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The Tragedy at Virginia Tech: Cho Seung Hui and the Psychology of School Shooters


Friday, Apr. 20, 2007

On April 17, twenty-three-year-old college senior Cho Seung Hui killed at least thirty students and teachers at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia; fifteen persons are recovering from gunshot wounds.

Law enforcement authorities have not definitively concluded that Cho was also responsible for the earlier shootings of a male and female student in a dormitory, but it seems likely. Assuming that he is, Cho used the two hours between the first and second round of murders to stop at the campus post office and send a package of video clips, photos, and writings to NBC in New York City.

In the end, Cho turned one of his guns on himself. His lifeless body was found among those of some of his victims.

In terms of the death toll, this was by far the most devastating and tragic school shooting in American history. But how does what we know so far about Cho's mental state compare to what we know about the mental states of other school shooters?

Who Was Cho Seung Hui?

Cho was, by all accounts, a seriously disturbed young man, whose odd behavior was known to everyone with whom he had contact.

Cho had immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea with his family when he was eight years old. By all accounts, his parents are hard-working, but uncommonly private members of an large and industrious Korean community outside of Washington, D.C. Living in a row house in a modest part of Fairfax County, Cho's father works a 14-hour day as a presser for a dry-cleaning business, and his mother works in a high school cafeteria. Cho's sister, a graduate of Princeton, is a private contractor for the U.S. State Department. Cho attended a large public high school -- ironically, the same school attended by a boy who two years ago opened fire outside a police substation, killing two law enforcement officers.

At Virginia Tech, poet and English professor Nikki Giovanni kicked Cho out of her poetry class. His poetry had so frightened many students that they didn't come back to class until he was removed. Giovanni herself felt threatened by his presence. Another English teacher ended up teaching Cho one-on-one, a highly unusual academic arrangement. A play he wrote was filled with violence emanating from a pedophilic stepfather and his wife, who beat their child.

In 2005, a female student complained that Cho was stalking her. Judicial intervention, in the way of a temporary detention order for a mental health examination, was pursued. The evaluation revealed that Cho was suicidal; the report excluded the possibility that he was a danger to others. In lieu of commitment to a mental facility, he was referred for outpatient counseling. We do not know whether or not he ever went.

Cho may have been the person who had recently sent bomb threats to Virginia Tech. Among items seized from his dorm room was a bomb threat directed toward the engineering school.

How Did a Disturbed Teenager Become a Mass Killer?

When he entered Virginia Tech, Cho must have seemed like many young people -- depressed, disgruntled, and alienated from the mainstream. He was said to be obsessed with violent video games and music lyrics, but that is not uncommon in today's youth culture. That didn't make him a mass killer. What did?

Cho's reputation in the neighborhood where he grew up and in his high school was that of a loner. At Tech, he continued to be a loner. Students who shared his dorm suite said he rarely spoke; they were afraid to force a conversation for fear they might anger him. They also described him as showing no emotion, a comment echoed in the mental health evaluation. In a television interview this week, the psychologist who conducted the evaluation said Cho was the loneliest person he had ever met.

Thus far, Cho's motivation for striking on the day he did, in the place he did, against the victims he chose, is not clear. Thirty of his victims were in classrooms in the engineering building. It he stormed into German, French, and Engineering classes and opened fire. As the case unfolds, we may find some twisted logic in his choices of location and victims. For now, we have only the chilling words and images from the video he sent NBC. The package included an 1800-word manifesto that railed against rich students as "having everything" but still wanting more. He accused no one in particular of "vandalizing" his heart, "raping" his soul, and "torching" his conscience.

Though Cho bears at least one resemblance to Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber - who, like Cho, wrote a lengthy manifesto -- the nature of the crime places him in the criminological category of mass killers. By definition, mass murderers kill three or more people at a single location at the same time.

Researchers separate mass killers into several subcategories, including disciple murderers, family annihilators, psuedocommandos, disgruntled employees, hit-and-run killers, and school killers. In addition to attacking schools, mass killers have attacked fast-food restaurants and places of employment. Mass killers are almost always white male loners who perceive themselves to have suffered unfair treatment, losses, and rejection.

Cho is older than America's past "school shooters," including teens involved in murders at Columbine High School in Colorado; Red Lake, Minnesota; and numerous other settings across the country. Nevertheless, he fits the FBI profile of middle-and high-school murderers - compiled by a panel of behavioral science and law enforcement experts in the wake of the Columbine shooting, and published by the Department of Justice in January 2004.

