Start Locking Up the Wierdos

by Sean Hackbarth

There’s already talk about what could have been done to stop Cho Seung-Hui from killing 32 people. Should someone have heeded the signs that Seung-Hui was very, very disturbed? Virginia Tech English professor Lucinda Roy pulled him out of a class and taught him one-on-one. She also went to the police with her concerns even though they were based on gut feelings rather than facts:

The former chairwoman of Virginia Tech’s English department, Lucinda Roy, said the anger Cho expressed was palpable if not explicit.

Cho, an English major, never wrote about guns or killing people, she said. But his writing was disturbing enough that she went to police and other university officials to seek help.

“The threats seemed to be underneath the surface,” she said. “They were not explicit, and that was the difficulty the police had.”

“My argument was that he seemed so disturbed that we needed to do something about this.”

Without a clear threat, nothing could be done, however, and Roy made the decision to instruct him away from other students.

“I just felt I was between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “It seemed the only alternative was to send him back to the classroom, and I wouldn’t do it.”

While teaching Cho one-on-one, Roy said she “made it clear that that kind of writing was unacceptable and he needed to write in another voice.”

She also said that she encouraged Cho to go to counseling, and believed that he may have “gotten tired of hearing it” and begun to tell her he had been going when, perhaps, he had not.

I’m a big fan of tacit knowledge, the kind that is hard if not impossible to pass on to others. (It’s the core of Hayek’s reasons for why a centrally-planned economy can’t work.) The interplay of years of experience with students and literature gave Professor Roy a bad feeling. She felt something was wrong with Seung-Hui but couldn’t place it overtly.

In hindsight Professor Roy was right. But should someone having some bad vibes about another person be enough to send the police after them? Roy admits none of Seung-Hui’s writings she read were explicit. Even his weird Richard McBeef play wasn’t violent so much as adolescent angst and rage–and not very impressive coming from a college upperclassman.

Ace goes down a similar path as Professor Roy:

The trouble is that weirdness has a pretty high correlation with badness and dangerousness. If someone has a dysfunction that prevents the normal sort of interaction and empathy with one’s fellow human beings, well, that’s not likely to be a person that’s otherwise well-adjusted. The very fact of his socio-psychological defect probably isolates him, and makes him angry and resentful in his isolation.

That weird kid you knew in third grade who everyone thought was psycho? Well, there’s a pretty fair chance he was a psycho.

If Seung-Hui deserved to have the authorities watch him or even worse lock him up why stop there? There are plenty of people walking the streets, at work, and going to school who are just as bizarre and display similar macabre behavior. If we went by Professor Roy’s judgement Stephen King would have been locked up decades ago. Clive Barker would be in a straight jacket, and who knows how many sedatives they would be injecting into the creators of Saw.

When I was in grade school I was considered weird. Why? I never really knew. I internalized it and began looking at myself as different and apart from others. It wasn’t to any extreme like recent mass murderers; I never wanted to lash out violently. But because others considered me odd Ace and the professor would want me put on a list deserving extra monitoring.

Megan McArdle lets us know following the weirdos wouldn’t do much good anyway:

The point is that even if all mass-murderers did write scary prose, or make sweeping apocalyptic statements, or otherwise give some signal of their impending meltdown, the signal wouldn’t do us any good, because mass murderers are really, really rare. You’ll have a thousand false positives for one false negative. In hindsight, we can always pick out some clue to what was about to happen. That doesn’t mean that we can, or should, see those things beforehand.

When you include bureaucracy’s problems we’d have a horrendous mess at noted by James Joyner:

Do we want every odd teenager turned in to The Powers That Be for certification that he’s not a potential serial killer? Given what we know of bureaucracy, we can rest assured that a whole lot of people would be unnecessarily locked away in order to ensure that false negatives don’t occur. (Which is why it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a terror alert level below Yellow unless the system is scrapped.)

After the Columbine shootings students that wore black and were loners weren’t just considered kids with bad attitudes or anti-social; they became potential psychopaths instilling fear into the simple-minded. Writers with twisted imaginations will be the next suspects. So many worried about an anti-Muslim backlash after the Sep. 11 attacks. Who will defend the oddballs who aren’t bothering anyone?

What I can’t do is accept the insanity argument. John Hawkins puts it like this:

The truth is that these incidents usually have to do with murky associations in the brains of these kooks, their bizarre fantasy life, and a little random chance. Maybe he was failing a class. Maybe his girlfriend told him they were finished. Maybe something happened a month ago that caused him to decide to carry out these attacks this week. It really doesn’t make any difference because it’s something a normal person would just deal with, but to an extremely disturbed person like Cho Seung-Hui who doesn’t process things mentally like a normal person, it may have been the final triggering event that led to a violent rampage that he had obviously thought about quite a bit.

Hawkins doesn’t use this an a logical explanation, but he does claim Seung-Hui’s broken brain made him do it. Seeing your girlfriend in the arms of another man then snapping I can accept as a form of temporary insanity. I can accept someone gunning down people because the voices in his head told him to do it. What Seung-Hui was more calculating. He shot two people in a dorm room. Then two hours later he goes into a college hall, chains the doors, and goes from room to room shooting people. He tried pushing his way past barricaded doors killing a heroic teacher. All the while Seung-Hui was quiet and calm. That’s not bad brain chemistry; that’s cold blooded evil. It’s the kind of evil that would send millions to die in labor camps or make them simply disappear. We won’t find an acceptable explanation for what Seung-Hui did because evil is a concept we can never fully grasp. That’s because ironically it’s too inner-woven in our sinful Human natures yet cosmic in its awfulness.

“Professor: Shooter’s Writing Dripped with Anger”

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