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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Psychoanalysis of a Mass Murderer

What makes people tick and what makes them ticked off

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Let’s address the psychology behind mass murders like that of Cho Seung Hui in a diagnostic way. The question is this: What made this young man go berserk and kill 33 people? Maybe we can find a clue in the video tapes he mailed to NBC during his day of rage.

I agree with everyone who takes the position that Guns Kill People in contradiction to the NRA rationalization that People Kill People. I believe that Dr. Robert Justin Lipkin, Profess of Law at Widener University School of Law, debunks the NRA argument against Gun Control and the whole irrational platform behind the Second Amendment Right to Bear Arms (“Massacre at Virginia Tech- The NRA: Defending the Constitution or Enabling Gun Violence”, Essentially Contested America, April 17, 2007).

In a follow-up article, Lipkin lays out another, beautifully written and powerful essay, “The Aftermath of the Massacre at Virginia Tech” (Essentially Contested America, April 19, 2007). In it are some notable themes to be considered in a psycho-evaluation of Cho Seung Hui. Lipkin writes:

What distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys in these disasters? We self-righteously congratulate ourselves by objectifying Cho Seung-Hui as a madman; he's not like us. We could never commit such crimes, could we? … In the final analysis, are we really so different from him?

Lipkin makes much ado about good guys with guns and bad guys with gun, and the inability to distinguish between the two, in terms of predictability in an imperfect society. This seems to suggest, though not said, that every man is one snap from going off the deep end. But who would believe that we are nation full of spoiled, temper tantrum brats like social time-bombs full of suppressed rage?

Now, on top of this, everybody wishes to carry a concealed handgun for their own protection, even college students. Professor Lipkin feels the same as I about this issue.

“Many of us would not want to rely on the good judgment of our fellows to use their guns in the appropriate circumstances,” he says. “As a law professor, I would be disconcerted if students brought guns to class.”

This reminds me of the woman who survived the 1991 Luby’s Cafeteria shooting in Killeen, Texas which took the lives of 23 people. The woman had a concealed handgun permit, but she could not take her gun into the restaurant. Had she, she claims, she could have prevented the mass murderer George Hennard from slaying her mother.

Whenever tragedies like this happen, there is a rush for more guns, instead of a stop to think of the consequences. Do we really want to go back to the Wild West days, where every man is his own law?

The argument used that “Guns don’t kill people- People kill people” suggests that only good people should own and possess guns. We only need to keep guns out of the hands of bad guys, not to mention a psychotic like Hui from being able to purchase a gun. (Right now, gun permits screeners doe not deny people with mental health problems from buying a gun). But nobody knows beforehand, with certainty, who is good and who is bad. Lipkin states:

The reason the argument for arming students founders is because it rests on splitting the world into two classes of gun owners: good guys and bad guys. The good guys only use their guns for acceptable purposes such as self-defense and the defense of others.

Across the population, it is inevitable that armed students will kill in class, in the cafeteria, walking across campus, at sporting events, and so forth. Unless there was overwhelming reasons to suppose that students are mostly super-good guys, it is irrational, not in just one case, but across a population, to permit students to carry guns.

The same argument applies to those who rush to arms. It makes me wonder who can feel safe with a person sitting in a restaurant with a handgun concealed in her purse. Law-abiding or not, concealed handgun permit or not, good guy or not, I would still feel uncomfortable.

The imperative is not more guns for more protection but a better understanding of human behavior and what makes men tick and what ticks them off.

There is no absolute clear-cut dichotomy between psychotic thinking and normal thinking- no black dark-side versus pure light side. All thinking comes in shades of gray. It just so happened the thoughts inside the mind of Hui was more “cloudy” than the thoughts of the rest of us mortals who suppress our rage.

But then Dr. Lipkin drops this footnote:

If Cho was psyhcotic, the media's lust for an ordinary explanation of his conduct is totally misplaced. People suffering from schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or psychotic depression might give reasons for their conduct, but it's a pretty safe bet that these reasons did not motivate the behavior, the psychotic disorder did. If Cho was schizophrenic his disdain of hedonism or the rich was just a subterfuge. Paranoid schizophrenia is all about secret conspiracies and concerted efforts to injure the person suffering from the malady. If Cho live in a monastery, the focus of his rant might be against religious devotion. So don't try to explain his behavior as you would someone who killed for money. In Cho's case, it's the delusional ideation that matters not the content of the delusions.

