The trouble with monsters is that they’re so damn reassuring. The stories are scary in parts, but afterwards you know you are okay because you can look around and see that there are no monsters in your immediate vicinity. You are not a monster. I am not a monster. Those people over there do not look like monsters. So we’re all safe; we’re okay.
Certainly more should be done about monsters. Oh yes. Because sometimes when you are walking home alone late at night you worry that there may be a stray monster hiding behind the bus-stop, ready to pounce on you. You hear stories. But afterwards, when you get home, you lock the door behind you and you know you are safe.
As monsters go, Cho Seung-hui is particularly reassuring. Ethnicity helps, alas; even here in the UK, we had the headline “Shooter was Korean”. Translates as he was other, a foreigner, he looked different from most of us. But the best and most important message is that he had been referred to counselling. I’m sure there’ll be a more scary-sounding post-mortem psychiatric diagnoses to follow, something more complex and with more syllables than depression. Then there had been complaints about his harassing women students.
So in summary, he is different from most of us in terms of race and disability and the motive was probably immense sexual frustration. As the days and weeks go on he will be presented as more and more other, one way or another. Eventually it will get to a stage where it seems ridiculous that anyone could not have seen this disaster coming. And everyone will feel much better.
Now, I’ll tell you a different kind of horror story.
I felt as most other people felt when I read about the shootings in Virginia. However, by Tuesday the media coverage here was becoming irritating to me; the analysis of nothing, the endless speculation about this or that, the voyeuristic dissection of events and characters. And I thought, my country is involved in an unofficial civil war one and a half thousand miles closer to home. Tomorrow they’ll be more bombings in Iraq; innocent people, just like these college students, people just as bright and bubbly and earnest and loving, will be have their lives snatched away whilst going about their daily business. But that will make for just a tiny wee headline.
The next day, over two hundred people were murdered on the streets of Baghdad.
No monsters. No profiles. No corpses reclining on the couches they couldn’t be coaxed onto in life. No names and photographs even. But ordinary people, faced with circumstances they considered intolerable, consumed with emotions they found overwhelming, chosing to commit evil. Not a good story. Not just because it’s more predictable and not just because it is perhaps easier for some people to sympathise with people who are the same colour and speak the same language as us. But because there is at all nothing reassuring about it.
There is nothing reassuring about the fact that most evil in the world – including our world, not just the war zones - is perpetrated by ordinary people. No, I will rephrase that. All of the evil in the world, including our world, is perpetrated by ordinary people. A tiny minority of those ordinary people, who made extraordinarily bad choices, have mental health labels and even fewer have one of those labels are what is officially described as a serious mental illness.
Cho Seung-hui was not a monster. If we pretend he was, we feel better but we learn nothing. If we pretend he did what he did because he was ill, we feel better but we learn nothing. He didn't snap, he hadn't become completely unstuck from reality; the guy planned this. And nobody saw it coming; people around him will be berating themselves for some time to come about any signs they might have picked up on, but there weren't any above an beyond the angst and morbidity that many young men and women go through. There wasn't nearly enough to suspect he was so very dangerous.
But the most important and frightening thing about the man’s psychology is that his own determination to gain infamy in death - which was what this was all about - completely overrided any consideration for the innocent lives he was going to take. He didn't care about those people at all, he thought himself and his vanity so very much more important. And he actively chose to commit a great evil.
Now that has little to do with an illness.
Some Americans who blogged about their own news story: Blue guesting at Avast!, Yanub and FlawedPlan have written about the mental health blaming exercise, Marymurtz is also turning off the media coverage and Midlife & Treachery is positive about campus life.
And a timely reminder, an article by the great Prof. Phil Zimbardo.