The RP History Month Reflections: How Could This Happen?

(Update, 6pm: I encourage readers to continue through the comments, to see the conversation unfolding here.)

The first day after the VA Tech massacre begins with a preliminary shooter identification: Cho Seung-Hui, a South Korean resident who emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 and was a senior at the university.  He grew up in Centerville, VA, and was an English major.

Still not enough information for you to understand how he could have committed such a brutal act?  Join the club.  In our typical differing responses to yesterday’s tragedy, I was in cynical shock and musing aloud on lost jobs, failed executive decisions and the spell-binding power of the internet to disseminate information, while the M.A.S. sadly wondered aloud, how could someone do this?  According to rock star Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, commonalities across the multiple school shootings she studied for her 2005 book were:

– a self-perception of being a “loser” that often included the presence of depression or other forms of mental illness in the shooters;

– the tendency for information loss in schools that led to these students failing to be identified as likely candidates for such acts of horror;

– the tight-knit nature of the rural communities where the majority of shootings (60%) have occurred in the last thirty years.

I want to talk about the first two; I don’t know enough about the places where this kid grew up – neither Centerville nor VA Tech/Blacksburg – to postulate on the “environmental” determinants of yesterday’s events. 

Newman was on NPR’s On Point this morning, effortfully trying to dispel our conventional wisdom about how tragedies like this happen and just who are these shooters.  She emphasized that one characteristic they often found in these boys was signs of depression or other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. She talked about how this can include kids hearing voices in their heads, and acknowledged how difficult it is to diagnose mental illness in children (illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia typically show up in late adolescence/early adulthood; thus as a society we are not well equipped to detect these diseases at younger ages).  Lest we overstate any link between mental illness and school shootings, her book Rampage provides some more general and digestable societal insight into adolescents’ lives, especially those of teenage boys.

Using 200+ interviews with communities where shootings had occurred, as well as past research drawn from sociology and psychology, Newman points to the emphasis on status in teen culture – reinforced by adults – that organizes kids by both factors beyond their control – namely, their parents’ affluence – and superficial factors nominally in their control but that are of less value in their maturation towards adulthood – namely, looks, material consumption and athleticism.  Accordingly, kids with affluent parents who possess greater resources to a) enhance their looks and athletic talent and b) buy a lot of sh*t, sit atop the adolescent food chain, whether they are liked or not.  Furthermore, she accounts for how gender is enacted in society and teen hierarchies by pointing to “loser” boys failing to fulfill society’s idea of the “powerful male.”  I am sure many of you are ready to dismiss all this academic mumbo-jumbo in these urgent moments right now, but I also know any of you who were too smart, not conventionally attractive, gay, overweight, non-white, foreign-born, wore glasses, had braces, or experienced any other potentially devastating ascription growing up know Newman is merely shedding light on something we can all recognize, even if we want to discount it here and now. 

To Newman, these boys who shoot up their schools are enraged and  “trying to send a message about how they want to be seen,” and often choose their schools because of its centrality in their and their communities’ lives.  A center stage, if you will, on which they can rewrite what they consider to be their peers’ perceptions of them. Rumors abound that the shooter was looking for his girlfriend yesterday; as we can all painfully remember, Newman reminds us how issues like competition for friends’ or romantic affection can take on a distorted, paramount importance in teenagers’ lives.

Given the extraordinary atrocity of school schootings, how come why can’t we pick the potential shooters out of the theoretical line-up in advance?  To address this question, Newman urges us to back off individuals (e.g., VA Tech President Charles Steger) and look instead at breakdowns in “the system,” namely, how schools are organized.  She uses the notion of “organizational deviance” to explain the unanticipated, undesired outcomes of routine bureaucracies such as a school system, one of which is a “loss of information” in the normal communication networks of schools.  Basically, she writes, “information about the shooters’ troubling behavior was in wide circulation but did not end up in the right hands” (80), such that someone or something might be an a position to intervene along their path to destruction.

