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23 April 2007

For a week now, Virginia Tech has held us spellbound and horrified. A quiet University reacted as well as it could to a new frightful event. A massacre is not a unique or new event in America. It is, however, the most serious and deserves introspection of the most careful kind. We have, as a society, several approaches. Lock down, to borrow a phrase in the news, on all public educational institutions; review security standards; identify and track poeple medically certified as "possibly violent;" tighten gun control laws or banish them altogether; look for and fix the roots of individual violence; limit gun ownership to those willing to complete safety courses in their handling. All the above.

The task is daunting as there are many types of individual killers, some far more dangerous than Seung-Hui Cho. All are products of our society, but are hardly unique to it. There are mass murderers, Cho was one. Then there are serial murderers. There are a few common threads as well as differences, especially in their methods. We are looking for the drivers, the emotional obsessions, that drive people to murder others.

Experts tell us that our genetic composition governs our response toward dysfunctionl nurturing. That both nature and nurture are involved fits what our research has turned up. Background patterns often associated with violent behavior include:

    • dysfunctional parents; few effective role models;
    • being male; female violence also occurs, but it is primarily a male response; males are often expected to be macho and dominant--which increases the stakes in developing personhood, while females are expected to be nurturing and caring;
    • a long history of frustration and failure; alienation and humiliation leading to aggrieved feelings and hurt;
    • a childhood history of being abused;
    • a history of abusing animals as a child;
    • a tendency to blame other people and never accept blame for their own shortcomings or failures; a belief the world is against them;
    • a tendency to be socially isolated and loners;
    • a clinical depression amd/or obessession that turns others off and re-inforces their owner's paranoia by confirming the above; a self-fulfilling prophecy in other words;
    • some kind of traumatic event that triggers the crime--like being rejected by a real or imagined romantic partner or fired from a job; this is not "the" basic reason, it is merely the last of numerous pushes to the precipice--as in Cho's case;
    • a society that tends to "look the other way" even as indications of problems become obvious--as in Cho's case;
    • access to firearms, especially rapid-firing and fast-reloading high-powered ones--as in Cho's case;
    • difficulties in diagnosing who is truly dangerous and who is not;
    • legal systems where appropriate training for judges handling intervention situations is too often lacking;
    • laws respecting individual rights and privacy can be barriers to timely intervention; this may be the single most difficult aspect of this problem for our society; improper intervention can be as bad as no intervention.

TV violence does not help. In wholesome homes it may not mean much. But what of homes that are dysfunctional to some extent?

Other schools have been targeted for mass murder as well:

    Bath School -- Andrew Kehoe: killed 45 children and adults, injured 58 more in 1927. This was the greatest school slaughter in the US, ever. From Wikipedia: "Kehoe was born... into a family of thirteen children. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried; reportedly, Kehoe often fought with his stepmother. When Kehoe was fourteen, the family's stove exploded as his [step mother] was attempting to light it. The oil fueling the stove soaked her, and the flames set her on fire. Andrew watched his stepmother burn for a few minutes before dumping a bucket of water on her. She later died from [her] injuries... Neighbors also recounted how Kehoe was cruel to his farm animals, having once beaten a horse to death."

    Columbine -- Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their classmates and teachers in April 1999. Klebold was depressed. Harris was a pure psychopath. Two planned bombings failed but guns designed by experts went off as planned.

    Dawson College -- like Cho, Kimveer Gill left a grisly record. The "Angel of Death" he called himself. But he only killed one other than himself while wounding 19.

    Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique -- Marc Lepine killed 14 women as he screamed, "I hate feminists."

    Texas University -- Charles Whitman, gun collector and sharpshooter, picked off 16 people before being shot himself atop the University of Texas Tower. His background doubtless contributed; his father was a tempestuous wife and child beater. Partly to escape that, Whitman entered the Marines where he learned his sharpshooting skills.

Mass murders usually end either by suicide or from a sharpshooter's bullet. They are very public events-- planned that way. Mass murder in modern society is more common than generally supposed by the average American. Consider:

    Julio Gonzalez -- Torched the Bronx's Happy Land Social Club -- killing 87. Diagnosed with longstanding psychological defects. Quoting: "On May 31, 1980, at Key West, Florida, Julio Gonzalez, 25 years old, uneducated, impoverished, a military deserter in his own country, a man who, so far, had accomplished nothing in life, an ex-convict with no possessions and no future, arrived in America."

    Jack Gilbert Graham -- Placed a bomb on the airplane his mother was in -- killing 44.

    David Burke -- Fired from his airline job, followed his ex-boss on board an airliner, shot him midflight and went down with the plane -- killing 43.

    Martin Bryant -- With a history of mental problems, Bryant went on a murderous spree in a cafe -- killed 35

    Baruch Goldstein -- Massacred 29 Muslims at prayer in a Hebron mosque.

    Humberto de la Torre -- Arsonist, set fire to the Dorothy Mae Apartment Hotel in Los Angeles, killing 25, in a dispute with his uncle--the target.

    George Jo Hennard -- Crashed his Ford pickup into Luby's Cafeteria, killing 23.

    James Oliver Huberty -- Like Cho, advertised his hatred in the process of gunning down 21 and wounding 20 in a McDonald's cafe in San Ysidro.

    Thomas Hamilton -- "Upset at losing his volunteer position as a scoutmaster in Dunblane, Scotland, he entered the Dunblane Primary School twenty years later and killed seventeen children on March 13, 1996."

