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Notoriety Beats Anonymity; A 21st-Century Massacre


Notoriety Beats Anonymity; A 21st-Century Massacre

April 20, 2007
Urban PolicyCrime
OtherCulture & Society

What happens when deep resentment meets violent impulses and an overwhelming desire for fame in the same person? One possible outcome, as we have seen only too tragically, is random killing on an otherwise peaceful campus.

But a mystery will forever remain about an event such as the Virginia Tech massacre, for whatever factors, sociological or psychological, seem to explain Cho Seung Hui’s conduct will be found to exist in many other people who have never opened fire on anyone. In the final analysis, all human behaviour is inexplicable.

The three poisonous elements of Cho’s psychological make-up, as far as we can tell, are all very common, and therefore their combination is very common. This is not altogether a reassuring thought: and in my clinical career I have met a number of young men -always young men, but perhaps women will soon catch up -who were not unlike Cho, and who I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn had gone on a killing spree.

Let us take those three elements in turn.

The first is resentment. This is an emotion with which we are all familiar and whose sour pleasures have comforted us all at some time or other in our lives.

Resentment is an emotion that you can carry with you throughout your life, and though it is completely useless practically, it will never let you down.

Cho, it seems, was eaten up by resentment. He wrote forcefully, if not eloquently, of the harms that he thought other people, particularly those who surrounded him, had done him. Like everyone else, he would have experienced the minor humiliations of daily life, but he would have interpreted them in a peculiarly catastrophic way. For example, an instance of disdain on the part of a shop assistant or a fellow student would have been a confirmation of the ill treatment that he thought he had always suffered, and which explained his own failures. To adapt Shakespeare slightly: “Trifles light as air are to the resentful confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ.”

But why was Cho so resentful? No doubt there were personal, even genetic reasons.

Although a legal resident of the US, he was not a citizen; and, of course, he was Korean, and therefore doubly an outsider. His parents owned a dry-cleaning business, a perfectly honourable thing to do, but they were quite likely at times to receive insults from their customers. If Cho had witnessed this, it might have sensitised him to slights that others would not have noticed.

In addition, our public life is very propitious to the development of resentment in large numbers of people. As a consequence of our culture of complaint, almost everyone feels himself to be a member of a victim group. (As a British doctor, I have even felt this myself, so consistently antimedical profession have successive British governments appeared to me and to all other British doctors.) For a long time now, even in America, the land of opportunity, all inequalities of outcome between groups have been treated by intellectuals as a sign of the inherent injustice of society. If group A does less well, on the whole, than group B, the explanation must be that group A is unfairly treated, if not by group B then by society or the government as a whole. It is obvious that this way of thinking is highly conducive to a resentful frame of mind. Cho must have met many people, even if he was not entirely surrounded by them, who would have easier paths through life than his own. It appeared to him that they unjustly and capriciously enjoyed the fruits of labour not their own. They drove cars he could not afford, for example, and the fact that they took their good fortune for granted (as young people always do) would have infuriated him.

Although resentment is a useless, indeed harmful, emotion because it gets in the way of personal efforts to achieve, it has certain undoubted compensations. It allows the resentful person to explain his own comparative failure as being caused by the machinations of others: had it not been for them, he would have been a smashing, even unprecedented success. It is far less distressing to be a failure as a result of injustice than to be a failure because you are no good at anything.

Furthermore, resentment allows you to take a morally superior stance to the rest of the world. Your merits have not been recognised; therefore those who succeed are corrupt, people who have taken advantage of their privileges to get ahead. In killing a few of them -though probably not enough in his own estimation -Cho thought that he was carrying out an act of social justice. His victims got what he thought they deserved.

Cho was undoubtedly obsessed with violence and, like the perpetrators of the massacre at Columbine, had watched a very violent film just before his killing spree.

In fact he had watched it obsessively for some considerable time before he entered the history books. But the question arises as to whether he watched the film because he was already attracted to violence, or whether he was attracted to violence because he had watched the film. It is not enough that event A should have preceded event B for it to have caused event B. The evidence concerning the development of violent impulses in those who watch a lot of violence on television is equivocal and inconclusive, but it appears that those children who watch a great deal of violence in their childhood are more inclined to behave violently as adults.

This explains why, in regions and countries where television was introduced much later than elsewhere, an increase of violence became apparent not immediately but a decade later, when the first children to be exposed to TV violence from an early age had grown to the age of indiscretion. Non-violent adults exposed to violence on the screen do not become violent as a result.

It seems to me quite likely that Cho watched a lot of television when he was young: his parents might have been so busy establishing themselves in their new country that they used the screen as a pacifier that in the end inflamed rather than pacified.

Finally, there was the desire for fame. This is more common among the young than ever before. To be famous is believed to be the only way of achieving significance or success in life, and in a meritocratic society everything that is not success is failure. A life of useful toil in a humble capacity is no longer thought of as honourable: it is merely stupid and displays a willingness to be exploited.

Even in the most meritocratic society, however, not everyone can be above average (although this point seems sometimes to have escaped our very own government).

There can be no success without failure, just as there can be no happiness without unhappiness.

In a world in which fame and success are so ardently desired, and in which all else is miserable failure, there will be many people whose reach exceeds their grasp. I’ve known quite a number of such people in my time, above average in intelligence and talent, but not so far above average that they succeed by the light of natural brilliance. Unfortunately, ambition is by no means proportional to ability, and the gap between the two is felt as a deep wound.

What is left for these unfortunate souls with a ravening ambition but without the means to bring it to fruition? Large numbers of them turn into office schemers, betraying their fellows, stabbing their friends (metaphorically) in the back, and generally employing the dark arts of manipulation to climb higher than their natural talents would allow. I have known a smaller number of them turn to the bad, since it is so much easier to be exceptionally bad than to be exceptionally good. Richard the III decided, since he could not play the lover, to play the villain. I’ve known prisoners, for example, who have decided that they were going to be the worst, most ungovernable person in the prison. Notoriety seemed to their egos infinitely preferable to mere anonymity.

Almost certainly Cho decided that he was going to commit the worst civilian massacre in American history. To have killed a mere handful, say three or four, would not have sufficed: it would have made only the local papers. That is why he contacted the national media before his spree: he wanted desperately to be someone.

But I repeat: in the final analysis Cho must remain an enigma, just as we are all enigmas even to ourselves.


The following are excerpts from the video that Cho Seung Hui sent to NBC News:

“I may be nothing but a piece of f***ing s**t but you have vandalised my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience.... You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenceless people.”

“Do you know what it feels like to be spit on your face and have trash shoved down your throat? Do you know what it feels like to dig your own grave? Do you know what it feels like to have your throat slashed from ear to ear? Do you know what it feels like to be torched alive? Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon a cross and left to bleed to death for your amusement?”

“You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac wasn’t enough.

All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfil your hedonistic needs.”

“You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”

“Jesus loved crucifying me. He loved inducing cancer in my head, terrorizing my heart and ripping my soul all this time. When the time came, I did it. I had to.”


Cho Seung Hui needed only two hours and a knowledge of basic digital technology to create the multi-media portfolio that is being broadcast around the world. The photograph of a shaven-head Cho pressing a handgun to his skull has already become an enduring image of Monday’s killings.

The tech-savvy English major recorded his murderous intentions on a simple digital camera, possibly the one that police found in his rooms after the shootings. He probably used this camera to take both the film and stills. The first mass-murderer to strike at the heart of the Facebook generation then used his computer to draft a 1,800-word manifesto, which was saved into a PDF file. He saved all this digital information -in what format is not yet known -but then chose to send it physically, by “snail mail”, to the NBC News centre in New York.