Saturday, April 21, 2007

Here, there be monsters

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.


Cheerful One said...

I agree, great post.

Timbo said...

Hear hear.

Anonymous said...

By far the best post I've read about this whole incident. Well done.

Mary said...

Absolutely - a lot is being done to define how Cho Seung-hui was not like us, but the fact is, he was a Virginia Tech student, he didn't sneak past security onto the campus, his family live and work in America, to all intents and purposes he was a bona-fide part of that group.

Gone Fishing said...

hey I have not read your post fully yet, will do ina second but have made a post whcih is intended to be an attempt at an entry for the Blogging carnival.

Seems all over the world people may have similar worries about Virginia Tech

Smiffy said...

Yes, I thought "but what about all the innocents in Iraq?"

I'm glad it's not just me.

Anonymous said...

Hard on the heels of your excellent analysis, Goldfish, comes this on the BBC News site about a chap who killed a colleague whom he blamed, apparently, for a bad performance review at work:

"NASA said Phillips, a contract engineer, had been employed for about 12 years, was unmarried, had no children and reportedly lived on his own."

How sinister!

Annie Wicking said...

Hi What a wonderful blog and you live in Whitby too.
The greatest place on Earth.
If you have time to visit my blog
You will find my family roots are from Whitby.

Good luck with your writing.


The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone.

Annie, alas, we moved away from Whitby down to Suffolk just two months ago, but it is certainly up there as a candidate for one of the greatest places on Earth. :-)

Sage said...

Excellent post.

In our local paper they refered to the shooter as "a nobody" - further distancing him from ourselves. And there's some random talk about psych testing as a condition of enrollment in high school. That way we can figure out who the killers are before they start killing, and get them the help they need.

Brilliant. (she said sarcastically)

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. It is so much easier indeed to place the monsters somewhere out "there".

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the analysis, but not about *why* he did it -- you're falling into the same box you're pointing out others are, in that regard. (i.e. The idea that he's not like "us" because he must have been very vain, very focused on attention...)

Best entry I've seen on that, which doesn't take a sympathetic approach but *does* give excellent analysis that doesn't stick him into the "other" box, is How To Create A School Shooter.

I can back the author on his comments from firsthand experience, unfortunately... The violent bullying Cho endured at school from some kids and general rejection from others was also what I went through for a couple of years for the same disability he appears to have had. I was so filled with anger and hatred during those years, I could easily have turned out like him if other things hadn't been better or changed for the better. I didn't want to hurt just the three main tormentors and the teachers letting them hurt me, I wanted to go after every kid/teacher that hadn't specifically been friendly. My creative work showed it in "humorous" ways for years, too.

(Note I no longer feel that way, so if there are any authorities reading this: I have zero interest in destroying anyone.)

The Goldfish said...


I appreciate your point, but I don't think it is a fair criticism. In fact, I think your analysis is in danger of doing exactly what you suggest I do; to conclude that he committed the crime because he was bullied.

From which I might conclude that I wasn't bullied - I don't belong in that box - therefore I am incapable of committing such an act.

And at the same time, it might give others reason to fear you, as someone with parallel experiences to Cho Seng-hui. Which wouldn't be at all fair.

That having said, you are probably right about the motivation, but clearly, he still thought himself, his grievances and his image more important than other poeple's lives.

You may have felt that way, many of us have had dark and murderous thoughts at times, but crucially, you didn't act on them.

You say you might have turned out like him had things not changed, but I would argue that any of us could turn out like him depending on the choices we make in the face of immense distress - whatever the source of that distress.

Had things got worse for you, you would still have had the opportunity to choose not to do something so outrageous, even if the temptation may have become even greater. At no point did bullying take away the guy's free will.