Like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- who in 1999 killed 12 fellow students, a teacher, and themselves in a commando-style attack at Columbine High School, and whom Cho idolizes in his manifesto as martyrs -- Cho can be categorized as a pseudocommando school killer. Photos sent to NBC show Cho dressed in commando-type garb--an ammunition vest, skull cap, gloves--pointing a gun at the camera, then to his head; holding a large knife to his throat; and wielding a hammer (an image that some suggest might have been inspired by the 2004 award-winning South Korean movie Oldboy, in which the main character goes on a revenge-seeking violent rampage).

Pseudocommando mass killers typically stockpile weapons and plan their attack to gain attention or make a statement of protest. Harris and Klebold had warned, in writings and in a video, that they would take revenge on those they felt had shunned them. Like Cho, they felt marginalized, alienated from the mainstream. Like Cho, they stockpiled a cache of weapons.

Mass killers yearn for an identity and long to be noticed. In one class, Cho simply wrote a question mark where he was expected to sign his name. The quest for attention ends in a plan for a dramatic crime, in which they too will perish. Lacking control and failing to gain acceptance from others, they methodically plot to exercise the ultimate control over victims who symbolize the source of their pain -- by killing them and blaming them for it.

"You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today," Cho says into the video camera, mocking his victims. "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."

In a final act of narcissism, mass killers deny law enforcement and the public the right to avenge and punish their crimes. They take their own lives or goad police into shooting them (a tactic often referred to as "suicide by cop"). Cho, like Harris and Klebold, referred to his suicide as an act of martyrdom. Cho said, "I did this for my children, for my brothers and sisters."

Tighter Gun Control Laws Are Only Part of the Answer

Though guns were banned on the Virginia Tech campus, Cho had guns and ammunition in his dorm suite, which he shared with five other unknowing students. He purchased them legally, one of them at a pawnshop across the street from the main gate of the university and the other at a gun shop in a nearby town. He filled out the application, showed his immigration papers and driver's license, and paid with a credit card.

President Bush's first comment on the killings--through press spokesperson Dana Perino--affirmed his belief in citizens' right to "bear arms" within the framework of the law. But if obeying the law means purchasing guns legally, Cho did just that.

The laws should be strengthened. The culture and the political climate of Virginia--and most of the rest of the country--make it unlikely that gun access is going to be curtailed. Yet it should be.

More difficult access to handguns and automatic weapons that are not used for legitimate sport would lessen the opportunity for similar tragedies. Other weapons of violence, like knives, do great harm, but a slasher can be thwarted far more easily than a madman spraying the room with gunfire.

Another Part of the Answer: Better Campus Psychological Support

Yet it's important to be realistic: Tougher gun control alone will not prevent similar tragedies on college campuses. What might? Perhaps better campus psychological services.

More than one of Cho's instructors was sensitive to his psychological issues, and raised alarms with the administration. The English teacher who taught him one-on-one (after Giovanni removed him from her class) said that university authorities told her there were too many legal hurdles for the school to force intervention.

Shouldn't there be a way for the university to make counseling a condition of continued attendance when the student is as disturbed as Cho?

Under the law, adults--even children--can't be forced by the government into psychiatric care without their consent, unless they are clearly a danger to themselves and/or others. But universities should be able to condition students' status on their compliance with counseling recommendations.

Admittedly, universities need to be mindful of not discriminating based on a mental health disability, and not labeling someone mentally ill who is not. But Cho's behavior was profoundly disturbing to everyone. Students and teachers were afraid of him. The mental health evaluation's lack of finding a potential in Cho of harm to others only means that no evidence was presented to the judicial authority -- not that none existed. Two female students reportedly said they did not want to proceed against Cho, presumably from fear of retaliation.

Employers, including the federal government, who identify potentially dangerous employees may condition their continued employment on submitting to psychological intervention. If employers can mandate that, it seems reasonable that universities should be able to require students to meet similar conditions or be dismissed.

Alarms went off repeatedly, but the response was inadequate. At other universities - such as, most recently, New York University--the high number of student suicides has revealed flaws in the schools' counseling offerings and options.

Finally, we should remember that Cho Seung Hui was, in his sadness, his sickness, and his depravity, a human being in great psychological pain. Calling him evil is understandable, but not helpful.

What is helpful, however, is to learn more about how a profoundly lonely, depressed, disturbed and intelligent young man became a mass killer and how laws and institutional procedures can be improved to help ameliorate the conditions that set this tragedy in motion.

Elaine Cassel practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia and teaches law and psychology. Her textbook, Criminal Behavior (2nd ed., 2007, Erlbaum), explores crime and violence from a developmental perspective. Her book, The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, was published by Lawrence Hill in 2004.

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