Our Throw-Away Society: A Criminologist Responds to the Virginia Tech Shootings
Cho Seung-Hui is a name that will go down in history as
the worst mass murderer (who used a gun) in
In 1966, Charles Whitman
In 1991, George Hennard crashed his truck through the wall of a Luby’s Cafeteria before shooting and killing 22 people, and then himself.
And of course, on April 16,
2007, Cho killed 32 at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and
As a criminologist who teaches “Theories of Crime” – a class about why people commit crime – I’ve been trying to make sense out of this latest mass murder. Yet, it is hard to make sense out of such “senseless” acts of violence.
In my opinion, the theory that comes closest to explaining Cho’s slaughter is Robert Agnew’s “general strain theory.” The theory suggests that people experience negative emotions (such as anger and depression) when they are prevented from achieving personal goals, lose something of value, or experience any undesirable or negative stimulus (especially when it is seen as unjust, high in magnitude, and difficult to correct).
According to Agnew, one “normal” reaction to negative emotions caused by general strain is aggression. Yet, there is nothing normal about what happened at Virginia Tech, just as there is nothing normal about climbing to the top of a 27-story tower to shoot people or crashing your car through a restaurant to shoot people.
It is also obviously not
normal to throw pipe bombs at and shoot fellow students at your high school, as Eric
Harris and Dylan Klebold did at
No, general strain theory cannot fully account for such atrocities. We all experience general strain; only a handful of us commit mass murder. This suggests general strain is a risk factor for violent behavior rather than a cause of it. Risk factors put people at greater risk of criminal behavior but do not guarantee it will happen.
According to the Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, known risk factors for violent behavior in young people include previous aggressive or violent behavior; being the victim of physical abuse and/or sexual abuse; exposure to violence in the home and/or community; genetic (family heredity) factors; exposure to violence in the media (TV, movies, etc.); use of drugs (including alcohol); presence of firearms in the home; a combination of stressful family socioeconomic factors (e.g., poverty, detachment from parents, loss of support from extended family); and brain dysfunction caused by head injury or major mental illness.
Young people should be evaluated for help when these risk factors are coupled with intense anger; frequent loss of temper or blow-ups; extreme irritability; extreme impulsiveness; and when they are easily frustrated. These risk factors are not “excuses” for violence. They are meant to explain why some people are more likely to commit violence so that we can prevent future violence by targeting people who experience them.
How many of these risk factors and conditions characterize Cho Seung-Hui? A judge declared that he was mentally ill, in need of hospitalization and “an imminent danger to himself or others.” He was a loner that caused tremendous fear in fellow students and his professors, so much so that some half-joked about the possibility of him being a “school shooter.” He wrote graphic, violent plays and poems that shocked those who read them. He stalked female students. He was angry. He was frustrated. And he was poor.
According to press reports
And oh yeah, he also possessed firearms.
In spite of all this, Cho – like Whitman, Harris and Klebold before him – never got the help he needed. By some, each of these individuals were taunted and bullied, but by most they were simply ignored and left to fend for themselves. They were thrown away.
This does not mean we are to blame for their deaths, and it certainly does not implicate the victims. The shooters bear sole responsibility for their acts.
Yet, personal responsibility is not enough to fully understand the murders. To understand why this happens we must also address our failure to identify these people before they commit murder and help them before it’s too late.
A 2002 study by the US Secret Service examined 37 school shootings, which included interviews with 10 of the actual shooters. According to the study, most attackers behaved in some way prior to their shootings that caused others to be concerned and that indicated a need for help.
Robert Fein, co-author of the study, concluded it is not accurate to assume that if a troubled person refuses help there is nothing else we can do. With regard to Cho, Fein said: “I understand that students in college are not high school kids, but schools should be able to do better than that. This is not to cast blame on anyone. There's no cookie-cutter solution, and there probably are lots of ‘right ways,’ but the notion of having a team that can gather and examine information and determine ‘we may have a problem here’ and then work to figure out what to do, or ask others, or keep working on it, still makes sense to me.”
Of course, such an approach means we have to take every person like Cho Seung-Hui seriously, which means we have to care enough about them to notice the warning signs and to take the time and make the effort to meaningfully intervene.
Is this too much to ask for people living in such a rich, free, “Christian” nation? Are we all too busy, too distracted, too disinterested and too heartless so that this will happen again?
Now, there are people out there, in the trenches every day, providing mental health services to those in need (I’m married to one of them). These people are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. They’ve been asked to do too much with too little for too long. And we’re all paying for it.
When mental hospitals closed in the 1970s in the era of deinstitutionalization, the assumption was that people would get the help they needed in their own communities. However, state funding for community treatment has always been woefully inadequate. States would rather build more prisons and clean up dead bodies than prevent the crimes in the first place.
Even if we ever fully understand why people kill other human beings, no theory of crime can account for the lethality of the shooters like Whitman, Hennard, Harris, Klebold and Cho. Armed with baseball bats, knives, chainsaws, or any other weapons, these killers could not have killed so many people.
Only guns are this lethal. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution gives people the right to “keep and bear arms.” White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino was quick to defend this right, even on the day of the shooting, saying: “As far as policy, the president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed.”
Cho bought his guns legally
and there is no indication he had access to illegal weaponry. The law he broke
was the one saying he could not carry his weapons on campus. So, legal gun
ownership played a role in the Virginia Tech case, as it does with a large
portion of the more than 10,000 gun murders in the
And there’s one more thing. Under a federal assault-weapons ban enacted in 1994, gun magazines (clips) were limited to 10 rounds. But that ban was allowed to expire in 2004.
In what was celebrated as a victory for the National Rifle Association (NRA), President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress simply returned a favor to one of their largest and most loyal donors. The result? Instead of 10 shots per clip, Cho may have been able to shoot up to 33 bullets per clip.
The expiration of the ban did not cause Cho’s rampage, anymore than the 9mm Glock pistol Cho used in the attacks caused it to happen. As the popular saying goes, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” A more accurate statement would be “Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people.” The expiration of the assault weapons ban assured that the attack would be more lethal.
Do you even remember the news story back in 2004 of how Congress and President Bush allowed the ban to expire? Probably not. You probably never saw the story in the newspaper, or perhaps you quickly read it over and then threw the paper away.
You can put this paper down now and go do something positive to help people in powerless positions in our throw-away society. Or you can go turn another episode of your favorite reality TV program and throw this paper away, too. The harsh reality is that we are the only ones who can prevent another tragedy. But it requires that we actually do something about it.
I hereby volunteer to donate my time to the local school system and to my university to help prevent this from happening here. What will you do?