April 19, 2024

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Rush To Judgment – Why Disturbing Text Does Not Necessarily Identify A Potential Killer

“A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular.”—Adlai Stevenson

On April 16, 2007 Cho Seung-Hui committed the worst mass-shooting by a single individual in US history. Whenever we hear that someone has committed a violent act on such a grotesque scale we tend to ask ourselves, “who could do such a thing?” and “how will we predict who else could do such a thing?” Cho left some clues which, together, seem to indicate a very disturbed man, but which individually would not indicate a potential mass killer. Certainly, someone who does make a violent threat (e.g. saying to you, “I am going to punch you”) should be taken seriously. For the purpose of this article, violence is defined as “the intentional physical violation of another person’s body.” We would like to predict when someone will commit a violent act even when that individual does not make a direct threat, but that is difficult to do. Some news sources have emphasized the violent, graphic, and disturbing nature of Cho’s writings, specifically two plays—Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone—which Cho wrote as assignments in English class. However, just because an adult writes about violent and graphic fantasy that is not enough to determine whether that individual will commit a violent act, nor is it enough to determine the status of the mental health of the author.

Emily Bazelon writes in Slate magazine that while there were many attention-getting facts about Cho Seung-Hui, “one by one, these facts don’t point to a psychopath about to cut loose.” She begins her article with a paragraph itemizing Cho’s previous actions which others pointed to after the fact as alarms which should have warned people at Virginia Tech that Cho was potentially dangerous. Bazelon writes, “two women students reported Cho for stalkinglike activities in fall 2005, and after the second incident, a roommate told the police that Cho had talked about suicide.” Stalking is certainly an indication of trouble, and if talking “about suicide” is in the form of planning or a threat it should always be taken seriously. Bazelon also discusses how Cho went to police who sent him for psychiatric evaluation, how a judge sent Cho to a psychiatric hospital, and how Cho’s “teachers reported their worries” to diverse authorities. Bazelon ends her introductory paragraph, “Finally, there are Cho’s plays—vivid and brutal.” Her article is available at: http://www.slate.com/id/2164649

To help illustrate how “vivid and brutal” writings should not by themselves be considered the product of a criminal or dangerous mind, the following are overviews of “vivid and brutal” writings in each of Cho’s plays followed by an overview of “vivid and brutal” writings in a fraction of Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare.

An overview of violent or “vivid and brutal” fictions in Cho Seung-Hui’s first play Richard McBeef: The plot of Richard McBeef is a bit like Hamlet. One man—the heavy (Richard)—is accused of killing the father of the protagonist—John—to be with John’s mother, and then Richard takes over John’s household. During an argument over their new relationship, Richard—who knows John is angry with him—puts his hand in John’s lap. John accuses Richard of sexual molestation using contemporary references to accusations against some Catholic priests and Michael Jackson, and also refers to a tabloid journal which claims that the government—which Richard worked for as a janitor—killed John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe. The characters use occasional profanity. John threatens to assault Richard. John’s mother Sue throws a plate, wrenches, pipes and other “heavy objects” at Richard and she also slaps Richard and hits him with a shoe. Sue and John both make diverse insults about the fact that Richard is overweight, and Sue asks if Richard is a “bisexual psycho rapist murderer.” Richard suggests a common reference to how he and his new wife should have make-up sex. John imagines maiming Richard’s eyes while throwing darts at a picture of Richard. John fantasizes about killing Richard with a mantra, “I hate him. Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die,” before claiming to Sue that Richard sexually assaulted him. John also tells his mother that Richard admitted, while sleeping, John’s father’s murder. Sue responds by brandishing a chainsaw and chasing Richard out of the house; Richard escapes into his vehicle. John comes over to Richard a half-hour later and insults him with profanity before smothering him with a cereal bar. Richard responds by pummeling John to death with one punch.

