20 April 2007

Cho: Towards a psychological autopsy

What has Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, revealed about himself? CyberShrink reports.

If we were to start a psychological autopsy on Cho, what sort of material would we look at, and how might it inform our view of how he was functioning? Interviews with other students have been rather unrevealing.

He sounded like a student trying hard to be invisible. A guy who hardly spoke, who sat at the back of the class in dark glasses and with cap pulled low, who wouldn't sign his name on the class register, instead scribbling "????", and called the Question Mark Kid. Apparently in face-to-face encounters he avoided eye contact, and was as silent as possible.

It is in the videos and pictures and writing he paused to send to the NBC television channel, that he most reveals himself. NBC were absolutely right to release and reveal this material, which offers us an extremely rare glimpse into the mind of a mass murderer.

Yes, it would not be wise to enable him to portray himself as a heroic figure, worthy of imitation by other unhappy kids, but that is surely not the impact these materials had? If there had been censorship, there would have been still more focus on and speculation about what might have been within these materials.

We see him in the videos he released, wallowing in self-pity, and seething with fury. Grimacing, creepy, rambling, he seemed to resent the fact that others did not understand or take seriously how dreadful he felt, yet he seems to have strenuously avoided telling anyone of this. In what way did he expect others to intuit his bad feelings - and how did he expect anyone to help?

Perhaps the most shocking component of his videos was how totally he blamed everyone else, us in general, for his grievances - and for the killings he performed. He told us that we had a million chances to present this, but that "you decided to spill my blood" : "You forced me into a corner". In sensational prose that matched the most over-the-top CNN reporter, he accused us of having " vandalised my heart, raped my soul, and "torched my conscience".

He spoke luridly of his sufferings: "Do you know what it feels like to have throat slashed from ear to ear? Do you know what it feels like to be torched alive? Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon on a cross? And left to bleed to death for your amusement?"

In these most extreme terms, he sees his sufferings as extravagant and all actions performed upon him by others. There is no trace in what has been released so far, of any faint sense of personal responsibility for anything that happened in his life, or for any of his own actions.

He seemed proud of having taken such murderous action, saying: "When the time came, I did it. I had to". He says: “I didn’t have to do this. I could have left. I could have fled. But no, I will no longer run ... It’s not for me. For my children, for my brothers and sisters that you f-, I did it for them.”

'Like Jesus'
There's a strong sense of self-proclaimed heroic martyrdom in his messages. He refers to “martyrs like Eric and Dylan”, apparently the grimy killers at Columbine High School, and elsewhere describes himself as dying "like Jesus" -" You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people."

There is a strong, almost puritanical rant against other people for their wealth and decadence: "You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and Cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything."

It is clear from the videos that he had carefully written his script from which he read, carefully choosing the words. We know it is typical of such killers that, contrary to popular belief, they do NOT just suddenly "snap", but brood and boil for quite a long time, and plan their revenge on the world.

He took time to plan this quite carefully, to get his weapons (in his pictures he shows himself not only posing with guns but also with a hunting knife and a hammer), and even to get chains with which to block the entrances to the hall where he committed the most killings.

Unlike domestic and family killings, where neighbours often express surprise at the identity of the murderer: "He seemed such a friendly man"; Cho was noticed as severely disturbed and weird by many people and over a considerable space of time. One of his teachers, the leading black poet Nikki Giovanni recognised the darkness within him and asked to be relieved from teaching him.

Immature, bratty and abusive
I have read some of the plays he wrote within his classes, and they are peculiarly disturbed. In some ways they read like the words of a bratty, angry, primary school student, immature and abusive. But they also show a consistent rage and a preference for extreme violence.

In one he writes of a young boy who insists his stepfather is a paedophile, and not only is violent towards the man, eventually trying to stuff a "banana cereal bar" down his throat, before apparently being killed by the man "out of sheer desecrated hurt and anger", he writes.

