In the days since Cho Seung-Hui’s rampage at Virginia Tech, gallons of ink have been spilled trying to figure out how it could have been prevented. I’ve seen articles arguing for more gun control, less gun control, stricter immigration laws, harsher penalties for inappropriate behavior, and more. The only thing these ‘solutions’ have in common is that they treat the symptoms and not the cause.
Of course, there have been plenty of articles written about the cause as well. Depending on the news sources you read, Cho was under the influence of drugs, a diseased mind, a mental illness, rock and roll, and video games. I think the answer is a little broader. Cho was simply under the influence of society. In particular, Cho was under the influence of the Columbine school murderers, whom he called “martyrs.”
Cho was a person trying to send a message. Not only did he kill indiscriminately (a sure-fire way to get mentioned on the news), he mailed a manifesto to NBC and sent a tape in to American Idol. The wording is a little different, but the content is basically the same as that found after Columbine: I was mistreated and an outsider and this is my revenge. But how is it society’s fault that three kids felt pushed to kill?
One of the tenets of Existentialism is that when you perform some action, you implicitly create a moral judgment that it is a good one. It may not be true morally, but it is true socially. Society is formed by people telling each other stories about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed those people at Columbine, they popularized a story about what you should do when you’re ostracized and taunted. They didn’t create it, but the media frenzy gave it power by bringing it to people all over the country. But maybe that’s a little too philosophical. In the real world, how likely is it that people would be influenced by such a self-destructive story?
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell uses a suicide epidemic in Micronesia to investigate why teens in America smoke despite understanding (even overstating!) the risks. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Micronesia went from having a miniscule suicide rate to a per capita suicide rate seven times that of the US. Gladwell describes the victims as “almost always male. He is in his late teens, unmarried, and living at home… The suicide notes tend to express not depression but a kind of wounded pride and self-pity, a protest against mistreatment.” The parallels to the current school shootings are obvious.
David Phillips, a sociologist at UC San Diego, talks about the power these acts have later in the same book. “[The act] gives other people, particularly those vulnerable to suggestion because of immaturity or mental illness, permission to engage in a deviant act as well.” Gladwell gives the example of how the suicide of a rich, popular teen on a Micronesian island over relationship problems became such a shorthand that later suicide notes no longer had to even reference the situation. One said only, “Best wishes to M. and C. [two girlfriends]. It’s been nice to be with both of you.” If suicide can be made into a social pattern, so can murder-suicide.
Following this to its conclusion, I think we’ll see more and more school shootings as that story becomes more and more ingrained in our culture. Enacting any of the ‘solutions’ mentioned earlier will only change some of the details, not the overall plot. To keep this sort of thing from happening again we, as a society, need to create a more compelling story for kids in that position. Unfortunately, that’s no easy task, so expect to see trivial changes made instead.