An overview of violent or “vivid and brutal” fictions in Cho Seung-Hui’s second play Mr. Brownstone: Three juveniles manage to enter a casino with fake ID. They use profanity and insult their teacher Mr. Brownstone, and one protagonist—John (same name in the previous play)—says, “I’d like to kill him.” The trio complain about their teacher some more before they see him in the casino. They joke about how they imagine Mr. Brownstone defecates and joke that, “his name sounds like a kidney stone.” They suggest, metaphorically, that Mr. Brownstone rapes his students, and then they wish he were dead and they were rich. Mr. Brownstone and the trio insult each other. Joe, one of the trio, suggests that heroin addiction would be better than dealing with Mr. Brownstone. Mr. Brownstone falsely claims to casino authorities that the juveniles committed strongarm robbery against him.

An overview of “vivid and brutal” fictions in Acts One and Two of Titus Andronicus: Titus displays the remains of 21 of his dead sons (while accompanied by four live sons) and various prisoners of war to show his patriotism. Alarbus, a captive and son of the captive Tamora, is ceremoniously dismembered and executed, then burnt “whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky.” Titus kills his son Mutius. Titus’s capive Tamora marries emperor Saturninus and bides her time until she can strike revenge against Titus. Tamora’s lover, Aaron, also realizes the chance for revenge against his captor Titus. Chiron, one of Tamora’s sons, jokes about how much he would like to use his sword against anyone who would keep him from having sex with Titus’s daughter Lavinia before Chiron and his brother Demetrius draw their swords to duel; they are stopped by Aaron who suggests they join forces to rape Lavinia. Demetrius declares he will feel tortured until he takes Lavinia. Aaron tells Tamora that Demetrius and Chiron will rape Lavinia and cut out her tongue and they will also kill Lavinia’s fiancee Bassianus; Tamora is glad to hear this. Aaron tells Tamora to pick a fight with Bassianus so they can carry out this plot. Lavinia uses a racist metaphor (“raven-color’d love”) to insult Aaron and accuse him and Tamora of adultery.

When Demetrius and Chiron arrive and see this argument between Lavinia and Bassianus against Tamora and Aaron, Tamora trashes the Ninth Commandment by lying to her sons that Lavinia and Bassianus brought them to the place to tell them nightmarish horrors, and to accuse Tamora of adultery. Tamora tells her sons to take revenge against Lavinia and Bassianus. Demetrius and Chiron stab Bassianus and plot to drop him in a pit, and Chiron says, “make his dead trunk pillow to our lust,” as though they will rape Lavinia on Bassianus’s body. Tamora tells her sons that when they’re done raping Lavinia that they should kill her. Lavinia declares that Tamora raised her sons to be evil, “The milk thou suck’dst from her did turn to marble; Even at thy teat thou hadst thy tyranny.” Tamora responds to her sons, “away with her, and use her as you will, The worse to her, the better loved of me,” showing that she will enjoy Lavinia’s suffering from being raped. Lavinia says it is better to die than to be raped, hoping Tamora will have her killed instead of raped. Demetrius throws Bassianus’s body in a pit. Demetrius and Chiron drag Lavinia off to rape her, cut out her throat, chop off her hands, mock her for being maimed, and stick tree branches in the bloody stumps of Lavinia’s arms and leave her bleeding; without tongue nor hands Lavinia cannot identify her rapists when she is found. Aaron guides Lavinia’s brothers Martius and Quintus to the pit where Bassianus’s corpse lies, and Martius and Quintus fall into the pit where they are framed for Bassianus’s murder by Aaron and Tamora. Saturninus orders Martius and Quintus imprisoned until they are to be executed as Titus pleads for their lives. Tamora lies to Titus that she “will entreat the king” for mercy for his sons.

That’s only about forty percent of Titus Andronicus and the rest is similarly violent, vivid and brutal. Such vividly brutal fictions in Acts Three, Four and Five include treason by Titus for raising an army against Saturninus, unintended cannibalism when Titus kills Demetrius and Chiron and feeds them to the royal family, and the torturous death of Aaron.