"Richard lifts his large arm and swings a deadly blow at the 13-year old boy". But even the mother in the play hits the man with her shoes, throws pipes and wrenches at him, and brandishes a buzz saw. One cannot help wondering whether at any stage in his own life he was abused or molested, or whether this was used by him as a metaphor for feeling violated by the unfeeling community he encountered later. Amidst the foul language he uses freely, the boy abuses the man as a "Catholic priest" and a "Michael Jackson", and refers to conspiracies against Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon..

In November and December 2005, Cho had been brought to the attention of the local police for stalking and similar unwelcome behaviour towards two different female students. But because they declined to press charges, nothing much was done.

When others were concerned that he was suicidal, he was referred to local Mental Health services. Apparently a court found him to be a risk to himself or others and seems to have committed him for assessment and management, but he appears to have been released after a couple of days.

(The highly relevant records of this admission have not been released, though police are said to be seeking the medical records.)

Significantly, if this was, as it appears at present, an involuntary admission, this should have been reflected in his records, should have been discovered in any background check when he applied to buy a gun, and should have prevented him from doing so.

Some have noted a resemblance between some of his pictures and aspects of his rampage, and the South Korean cult film "Oldboy", also a revenge fantasy. The images also provided horrid echoes of that grotesque image of Charlton Heston addressing the gun people, waving his rifle, and insisting it would have to be pried "from my cold, dead hand". More practically, investigators need to check, based on recurring themes in his writings, whether he was an abused child, and whether he was a bullied and taunted student, as he seems to have been convinced that he was.

Ismael Ax
As a sideline, there were early reports that Cho's body had been found with the words "Ismael Ax" scrawled on his arm in red ink, and the internet has been abuzz with people trying to decipher the meaning of this. Notably, NBC reveals that Cho did not place his name on the package he sent them, but wrote in the return address the name "A Ishmael". And the data file he sent was a PDF file named "axishmiel”.

Ishmael was the son of Abraham, who was cast into the wilderness. In Genesis (16:11-12) God is recorded of saying "He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen".

In some literature, which was after all the subject he was studying, Ismail/Ishmael is symbolically an outsider, cast away and alienated from society. He is reported to have played computer games including Battlefield 2 on his Xbox, for hours on end, and that Ismael Ax may have been his nom de guerre within such games.

The PDF file was last modified minutes after his first two killings. Other files were dates as far back as April 10. His video files had varying odd names, including “am al qaeda”, "anti terror", and, chillingly, "end some life". They seem to reveal that he had thought about this for a considerable amount of time, and had postponed the action once or twice.

Elsewhere he refers to other people in the news. To Karr who made a false confession in the Benet Ramsay child killing, and to a teacher who was prosecuted for having sex with a pupil. It confirms his ongoing concerns about the molestation of children, and his long-standing interest in news items that matched his obsession.

Within his writings, is the phrase "Number of the Anti-Terrorist" and a hand drawing of the number 88, a number he also used in the seemingly false return address on the envelope in which he sent this stuff to NBC.

People continue to try to decode these odd contents. 88 is used by some white supremacists, for instance, to identify each other, and to stand for "Heil Hitler". But is this merely a co-incidence? Did Cho know this or did he have other more private reasons for using the number?

In material released after the first batch of tapes, he says, even more psychotically: "Jesus loves crucifying me", and "you loved introducing cancer in my head and terrorising my heart, raping my soul all this time". In his tapes he shows himself as psychotically out of touch with reality, severely paranoid, grandiose, nihilist and wholly self-absorbed.

Earlier on, he could have been diagnosed as having a Personality Disorder, but subsequent events suggest something even more serious. We cannot make long-distance diagnoses, but this could well have been schizophrenia. A psychosis derived from a physical illness usually renders someone less capable of this long sequence of planning for his acts of malice. Severe Bipolar Disorder might be possible, but generally shows more clear signs of the underlying depression or mania as well as the florid psychotic features.

And yes, as I warned, the media wallows in the purple prose, too. I noticed CNN reported, as a few students strolled calmly on the grass behind him, speaking luridly of their "collective convulsion of grief". Such reporters may need a dose of anti-convulsants. – Prof M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink


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