150 Deaths | English Columnist Sydney Lee
A 21 year-old male student is evaluated at a mental health facility after making suicidal remarks to his roommates. It’s December 13th, 2005, but no one cares to double check up on this boy. Two years later, on April 16th, 2007, a gunshot roars through the campus dormitory of Virginia Tech University at 7:15 a.m. as students are hurriedly getting ready for school. What none of these students realized at that moment was that this particular day would become the day of the 3rd deadliest mass shooting in United States history.
The Virginia Tech shooting was carried out by a 23-year-old Korean American student named Seung-Hui Cho, who brutally killed 32 people in two locations and injured an undetermined number of others before committing suicide. As people still remember this historically tragic day, they ask, “What truly prompted this college student to commit such a deadly act before taking his own life? How can one’s mental state be driven to this condition?” With startling statistics of mass shootings that have become everyday news for us to see and hear, we as a society are left with endless questions as to how we can detect mass shooters before it’s too late.
In The Shooter’s Mind
“150 deaths” refers to the number of individuals who have died from a mass shooting in the United States so far in 2018 (from January 2018 to April 2018). Just as of today, there have so far been 62 reported mass shootings in 2018 in the United States. Psychologists have attempted to explain the mentality behind the mind of mass shooters; however, psychologists say it is “maddeningly difficult to separate the next school shooter from millions of other disaffected students who may never go to kill.”
However, in regards to the profile of shooters, many have often exhibited factors that are generally tied to criminality: history of abuse at home, tendency to set fires or hurt animals, self-centeredness, obsession with weapons, and a lack of compassion. In regards to school shootings particularly, killers may be prompted to kill innocent little children, because the killer lacks compassion or empathy; in the killer’s eyes, the children may be perceived as a symbol of something he or she wanted to obliterate.
Take Seung-Hui Cho as an example, the deadly killer behind the Virginia Tech shooting. He was described by his college professors as a troubled loner with a troubling past of stalking female students. In his childhood, it was discovered that Cho was bullied by other children; additionally, in high school, he was known to stand out as a sullen loner who wrote gruesome plays and stories. A professor even removed him from her class in college, because he exhibited strange behavior, such as photographing legs of female students and refusing to take off sunglasses and a hat in class. Despite the fact that Cho matches the typical profile of a troubled shooter, psychologists claim that no one would have been able to predict for a fact that Cho would have turned out to be a killer.
After interviewing and profiling several dozen shooters in the United States, clinical psychologist Peter Langman divided perpetrators into three psychological categories: psychopathic (lacking empathy and concern for others), psychotic (experiencing paranoid delusions, hearing voices and having poor social skills), and traumatized (coming from families marked by drug addiction, sexual abuse and other severe problems). Cho, for example, displayed behaviors that were both psychopathic and psychotic. Before the shooting, Cho’s inability to relate to others and his disordered perception of reality clearly characterized him as someone who was mentally ill; however, because we as society cannot criminalize the mentally ill, we were unable to identify the potential of a mentally ill individual to transform into a killer. However, psychologist Langman himself also admits that only a few of the millions of people who qualify for those categories will actually translate their “personal demons” into killing sprees.
Mass Shootings and “Manhood”
Men commit over 85% of all homicides and of all mass shootings since 1982 till today, only three have been committed by women. Psychologists have coined the term “precarious manhood” to describe the dilemma males face as males tie their self-worth to being a “real man.” It is precarious, because this manhood can easily be lost if the man fails to measure up to the challenges that life throws at him, whether they may be physical tests of bravery or competition with other males for status.
With this belief of precarious manhood, we have constructed a society that worships men with guns. Media portrays “heroes” like John Wayne and Indiana Jones who get what they want through their courageous endeavors and are respected by their community. However, mass shooters have never been admired in this way; they are all men who felt they were owed something that the world was not providing. Because the shooters felt that society was not giving them what they deserved, they resorted to violent acts, madly driven by a sense of male entitlement that the media positively portrays. Many disturbed shooters suffered from a lack of attention, which resulted in a lack of status and lack of “access to women.” Then they felt that they were being outcasted and deprived of what they want. And because no emotions are stronger than the envy and anger produced by ignorance, the consequences were tragic, both for the society and the killer himself/herself.
I refer back again to the case of Seung-Hui Cho, to possibly point out that mass shootings are not to be completely blamed on the mass shooter, but rather on society as a whole. After the media frenzy of the shooting, many relatives of Cho were interviewed, who noted how Cho was a very cold and silent kid growing up. They always worried that something was wrong with him deep inside, and by the time Cho was a teenager, his behavior was deviant enough to call for psychiatric attention. However, he was prescribed medication without his parents supervising his intake and suffered poor patient-parent-counselor interaction.
Thus, here we see that society always shapes mental illness as an individual issue to “cure” one of, with great ignorance of all the societal factors that may have affected the patient. Today, the argument around mass shootings has become a politicized one surrounding the 2nd amendment. However, it is a collective responsibility of us all to step away from the politics to examine at the ways in which our culture defines concepts such as masculinity and mental illness.