After considering how much more violent, vivid and brutal Titus Andronicus is than either of Cho’s plays, it’s worth mentioning that Shakespeare never killed anyone; Shakespeare only wrote fiction about violence. Cho was angry, but anger does not cause violence. Anger is an emotion; violence is a choice. No amount of anger will cause someone to be violent; a person must choose to be violent.

Stephen King is an author who—like Shakespeare—is not violent but who knows a great deal about writing fiction about violence and vivid, brutal images. In his article On Predicting Violence King writes “certainly in this sensitized day and age, my own college writing… would have raised red flags…” King discusses a student of his “who raised flags in my own mind” who wrote stories about “flaying women alive, dismemberment” and revenge. King describes this student as “quiet” and thought to himself “’if some kid is ever gonna blow, it’ll be this one.’ He never did.”
Excerpts from an NPR Talk of the Nation interview of psychologists J. Reid Meloy and Frank Ochberg about mass murderers seems even more instructive about the type of person who is a mass murderer, and how such a person must choose to act violently, not merely have violent fantasies.

Host Ira Flatow asked a question in his intro about a person “who could do such a thing? Was it someone who just snapped?” (author’s note: Flatow may not believe that a killer simply snaps, but he may have been asking the question about whether Cho “just snapped” because one popular perception of a mass murderer—or any sudden murderer—is that the person “just snapped” when this never actually happens. It is this matter of choice to act violently which distinguishes a violent criminal from someone who has only a literary, verbal or mental fantasy about violence. )
Meloy said that because only 64 mass murderers could be studied in his research on mass murderers the sample size is so small there is little capacity to predict who will be a mass murderer.

Among other things Meloy mentioned is that mass murderers have violent fantasies (author’s note: no one seems to be worried about revenge fantasies by Calli Khouri [who wrote Thelma and Louise] nor Donald Westlake and Brian Helgeland [who wrote Payback]. Khouri, Westlake and Helgeland are probably not potential murderers). “Retrospectively [it’s very] easy to say that… what typically happens… from our research is that the majority of these individuals do engage in what we call ‘leakage.’ That, to third parties they will express either intent or violent fantasies through… statements they’ve made or things that they’ve written that bring the individual to very, very… grave concern among other people that are around them… But, of course, it’s not until after the event itself that there’s recognition among a group of people… that may have been very disparate from one another and may not have communicated that this individual was of great concern to a number of people.” (author’s note: hindsight is 20/20, and we would like to believe that—if there is a mass murderer in proximity—we can look at his writing and predict his intended action and therefore prevent it. Unless such a potential mass murderer makes specific threats, we usually cannot make such predictions.)

Later in the interview Meloy says “one of the misunderstandings[is]… these individuals snapped… There’s no such thing as snapping. That’s not a diagnostic term… These acts are planned, they’re purposeful, they’re carried out over time… These are not impulsive acts, and we see that… displayed graphically in… this… self-created media that this young man [Cho] has done.”
The ability to be safe from violent people is very important, and there are sometimes ways to determine who is most likely to commit a violent act. It cannot be emphasized enough that someone who does make a direct threat, stating the intent to commit violence, must always be taken seriously. We would feel more secure if we knew how to identify people who are about to commit mass murder, but if we allow ourselves to be distracted by people who simply keep to themselves, or only engage in violent fantasies or who are just odd, we do not create a safer society, only a less tolerent one.


i Bazelon, Emily, Loner or Psychopath; How a College Might Detect and Help a Student Who’s Ready to Explode, Slate Magazine, April 19, 2007 available at: http://www.slate.com/id/2164649

ii Santora, Marc and Hauser, Christine, Anger of Killer Was on Exhibit in His Writings, New York Times, April 20, 2007 available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/20/us/20english.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

iii Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone by Cho Seung-Hui are available at: http://newsbloggers.aol.com/2007/04/17/cho-seung-huis-plays

iv Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare is available at: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/titus/index.html

v King, Stephen, On Predicting Violence, [http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0],,20036014,00.html posted April 20, 2007

vi Talk of the Nation interview of J. Reid Meloy and Frank Ochberg was hosted by Ira Flatow and is available at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9716365