On April 16th, 2007, the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute was gripped with terror as a shooting spree commenced that spanned over several hours in two separate attacks. In the end, 32 people were dead, 17 were wounded, and the killer had committed suicide.
Seung-Hui Cho was born on Janury 18th, 1984 in South Korea and emigrated with his family to the United States when he was only 8-years-old. The family first moved to Detroit and then to Virginia, once they realized that the state had a large ex-patriate Korean population. Though his parents and sister seemed to do well, Seung-Hui’s development wasn’t so smooth. Relatives describe him as “selectively mute” from a very young age – not speaking much at all (though clearly capable of doing so and understanding what was said to him). Additionally, it was said that he “threw tantrums” every time he came home from school, stating that he didn’t ever want to go back. When Seung-Hui made comments to classmates about “repeating Columbine” in 1999, the school finally notified his parents.
Shortly afterward, Seung-Hui was sent to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication and formally diagnosed Social Anxiety and Selective Mutism. Cho was then put into special education classes (for “emotional disturbance”) and speech therapy to address his bizarre talking patterns and refusal to answer in class. It was suspected by many, including the pastor at the Cho’s church, that he was autistic; however, multiple reviews have determined that this was not the case.
[NOTE: Less than 1/5 of children with autism have anything even approaching an average IQ. Most are far below average, which used to be a salient marker of the diagnosis. This changed in the 1990’s when the over-diagnosis of autism began and people began viewing it as a “spectrum.” Thus, Cho’s demonstrated verbal ability (in videos) and school ability would necessarily rule him out of an autism diagnosis.]
Despite his significant troubles, Cho graduated high school and enrolled in Virginia Polytechnic University. He began his studies there as a business information technology major, but had switched his major to English by his senior year. He lived in suite 2121 of Harper Hall dormitory with five roommates.
Yet, in his classes, Cho demonstrated many of the same troubles that plagued him in his youth (mutism, oddness); and Professor Nikki Giovanni threatened to resign if Cho wasn’t removed from her poetry class in 2005 for his “menacing behaviors.” Apparently the content of his writing was graphic and violent, and he was caught taking pictures of female classmates’ legs underneath the desks. This was reported to Giovanni’s immediate supervisor, to the Dean, and to school security officials. However, action wasn’t taken because there were no “overt threats.”
In terms of his social life, Cho was raising the antennae of the students he lived with and around as well. He shared a dorm room with Andy Koch and John Eide who both noted that Cho’s actions were increasingly weird and concerning. Cho made many harassing calls to Koch (including over Thanksgiving break), and had introduced himself to girls as Koch’s brother, “Question Mark.”
Then, there were the stalking incidents…
Over several months at the end of 2005, Cho began AOL instant messaging girls that he came into contact with briefly to the point that it scared them. The first contacted campus police after Cho had remarked that he saw “promiscuity in [her] eyes.” To the second young woman, he quoted Romeo and Juliet: “Juliet, a name, I know not how to tell who I am. My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself, because it is an enemy to thee. Had I it written, I would tear the word.” After Koch heard about it, he contacted the girl and urged her to tell the police because he feared that Cho was “schizophrenic.”
The police went to speak to Cho about the incidents, and also about Koch’s fear that Cho might be suicidal.
A court-ordered psychiatric evaluation followed and Cho was found to be “an imminent danger to himself and others” due to a mental illness. Inexplicably, however, a judge ordered that Cho be treated on an outpatient basis.
This meant that, under Virginia law, Cho could still purchase handguns (only those receiving involuntary inpatient treatment cannot).
Cho bought a Glock 19 and a Walther P22, as well as hollow-point ammunition for both. Since he didn’t disclose his mental health history on the questionnaires and had never been arrested/convicted of any crime, he easily passed both background checks.
The shooting spree began in West Ambler-Johnson Hall, where Cho’s student mailbox was. While there he shot three people. He then returned to his residence hall (Harper), changed out of his bloody clothes and picked up a package for NBC news and walked it over to the post office where he mailed it. He then walked over to Norris Hall and murdered the professor and 9 of 13 students in an advanced hydrology class. He calmly crossed he hallway afterward and proceeded to kill another teacher and 4 out of 10 more students. This style of attack continued through multiple classrooms until, eventually, Cho turned the gun on himself.
He had killed 27 students and 5 faculty. 28 of the victims were shot in the head.
What makes Cho’s case so fascinating – and ultimately tragic – is that he displayed the markers of a school shooter so prominently. He was insular, with few (if any) real friends. Professors and other students made multiple reports about him that went largely unheeded. He escalated over time. And, he wrote extensively about violence in his classroom assignments and in his personal writings. In fact, the U.S. Secret Service did a study citing that “[t]he largest group of [school shooters] exhibited an interest in violence in their own writings, such as poems, essays or journal entries,” while school shooters’ interest in other violent media was generally low.” In other words, violence being depicted elsewhere isn’t sufficient to school shooters. They feel the need to create their own depictions… and then carry them out.
Both Cho and the Columbine killers (Klebold and Harris) created dramatic representations that presaged the carnage that was to come: Klebold and Harris in the form of a student film, and Cho in the form of written plays. Had anyone in authority truly been paying attention, I wonder if the outcome might have been different for everyone involved.
Then again, freedom of speech is a right that is prized in America, and creative expression is often the outlet that artists use to heal, and to connect with others. Maybe with Cho, he just couldn’t be clear enough for others to decipher his heart.
Perhaps Cho’s quotation choice was right on target all along:
“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder
Which, as they kiss, consume”
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet