The Virginia Tech Massacre: Cho Seung-Hui Delivers his Message

The Virginia Tech Massacre: Cho Seung-Hui Delivers his Message

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.

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12 Comments For This Post

  1. Jen Says:

    April 21/07

    Thanks for your balanced perspective on these events. Here’s another blog from the organization Peace X Peace that emphasizes the need for connection and inclusion in today’s world.

  2. Laughing Dolphin Says:

    April 21/07

    I enjoyed reading this very much – and agree wholeheartedly. Thank you so much, you’ve made me look at the world a bit differently today.

  3. bj, Los Angeles, CA Says:

    April 24/07

    bravo susan…bravo… nailed it! it’s beautiful that someone can articulate a message that needs to be said….

  4. marc Says:

    May 20/07

    “Racism kills 50 times more Americans every year than die at the hands of individual murderers.” Do you have any documentation to back-up that ludicrous assertion?

  5. Susan Rosenthal Says:

    May 20/07

    American Blacks suffer 300 more deaths per 100,000 people than American Whites. If there were no racism, the death rate for Blacks and Whites would be the same. Compare these 300 additional deaths with the much smaller U.S. murder rate of about 6 people per 100,000. Conclusion: every year, racism kills 50 times more people than die at the hands of individual murderers.

  6. Adley Tang Says:

    May 22/07

    I thank you Susan, for your insight into Cho’s troubled life.

    I would like to lay my perspective here for you. Although the only thing we can really draw on is speculation on what made Cho did what he did, what I have to draw on is my own experiences, which probably are far from what he experienced, yet ultimately had a similar end. I think it quite sad, and ironic at the same time that there is really no window into such tormented worlds, especially one who turns to homicide in the end, because those who turn into these paths end up dead by their own hand. I digress though.

    I am a different man than Cho was, but what joins him to me is the pain. I describe myself as a very empathic person, and through it I’ve always done my best to understand the people around me. I reached out to people, instead of closing myself within myself. Though I suffered my own personal bullying, as a person I could never accept inflicting pain, purposefully, especially through my own actions, as acceptable. This was a moral value I was brought up with and held very close to my heart and being. This value was my sole defense against what I endured, because cliché sayings of “sticks and stones” do little to dull the cutting words that are the dehumanization of a person.

    They did hurt me, very deeply, more so because I am, or rather was, a deeply sensitive individual. Much like Cho probably was, I was unprepared for what hate was. I however was not an immigrant, instead I grew up in a small rural village, in where everyone knew everyone else, and for the most part everyone was friends. I did have friends, and always had some friends to this day. When I moved from that small assuming place I experienced much negativity as I was given glimpse after glimpse of the horrors of the “real” world. Despite the pain inflicted on me I seldom entertained thoughts of revenge, vengeance, or justice. The thoughts that pervaded my mind, as I suspect many do in a similar position, is suicide. It can be a bit of a mixed blessing that most people are brought up, or on some level are conditioned not to just go out and kill your fellow man. Of course there are some unfortunate exceptions.

    Though Cho was offered help, I was not. I actually sought out help; there was fear, but no sense of shame, just helplessness. However, the world can be a very cruel place. My parents could offer little practical advice and didn’t understand the nature of my suffering. I turned to seeking aid from my teacher, to perhaps find and end to the bullying; the response I got was less than favorable. Yet in an ironic twist, was the same thing that prevented Cho from getting his help: People’s rights had to be considered. So my teacher simply told me along the lines “I don’t know his side of the story, I can’t help you.” In my eyes, justice in the world did not exist, and that I was truly alone in what I perceived was my fight; another commonality of this type of suffering, in that I am quite sure.

    A fighter I was not. I abhor pain, strife, conflict. The only thing I could do was endure, and endure I did for many years. There was a price to be paid, and nothing to be gained for this position. One would think that a soul is worth the world, but for me it was worth nothing, as day by day I would lose a little bit more of it. The only thing I got in return was just more pain.

    As I mentioned at the start, there are few windows to people who are pushed so far, as the ultimate result is death. Many of those ‘fortunate’ windows into the other side are the ones who fail at their suicide attempts. Fewer people still, those go on killing rampages end up still breathing. I know what that feels like, the ability to kill. Had I been holding a gun, I would have been able to pull trigger. No hesitation, no emotion, no thought, no reason. In that respect, it wouldn’t have mattered who was in front of me. It was a total breakdown of reason and logic. I only carried this feeling for but a moment. For one second I knew what it meant; to truly hate. To hate everything. It was the time it took for me to swing my fist at the person at the time that was tormenting me. In that second my fist turned into an open palm and slapped him across the face. What part of me was still left screamed for me to stop, telling me what I was doing was wrong, all wrong. If I was another person I would have kept falling off the ledge into insanity; I would have embraced the part of me that wanted to kill the individual in front of me, to fight, kick, and bite. Or perhaps embrace the hatred the pain, plot out my revenge and truly inflict something worthy of the suffering I endured. Instead, I simply stood in shock at what I had done, even if it was a simple slap.

    Needless to say I ended up in the hospital, and my teachers finally took some notice. My tormentor got a 3-day suspension, perhaps another injustice for some looking at my situation, but I already accepted long ago that life isn’t fair. The only thing I can take comfort in was that I only lost most of my soul, not all of it; and it is of little comfort.

