19 April 2007

Analysing a killer

A killer, a profile, a video and a bomb scare. CyberShrink gives us a fascinating update.

A killer, a profile, a video and a bomb scare. CyberShrink gives us a fascinating update.

When my previous article on this topic was written, all we knew at that stage was that there seemed to be a single killer involved in the Virginia Tech killings, he was male, and possibly Asian in appearance. Not much to go on.

Since then, a great deal of fresh material has become available about this killer, confirming my initial speculation to a remarkable extent.

Where I was right
I wrote of "a bitter loner, possibly disappointed in a love affair (real or imagined) who builds up hatred and resentment both against some specific individuals whom he sees as somehow having caused his grief, but against all the rest of us .... like most terrorists, he sees no possibly innocent victims - this is the ultimate loser's revenge." This profile I wrote has proved to be entirely accurate.

I mentioned rumours of a website on which he may have posted pictures of himself posing with guns. In fact, the initial rumours were misinformation, based on the website of a Chinese-American lad with a passion for guns, who seems at first to have been amused at being mistaken for the killer, and then more reasonably, alarmed.

But today, in an uncanny confirmation of my view that such a self-declaration of war on society was likely, we discovered that between his killings, the murderer Cho had taken time to post to the NBC TV network a host of material including writings, photos and videos of exactly the type that I expected.

I suggested that the previous bomb scares might have been called in by this murderer, as a way of testing campus and community security responses. Since then this has become much more probable, as apparently there was a further bomb threat made during the period between his killings. Now we read that a written bomb threat was found near his body.

I also commented that misinterpretation of the initial deaths seems to have misled the authorities into under-estimating what was happening and perhaps responding less carefully. This seems to have been confirmed by subsequent revelations, including information that they apparently wasted time questioning an innocent man on suspicion that he had killed the first couple.

Unnecessarily creating victims
Further, I suggested on that first day that the authorities might be over-reacting understandably but unhelpfully, by flooding the campus with counsellors. The news networks seem to have continued this over-psychologising process, prowling the campus and urging stray students to emote on camera.

The massacre will be devastating to the immediate friends and family of those directly involved - but it is very unhelpful to declare the area a disaster zone, and to treat everyone of the tens of thousands in and around the university as emotional casualties and victims. To have something like that happen in your neighbourhood is probably distressing for most people, but not devastating, and does not deserve nor benefit from, excessive sympathy and coddling.

Psychological autopsy
Obviously a physical post-mortem examination of the killer will be done. It rarely reveals anything relevant, though this is possible. In the previous, earlier, example of Charles Whitman, the sniper in the bell-tower on the University of Texas campus in Austin, in 1966, he was found to have a small but only possibly relevant brain tumour at the time. His doctor had known for months that he had a fantasy of shooting people from the tower, but did not report it.

What is much more likely to yield useful information, though, is a psychological autopsy, a method developed by Ed Shneidman, in which all available information about the dead person and his thoughts and behaviours is collated to form a picture of what is most likely to have happened. And, as I suspected, Cho, the Virginia killer, has left a rich supply of material and questions.

All aspects of the "profile", which is a currently fashionable way of distilling the similarities in a collection of cases, can vary. Some multiple killers are women, for instance. But the pattern fits many cases. Cho seems in many ways typical of the profile we have formed.

Psychopathic in his sense of entitlement and specialness, he didn’t see himself as having met up with the sort of problems most of us face, but as specially and uniquely singled out for bad treatment - and angry at everyone. In addition, although he has usually failed to communicate his concerns clearly to others, let alone to those who might be able to help, he blames people for ignoring him, and wants to go out with a bang, to have his share of the spotlight, and to hurt as many people as possible.

On the right to intervene
Why do we apply different standards in different places? Do human rights vary geographically, and in different parts of town? If at the airport you mentioned having a bomb in your bag, or muttered about how nice it would be to see people die, they'd wrestle you to the floor, arrest you, and investigate you thoroughly, not releasing you until it was clear you were no possible danger to others.

But you are free to do the same or analogous things in a university or school, or elsewhere in society, and people will be scared to interfere with your right to be menacing.

Though Cho's sense of grim fury is typical of many such murderers (and resembles that of the Columbine killers whom he seems to have admired), others kill more gaily, and wholly without conscience. Brenda Spencer, then 16, killed two kids and wounded nine at an elementary school in California in 1979, and commented: "I had no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun." And added, “It was just like shooting ducks in a pond," and "(the children) looked like a herd of cows standing around - it was really easy pickings."

(Professor M.A. Simpson, Health24, April 2007)


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