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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; being alone with 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 only killed 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 relatives and friends of the victims will never fully recover from this trauma. Health-care 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? Sadly, 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. Bullying is a form of public blaming and shaming, where children practice what they see in the adult world.
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.
What about his parents?
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 have experienced racist discrimination for generations, and many help their children to preserve their self-esteem in a hostile world. Cho,s family immigrated to America and would have been unprepared 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 see. A fortunate few find support and socially-useful channels for their anger. Those who find no validation feel lost and betrayed. Many 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.
Individual violence should be no surprise in a world that promotes violence as the solution to every problem. When President George W. Bush wanted Iraq,s oil, he didn,t offer to buy it; he didn,t negotiate for it; he took it by brute force, using the flimsiest excuses. The mass slaughter he launched has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Given the savagery of those in power, it is amazing that more young people are not violent, that so many organize against injustice and for a better world.
This tragedy will be used to promote more police and tighter security measures. In fact, racism kills 50 times more Americans every year than die at the hands of individual murderers. To preserve this unjust but highly profitable system, the ruling class needs to crush those who rebel and intimidate everyone else. 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 anger. We need to create a world where everyone has equal worth, a caring society where the top priority is relieving human suffering. Profit-driven capitalism cannot do this. We need to build a socialist society that puts people first.
Most important, we need to support our youth, publicly and visibly. They need to know that they are not alone ” that we also see the unfairness that they see, that we also know how intolerable that unfairness feels. They need to know that we share their outrage and the urgent need for change. Their future and ours depends on us pulling together.
Note: When Virginia Tech remembered the victims of the massacre, they rang the bell 32 times and released 32 white balloons. Even in death, Cho was excluded.
Dr. Susan Rosenthal has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years and has written many articles on the relationship between health and human relationships. She is also the author of Striking Flint: Genora (Johnson) Dollinger Remembers the 1936-1937 General Motors Sit-Down Strike (1996) and Market Madness and Mental Illness: The Crisis in Mental Health Care (1999) and Power and Powerlessness. She is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. She can be reached through her blog: www.powerandpowerlessness.typepad.com