Politics & Policy

Making Sense Out of the Senseless

Despair and uncomfortable questions.

In trying to grapple with the problem of Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech, I tried to get inside the shooter’s mind. Perhaps that’s impossible. But I tried. It is made even harder because the details of the event presently are so sketchy. There were two shootings, separated by two hours, at opposite ends of a 2600 acre campus, half a mile apart, apparently by a single shooter, a young Asian man named Cho Seung-Hui, a student at Virginia Tech, quiet in temperament and calm during the massacre, who, reports say, may have recently experienced a romantic rejection. The first shooting involved only a couple of victims, and the second, approximately 30. When his rampage had ended he had killed 33 people, including himself. He killed people in cold blood, most, I presume, who had done him no personal wrong. His victims’ pleas, their helplessness, and their innocence, did not deter him. At the time of the shootings he was apparently devoid of empathy.

We may never have enough information to reconstruct his thoughts on the morning of April 16, 2007. But whatever else went on in his mind, one thing that I think was assuredly there was despair. Perhaps the scenario went something like this. A failed romantic relationship led to intense and overwhelming feelings of rejection. Rejection precipitated rage. The raged fueled a violent reaction against the one whom he believed was the source of his rejection (or perhaps against one who reminded him of her). He killed her in cold blood, shot her dead, and shot at least one more who tried to help her. Then he walked away. His adrenalin spurted and his heart raced. His mind swam with rationalizations for his actions. But the images before his mind forced him to see himself and what he’d done — the unthinkable, he had murdered her. “What now?” He could moderate his anger and quiet his damnable self-justifications and confess, at least to himself, that he had done something very wrong. Perhaps he would run, perhaps turn himself in. Or he could choose to surrender to the promptings of his rage. Feeding his hatred for his victim as well as himself for what he’d done, he chose the latter. He concluded: ‘Nothing matters now; everything is hateful; I’ll show them all!’ The rambling several page note found in his room, written after the first shooting, supports what I am saying. It reads: “You caused me to do this.” He displaced his self-loathing rage onto living persons around him and resolved to destroy as many he could. His resolution was an act of self-determination, a settling of his mind and heart — his moral self — on a plan of action that included massacre. Resolutions can be powerful principles of action; once made they determine the chooser until another contrary resolution is made. With his mind and will now fixed, and fortified by his powerful rationalizing emotions, he went and methodically secured what he judged necessary for putting his plan into effect (thus the delay between the two shootings). He then coolly carried it out. This scenario seems plausible to me in light of the little we know.

Does this mean that the shooter’s despair was responsible for Monday’s massacre, that despair drove him inexorably to kill as he did? This is a difficult and in some ways inscrutable question. But it is my belief — and with the shooter dead it can never be more than a belief — that the shooter faced in the form of a free choice the two (at least) alternatives I describe above (or something like them). In other words, he was free not to do what he did. I do not mean that his freedom was entirely unconstrained (e.g., by strong emotion, his psychic history, even by severe mental pathology — his complete lack of empathy suggests the presence of some personality disorder). And if we discover schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder in his history, then my belief would change. But the two-hour delay suggests to me that he and not factors outside him (i.e., outside his freedom) caused the massacre. This leaves us with the haunting problem of freedom: why did he choose in this way when others who experience similar (and perhaps worse) disappointments do not? Some might be tempted hastily to explain the behavior away in terms of the influence of nature or nurture. But being quick to make the shooter a victim rather than a moral agent would be a mistake. Not because there is value for us in declaring and decrying his guilt. (God knows nothing human can be done about it now.) But because it gets us off the hook. We then don’t need to ask uncomfortable questions about our own lives, the way we raise our children, the way we govern our institutions, the values we tolerate, the vain delights we indulge in secret. On Monda at Virginia Tech a young man faced a powerful temptation to do great evil. Influenced by strong emotion and a tendency to rationalize his actions, he chose evil. Does the scenario sound familiar to anybody?

— E. Christian Brugger is associate professor of philosophy and director of integrative research at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va.


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