into a rage that turns murderous?
There are several theories. One is that our society has changed for the worse in the last century. "There has been an eclipse of community," Fox says. "People don't tend to have supportive friends and neighbors like they did in earlier years. Neighborhoods are not as tight-knit. … People move around the country … and obviously weapons have changed."
Butterworth agrees. "We're developing a narcissistic, angry culture that, when crossed, are prone to attack."
Where are the parents in all of this? Many of them, Butterworth says, are not paying attention to their children. "We're so busy working. … We don't sit down with our kids and talk to them, we don't watch TV with them. The kids are in their own little rooms playing with their computers, their own little MySpaces and parents have no idea what's going on. We're all growing up separately."
Beyond that, many young people without close support from family perceive their peers as the most important people in their lives.
But there is a larger point. Fox points to the meanness and cruelty that has become ubiquitous in our society: "We've become much more of a competitive society. We admire the winners and we pity the losers. We have no tolerance for them. We ridicule them and vote them off the island. And we laugh at them when they can't sing, just like on American Idol."
"We have a very open society. For most of us, that is a good thing," says Samenow. "For the person with a criminal mentality, he or she takes advantage of that freedom."
What can be done to prevent this from happening again? Butterworth urges young people who know someone who seems angry and potentially violent to say something. Talk to school officials, parents or other adults. The unspoken rule among kids that "one must not snitch" must be overcome.
But in the end, experts can't provide clear instructions on how to identify potential killers and stop them before they pick up a weapon.
"Psychologists aren't going to give you any answer," Butterworth says. "My point is until we do know we have to make it much more difficult for these people to do what they do." If there aren't as many guns around, he says, maybe these crazy people can't destroy as many lives.
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