Delusional Ideation is a new psychological concept that basically says that a person’s mind is playing tricks on them. But Lipkin has nothing but theory and no understanding of what makes men like Hui tick. In fact, it is a popular notion that black people suffer “delusion ideation” about “racism”. It is the latest theory used to explain away empirical influences upon subjective decision-making and reactionary behavior. In the case of perceived racism, it is not the objective manifestation of inequality and injustice (abstracts that cannot be measured) but the formulation of injury as a result of the thought.

In essence, no one wronged or injured Cho Seung-Hui. His ranting and raging about rich "brats" and their "hedonistic needs" were merely the products of his delusion, according to the thinking of Dr. Lipkin.

"Your Mercedes wasn't enough, you brats," says Cho, a South Korean immigrant whose parents work at a dry cleaners in suburban Washington. "Your golden necklaces weren't enough, you snobs. Your trust funds wasn't enough. Your vodka and cognac wasn't enough. All your debaucheries weren't enough. Those weren't enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything."

We can discount Cho’s rationale for going on a rampage, but we cannot deny these “images” were inside his head. That he acted upon these perceptions is a fact of life, regardless of whether the perceptions were real or myth. Delusions, if they are, must be treated as real.

"You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today… But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off."

Everybody tells me to pay no attention to the words of a psychotic, that he is out of his mind and makes no logical sense. But if Cho’s had survived and wound up in prison, his fellow inmates would be very skittish about living with him and his state of mind. They would be uneasy also about his crime of mass murder.

For 12 years I studied these characters, not as a psychologist, but as a prisoner who studied the psychology of human behavior, both from textbook to real life situations in cohabitation with felons. In this regards, I have a bit more understanding of the “criminal mind”, especially of men who have killed other people. Always, in the mind of the killer, (hit-men especially) there is a rationale that justifies the murderous act. Always, the killer proclaims that the victim deserved it.

What triggered Cho? “A hundred billion chances” explains who the psychological problem inside his head festered for a long before exploding. He had been holding back, holding back… a hundred billion times. Then too “a hundred billion” could be symbolic of wealth, as in “a hundred billion” dollars- the class of people that he denigrates as “rich brats”- not an uncommon sentiment among the poor.

But what could he have possibly meant by “you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option”.

What did they do to him? Some will say that they tried to help me. But how could that be?

On Dec. 13, 2005, a magistrate ordered Cho to undergo an evaluation at Carilion St. Albans, a private psychiatric hospital. The magistrate signed the order after an initial evaluation found probable cause that Cho was a danger to himself or others as a result of mental illness (“Va. Tech awarding degrees to victims”, Star-Telegram, 4/19/2007).

Being forced into a behavior modification psychiatric hospital can be a traumatic enough experience that may warrant revenge in the mind of the patient. (Note that I did not say justify revenge). Knowing what I know about institutionalization and behavior modification therapy, I can make a case for a man’s resistance and plotting revenge. This is the X-factor ignored by behavioral scientist like my friend and colleague Dr. Edgar Schein, who is the forefather of organizational behavior psychology.

Dr. Schein opened the door to behavior modification as a psychological science derived from his experience with interviewing the Korean War POWs. What he and his team discovered they collectively termed “brainwashing”, though Schein has consistently maintained it as “coercive persuasion”. Where the theory fails, and consequently the failure of behavior modification as a therapy, is the unilateral approach to changing human behavior through manipulative (persuasive) techniques. The X-factor is human resistance.

In essence, no one can open up a man’s head and pore in new indoctrination. There is a natural resistance to thought control by external means. This is why Schein’s research has proven faulty. Though he had the answers in his hand about the strength and character of human resistance, insofar as there were POWs that resisted the Korean brainwashing techniques, Schein and his colleagues never isolated and identified the traits and practices that enabled some captured soldiers and airmen to resist while other servicemen collapsed. All we have is the diagnostics of those who gave in.

The pseudo-science of behavior modification depends on the external manipulation of the environment to produce marked change in behavior. The theory never takes into account diehard resistance, which includes counterplots of revenge.

Cho Seung-Hui was embittered. Whatever series of events that led him to snap occurred over a period of time (a hundred billion times- waiting time). In that series of events was his forced (court-ordered) hospitalization. No one can imagine how a man feels being locked up in a crazy house, believing that he is not crazy. Delusional Ideation could very well mean, being made to feel like you are crazy, and treated like you are crazy, when, in fact, you think that you are sane. If Cho had gone along with the program, he would have taken his medicine (psychotropic drugs) and amble his way through college in a drug-induced stupor.

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