Cho Seung-Hui and The Bloody Cost of American Individualism
A couple of years ago, I taught a seventeen year-old Latino – I'll call him Eduardo – who idolized Adolf Hitler and believed that earthly existence is a futile pursuit whose sole significant operating principle is the subjugation of the weak by the strong. Born in urban poverty in East Oakland, Eduardo had seen peers die in drive-by shootings and others succumb to debilitating drug abuse. Eduardo shuffled down the high school corridors, his head downcast, friendless and alone, never smiling and only speaking when addressed directly in class. When he did speak he was articulate, albeit gloomy, and his essays were lucid, though consistently espousing a dark view of human nature. For an assigned presentation on great historical figures, he argued that Hitler's greatness consisted in his ability to fight indomitably on behalf of his country in the face of strong resistance. Asked by one of my colleagues to defend his thesis in the context of the Holocaust, Eduardo initially appeared to retract it, but in another essay a few weeks later had returned to Nazi apologism. Eduardo's ambition was to study biochemistry at college and to become as powerful as possible. I discussed my concerns about his psychological state with other teachers and we agreed that although his views were extreme, his behavior fell short of the "clinical" profile required to permit psychiatric intervention and, since he apparently posed no immediate physical threat to himself or others, the greatest scope of our potential engagement with him was to probe his worldview and carefully suggest less fascistic alternatives. Sadly, as much as we worried about Eduardo's choice of historical hero, it was hard to say definitively whether we worried more about a student of undoubted enthusiasm for academic history or his dope-addled indifferent classmates: at least Eduardo was reading something, even if it was Mein Kampf.
I found myself wondering about Eduardo's possible future fate last week in light of Cho Seung-Hui's decision in Blacksburg, Virginia, to project his disconnected, powerless psyche into mass-murdering reality. Cho, it has been argued, was a stark case of a clinical "dropped ball" whose early warning signs of social withdrawal, mental disorder (variously interpreted as depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, PTSD, or autism), brief psychiatric hospitalization, stalking behavior and revenge fantasy-prone creative writing ought to have compelled either his family members, teachers or mental health authorities to force him into "treatment" prior to his homicidal rampage. Whether or not as a sullen child who virtually never spoke, or even as a suicidal college freshman in whose mind bloody fantasies were perhaps already erupting, the very paucity of young Cho's somber mutterings ought to have signified an unambiguous invitation to reconnect a painfully alienated consciousness with his fellow humans, by the time he stormed a Virginia Tech classroom with a Glock nine millimeter, that invitation had clearly expired: "You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today," commented the killer through his posthumously aired "multimedia manifesto" on NBC. "But you decided to spill my blood." Of course the decision to spill blood belonged literally to the man cryptically identified as "Ax Ismael", not his victims, but in failing to act with sufficient vigor on behalf of Cho or Eduardo or untold numbers of young American immigrants and urban minorities, the anomic culture that ignored them surely bears a good deal of moral culpability. What (if any) specific event triggered Cho's metamorphosis from the Question Mark Kid into killer, and what DSM category may ultimately appear with hindsight to seem most pertinent to his behavior, are questions ultimately subordinate, I feel, to a more profound and troubling impasse in the United States' configuration of the self and its related social contract. Deeply regrettable though it may be that the social impotence of Eduardo and Cho metastasized into nightmares of omnipotence, the answer to preventing further bloodshed will not be found, I think, either in psychotropically reconfigured neurotransmitter pathways or enhanced campus security measures, but in the subtler and less headline-grabbing work of making every young person feel that he or she is fundamentally valued.
Eduardo suspected that in an uncaring world his only viable policy was to obey the will-to-power; Cho believed that a society oblivious to his feelings itself deserved oblivion (no doubt the body count would have been even larger, had he the destructive means): in both cases, the MySpace generation's cult of shallow self-empowerment exposed its shadow dimension. But since these young people live in a country whose leaders launch illegal wars and torture prisoners, what degree of confidence is truly reasonable in assuming that vulnerable emergent moral sensibilities will not equally succumb to violent criminality? President Bush, lamenting the Virginia Tech dead, encouraged his citizens, mindful of further atrocities, to report "abnormal behavior," but what should really count as sufficiently "abnormal," in America now, to warrant the attention of either doctors or the police? Perhaps the most distressing feature of the grim persecutory schema framing the fractured awareness of Cho and Eduardo is its admitted explanatory power: can the children of struggling minorities in America's celebrity-obsessed cultic capitalism not be forgiven (or understood, at least) for following the call of Milton's Satan and imagining that it's "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven"?
Sure, as Eduardo's teacher, I wished he'd looked to Cesar Chavez or Malcolm X rather than Hitler as role models, but short of proselytizing liberal orthodoxy, my instructional options seemed limited to encouraging Eduardo to consider the Third Reich's true merit as objectively as possible. I was not alone as a teacher in wanting to pursue social theorist Paolo Freire's idea (described in Pedagogy of the Oppressed) that the goal of "libertarian" education is to empower students to become active creators of meaning for themselves, as opposed to passive vessels for knowledge slavishly imparted from above. But I had read nothing in Freire about how to guide an oppressed student who sees salvation in a dream of oppressing others, for whom empowerment equates with vengeful absolute power. As the network television news anchors wrap up their reports of Virginia Tech funerals in a debate that swings predictably between attributions of madness and badness, psychosis and characterological deformation, the elephant in the room remains the psychopathological nature of a society riven by racial and economic inequities in which more people voted for American Idol's victor than for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, where what counts is what can be easily counted: dollars and death tolls.
Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia, has stated his distaste for those who would make Cho's massacre into a "political hobby horse," as if public policy were not intrinsic to any consideration of the event's genesis and aftermath. But the Virginia Tech massacre is a profoundly political issue; a cultural issue; an issue of national character and spiritual identity. Assault weapons are legally obtainable in countries other than the United States, but never thus far used with such gratuitous malice, so it just won't do to lay all the blame on Cho himself or the local authorities that didn't stop him. And the homeless shelters and crack houses are full of traumatized schizoaffective depressives - the merely mad typically lack Cho's diabolical bid for Psycho Idol supremacy. Could years of therapy and meds perhaps have saved him? We will probably never know. The question now is how we respond to forestall the next Virginia Tech. I fear we'll hear calls for compulsory treatment on the pretext of pre-emptive war against America's psychiatric enemy combatants. I fear we'll see a an unthinking reinforcement of the biomedical model of mental disorder in the hope that "Virginia Tech Syndrome" can be identified in rogue genes and frontal cortex deficits. The latter move may even be partly inspired by the ostensibly laudable desire to destigmatize madness by attributing it to neurological dysfunction rather than moral weakness (see, in this vein, the recent HBO documentary, Addiction), but as UC Berkeley professor Stephen Hinshaw writes in The Mark of Stigma, the counter-intuitive impact of advancing the biomedical model is actually often to increase stigma (while madness is scary and weird, the sufferer at least bears some of the blame for it, runs a stereotypical perception; but a brain disease may seem immutable and thus even worse.) What I fear we won't see is a deep reassessment of the painfully isolated form of selfhood so ingrained in the American psyche, the paradigm of consciousness which runs according to Gore Vidal's sardonic and illuminating remark that "it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." That reassessment of individualism run amok is what we really need, even more than gun control or better therapy. There was no success in Virginia last week. In memory of the 32 dead and the fate of Eduardo and so many other young American malcontents like him, let's hope nobody else is ever again forced to feel such a terrible weight of loss and failure.
For more, check out Jason Thompson's Neurotransmission blog.Tweet