by Susan Rosenthal
Why did Cho Seung-Hui go berserk and kill 33 people including himself?
We know that Cho was a shy Asian immigrant who was severely bullied as a youngster and suffered racist discrimination. We know that he was a man, and men are not supposed to show their pain. We know that he was full of rage, and that he did not get the help he needed. While media pundits dismiss him as an inhuman monster, Cho was very human and not unlike many of my patients.
Last week, one of my patients confessed, “I want to hurt him. I want him to know how badly I feel.” She was referring to her husband, who refused to acknowledge the pain he was causing her. Most of us have felt like that, at one time or another.
Human beings are social creatures. Feeling alone in our pain is intolerable. We need others to know how we feel. That is why “the hurt hurt” – meaning that those who are hurting often lash out at others. In a desperate bid for connection, they force others to feel their pain.
Had Cho killed only himself, he would have joined the more than 30,000 people who suicide in the U.S. every year. Instead of going quietly, he transferred his pain to others as if to say, “Now you know how I feel.” The survivors and the relatives and friends of the victims will never fully recover from this trauma. Health workers like me will be patching shattered lives for decades, if not generations.
Cho felt hopeless to solve his problems. In the package that he mailed to NBC he cried, “You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.” In fact, a number of students and faculty did reach out to him. Why did he reject their efforts? Apparently, it was too little, too late.
Cho’s self-imposed isolation indicates intense shame. Shame results when a person feels worthy or unacceptable – a loser. The greatest source of shame is the social hierarchy that divides people into a few winners and many more losers and blames the losers.
When a person feels shame, the need for connection conflicts with the fear of rejection. This conflict is expressed in the mixed messages of, “help me” and “stay away.” In many people, shame and rage can reinforce each other to produce a downward spiral of despair.
Some people wonder if Cho’s parents did anything to contribute to their son’s behavior. I suspect they did what most parents do; they valued their child. Feeling valued would have left Cho emotionally unprepared for a world that would devalue him so severely. Black families, who have suffered racist discrimination for generations, help their children to preserve their self-esteem in a hostile world. Cho’s family immigrated to America and would not have been prepared for such a deeply racist society.
Young people like Cho experience shock when they encounter racism and other forms of social injustice. There is no connection between the world they expect and the world they encounter. A fortunate few find support and socially-useful channels for their anger. Those who can find no support feel lost and betrayed. Most blame themselves, thinking, “I must be crazy.” Many blame others and shut them out, “You don’t understand.” Some become aggressive. Others become depressed. Many drug themselves. Some kill themselves. On rare occasions, one becomes homicidal.
The tragedy at Virginia Tech will be used to promote more police and tighter security measures. This is the opposite of what is needed. We don’t need more ways to “manage” anger and punish angry people. We need to abolish the injustice that provokes their anger.
Racism kills 50 times more Americans every year than die at the hands of individual murderers. Racism is encouraged because the elite need it to divide, rule and profit. To sustain this injustice, the authorities use force to crush those who rebel and intimidate everyone else.
What’s the solution? Instead of blaming our youth, we need to support them, publicly and visibly. They need to know that they are not alone, that we also see the unfairness that they see, that we also share their outrage and the urgent need for change. Together, we can work to build a sharing, socialist society that values everyone.
At the memorial for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre, the bell rang 32 times and 32 white balloons were released. Even in death, Cho was excluded.