    Because I am empathic, I knew what I experienced was relatively nothing to the types of bullying other people endure. I knew because I was sensitive I ‘broke’ relatively easily, not a good container for vast volumes of anger and pain. I knew what drove people to kill themselves, but what’s more, I knew what could drive people to murder.

    We live in a truly troubled society. The fact that Cho is excluded in death, that he is portrayed as a monster is only a testament to that it will happen again. No one wishes to look at the individual that was destroyed in any light than other than a homicidal monster. People choose to see him as a coward and a weakling, undeserving of walking this earth. His suffering will for the most part go unnoticed, an effort made to forget the man; the source of all these other people’s suffering. I do not wish to diminish the suffering of his victims, but it is a mistake to diminish his. Only through empathy can people realize that he was a victim too, that in this tragic tale only through embracing his pain can we hope to ever come to a happy ending. Otherwise we will simply see people say that violent media and guns kill people, and we will see people say that these individuals need to suck it up and stand up for themselves. The heart of the problem will never be revealed under such misdirected views.

    He delivered his message, but too few listen. Fewer still can understand it. He was a monster, but inside that monster was a tormented soul, screaming in horrible pain and agony. I hope Cho found his peace.

  7. alido Says:

    July 18/07

    I appreciated your insights into Mr. Cho and the tragedy that occurred at Va. Tech.

    As a mental health professional I am dismayed that many avoid discussing the issue of Schizophrenia and other mental health issues affecting many young people. As we know, Schizophrenia can seriously affect a person’s life, as well as the lives of their family and friends. Many with such a predisposition experience onset at college due to their age and the impact of being away from familiar surroundings.

    The onset of schizophrenia usually takes place in the late teens or early 20’s – sometimes later for women. Relocating to a college campus often coincides with early symptoms as one’s support system is disrupted. Around the world, approximately 1% of the population – or one in a hundred people – will experience some form of schizophrenia.

    Even though schizophrenia is rare, its early onset and the lifelong disability it brings to people affected, including their families, make schizophrenia one of the most catastrophic mental illnesses. Sadly, many experience increased difficulty making decisions and approaching life rationally. It is a scary feeling I have heard expressed by patients. One can only imagine the anxiety and impaired judgment affecting Mr Cho.

    Surely your omission of discussing the possibility of a mental health diagnosis and the break-down in follow up would be equal to the topic of bullying.

    To imply to the public that bullying and isolation was the main cause for his mental health crisis and resulting violence seems to short change Mr. Cho. It also short changes the angst his family must have been going through for years. Your take glosses over the glaring need for the mental health system to review its policies and procedures.

    The fact that poor Mr Cho was discharged back to campus without a five minute follow up phone call to VA Tech’s mental health service is astounding. Newspaper accounts quote professionals who treated or counseled Mr Cho as saying:”I did not know.”

    Specifically, no one knew of his history or sought input from his family when he was unable to clarify his history of rage during assessments. It is written in Virginia regulations that, at the minimum, a phone contact must be made to the referring & discharging entity.

    Think what one phone call from one doctor to another could have done. Maybe the concept that a college campus might not be the appropriate place for meeting Mr Cho’s needs might have come up.

  8. Susan Rosenthal Says:

    July 18/07

    You are absolutely right. There is much more that could be said about this tragedy.

    Most people do not get the social support they need to be mentally healthy. And when they get sick, the high cost of medical care makes it difficult for them to get help.

    The fragmented, inadequate care that Virginia Tech provided to Cho was downright criminal.

    I don’t know if Cho suffered from schizophrenia. In my experience, most people who are diagnosed as schizophrenic are not violent. It was the racist bullying that drove Cho to violence. And, tragically, he lived in a very sick society that makes it much easier to get guns than it is to find social support.

  9. Annie Says:

    July 19/07

    I agree with your article.

    The majority of the public dismiss Cho as a crazy, psychotic, psychopathic murderer who just snapped for no reason. What they don’t understand is that monsters are created, not born.

    I am also Asian, and I experience the same pain Cho suffered (racism from peers, exclusion, shyness, speech impediment). Cho may have been mentally ill, but I think the racism and taunting had a lot to do with it. Believe me, I’ve been through what he has, and sometimes I think about hurting those who caused me pain.

  10. John Says:

    You point out racism, has anyone considered the possibility that sexism – reverse sexism against boys, particularly in the K-12 school system and in university humaities departments – could have played a greater role in Cho’s problems.

    Cho’s sister, for example, is a princeton graduate, has a good job and has apparently no psychological problems whatsoever.

  11. Jay Hammers Says:

    Yes, John, the real issue here is misandry, discrimination and hatred against men and boys that runs rampant in Western society & the judicial system.

  12. better opportunistc world for all races and sex, in respect will impact society for the common good Says:

    Better opportunities for all races and sex, in terms of respect will impact society for the common and necessary good. That was not what Cho had. I mean it is hard to focus on school work and success when you are treated like shit all the time by other races, simply because he was Koren / Asian. And not all Asians like one another. There are a ton of different Asian countries and for some reason they just don’t get along well. A major example would be the Japanese imperialising by total extremely violent force. They killed millions of my people less than 75 years ago by mass shootings and air attacks with victims numbered in the millions. The fact that China did the same thing to Vietnam but most likely less less violent. I would use the word brutal but I feel the word gets thrown around too much so it loses its nightmarish reality meaning of pointless violence. Another example is that Vietnamese people hate another country’s language such as Chinese because they think it sounds angry all the time.

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