Serial killers shun publicity, but often arise from environmental conditions similar to those of their mass-murder kin. Some examples of serial killers from near and far:

    • Pedro Alonzo Lopez -- Montser of the Andes: Killed some 350 young girls, raping them at sunrise then dumping them in mass graves. He was seventh of thirteen children by a Columbian prostitute. Kicked out onto the streets by his mother at age of eight for fondling sister.
    • Ted Bundy -- Admitted killing 40 young women; became poster boy for serial killers. Born of an unwed mother, cared for by grandparents until mother remarried. Never bonded with his stepfather. Shy as a child, teased by bullies. Adolescence was unhappy. Dropped out of college after being dropped by his first love. Aimless for awhile, he did graduate from college. Found a woman who wanted him then rekindled his first love, amazingly. While seeing both at one time, he began his career as a consumate murderer at the age of 28.
    • John Wayne Gacy -- Convicted of killing 33 young men as he sodomized them. Normal childhold except that his father, whom he adored, was an abusive alcoholic whose approval Gacy never received. Suffered head injury at age 11 that led to petit mal type of condition and blackouts. Graduated from business college, married, had two children at the time of first arrest on sodomy charges. His wife divorced him after his guilty plea and conviction. After release he resumed an apparently normal life. After being finally identified as a suspect in a disappearance, police visited with a search warrant that turned up enormous evidence. To quote from the web site, above:

        "Gacy, realizing that his dark secrets were about to be exposed, went to the police to confess. Shortly into the confessions, Gacy waived his Miranda rights and told detectives, 'There are four Johns.' He later explained that there was John the contractor, John the clown, and John the politician. The fourth person went by the name of Jack Hanley. Jack was the killer and did all the evil things."

    • Richard Speck, -- Slaughtered eight nurses in a single sexually driven spree. Quoting from the web site: "The seventh of eight children, Speck’s father died when Speck was just 6 years old and his mother raised him. Eventually, Speck’s mother remarried and the family moved to Dallas, Tex. His new stepfather had problems with alcohol and soon began taking his anger out on Speck and his siblings. In retaliation, Speck dropped out of school and started hanging out with older boys." Speck was implicated in several other murders but was never tried for them.

See Serial Killers and Mass Murderers for more. Serial and mass killers differ greatly in their methods -- see Mass Killers.

As for Virginia Tech, there has been a huge outcry about its failure in preventing this tragedy. This is reasonable for sure. It is also a very emotional response typical of our system. Elements of that system affecting Virginia Tech follow:

  • Statutes do not permit discrimination prevent authorities from taking actions such as expulsion or leave of absence for mental illness no matter how serious.
  • Universities are required to treat students as adults; ergo, they cannot notify parents if they merely suspect a problem. Peope like Cho are free to come and go; they have civil rights--like anyone else.
  • Only if specific threats are made, can the deranged be referred to police. There was none in this case.

Others argue that after the first two murders, there should have been a lock down. In hind sight, that is true enough, but there is much more to it.

  • Cho was unique among mass murderers. He left the scene after his initial killings. This is not typical.
  • What is typical in most killings, is that they are the work of an alienated spouse, rejected lover, or psychopath, and indeed it looked that way to the first officers on the scene. They quickly found the romantic partner of one of the dead and were interviewing him when Cho started his second rampage of slaughter.

We cannot blame Virgina Tech, its security people, or the local police. In fact, Virginia Tech and local authorities had practiced response measures in anticipation of terroristic activities. Cho was not only bright in his deep depression, but he was different. His one-two punch was a big surprise. If we think about it, Virginia Tech was much like Pearl Harbor and 9-11, except in scale. In all three cases, the warning signs were there before the action surprised the victims. There is no basis whatsoever to criticize the University. The mighty US has behaved as a nation just that way--in the absence of any constraints such as those on Virginia Tech.

To summarize the root causes, dysfunctional family life during the formative years is a quite common thread in the above. A history of instability and/or trouble with the law is often also present. Psychopathology and depression, are fairly common in the mass killers. Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality are much more rare, but they too can have the same result. Many killers are highly intelligent, and the serial types often have good social skills and go unrecognized by friends, neighbors or even family. Serial killers differ most from their mass-killer kindred in lack of depression and outwardly having a normal personality. They are most often psychopathic but not as obvious about it as the mass killers usually are. Psychopathic serial killers are usually engaging people--the very secret to their success. Both types of killer plan to kill and then do kill--in cold blood.

Gun availability, while not a basic cause, magnifies the total number of deaths a mass killer can achieve. Gun availability correlates with murder rates world-wide. On just about any scale considered, guns kill more than they save, in stark contrast with the anecdotes aired by the National Rifle Association gun lobby.

Check this out for yourself: "We should also consider a failure any 'deterrence' that is correlated to the very crime it is supposed to deter. But most damagingly, the FBI deems only 1 percent of all murders to be 'justifiable homicides' using a firearm. Statistics from the nation's largest crime survey also show that a gun i[s] 19 times more likely to be used in nonfatal crime than in nonfatal self-defense. Pro-gun advocates respond by trying to refute these statistics, citing a study that shows that defensive uses of guns outnumber their criminal uses. However, the survey they cite is not credible. Even if these dubious statistics were true, one cannot praise a social pathology (i.e., gun violence) that only partially cures itself (i.e., through gun deterrence)."


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