There’s ample evidence of today’s coverage on MSNBC of the shooter:  A former creative writing instructors saw Seung-Hui as “troubled,” and referred him to university counseling services, but didn’t know what happened after her referral.  Dorm and childhood neighbors described him as a “loner,” someone who kept to himself and didn’t respond to greetings.  I find this particularly striking given his dorm structure was six-person suites, not necessarily private.  The authorities now, in trying to piece together the method to Seung-Hui’s madness, admit they’re having “difficulty finding information about him.” 

In NY, I used to live on 74th Street near Second Avenue, and there was a 24-hour bodega I frequented, especially late night to pick up gatorade.  I always thought that if anything ever happened to me, the detectives on Law & Order would question the bodega guy to see what he knew about me. (Yes, I’m warped like this; I also sometimes wonder if I could hold my yoga poses for a long period of time should it ever be used as a form of torture on me.)  And the guy would know that I usually came in around 230 am, and that I liked Riptide Rush gatorade, and that I was typically alone.  From there the detectives would branch out, and contrary to my blog stats, would find that there are a wealth of people in my life who could help them piece together what the h*ll happened.  What Newman anticipates, and what is unfolding so far, is snippets of info bubbling up that provide a pretty incomplete picture of this kid and how he could have acted as he did.  Reflecting a typical – and understandable - school rule that contributes to this information failure, the professor at VA Tech would not release Seung-Hui’s worrisome writing assignments, citing “privacy laws.”

I imagine some of you find this preliminary methodological analysis of such an atrocious crime unsatisfying; for you, there are screamers aplenty in the media to demand retribution, more guns not less, and punitive security measures for our nation’s campuses and elsewhere.  But this is how I deal with the tragic, chaotic and emotional in our world.  If I can’t make sense of it somehow, I can’t cope.  My tears will turn up at moments unexpected, especially after I’ve parsed this event to death in search of rational explanations.  Blogging about this is part of the process.  When tragedies like this occur, I think we’re just all looking to make sense of it, and find solace in others in our confusion and loss.  Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts here and elsewhere on the disaster that has befallen VA Tech and our nation. 


2 Responses to “The RP History Month Reflections: How Could This Happen?”

  1. April 17, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    I think the analysis is dead-on, and I think, actually, as a society we know this already; the problem is we don’t know what to do with knowing, which makes future prevention challenging (and, really, sets in motion future incidents). From my education – especially from my Mom, who’s been focused on mental health for much of her career – the deeper problem in America is that we don’t know how to address mental illness. I’d point out that Cho Seung-Hui, even just based on what we know so far, seems clearly to have been mentally ill, to have shown significant warning signs, and – as you point out – falls into the age group where onset of mental illness is expected. Indeed, many of these school shootings fall well within the expected age of onset for mental illness, not earlier. Newman’s right that there’s likely a systemic failure here. But some of those failures – lack of counseling services and poor referral procedures, lack of follow-up – are things that are endemic in colleges and universities across the country. And again, we know that this is the age when mental illness is likely to occur.

    What also leaps out at me is that VA Tech is one of those huge, impersonal campuses where it’s easy to get lost, and I think an atmosphere like that would be disastrous for the young man we’re starting to see come into focus. We can make services available and come up with better structures – but I wonder, really, how much we can realistically expect at some of these big schools.

    Finally, I’d welcome the change if this opened up a larger discussion about mental illness in this country – it’s a key part of overall healthcare reform that gets dismissed or ignored far too often. But I suspect he body count and the overall tragedy will trump attempts to try and understand what motivated this sad, troubled young man to such extreme violence. We can’t improve comprehension if the immediate response is renewing our discussion of guns, good and bad. Adding more guns to this situation wouldn’t have fixed it, and taking guns away wouldn’t either. Dealing with a sick boy before his problems got out of hand might have. I’m not sure we’re ready to face up to that.

  2. April 17, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    I absolutely agree with you re: mental illness being one of those major social problems continuously swept under the rug. I’ve learned similarly from my mental health practitioner-mom about its prevalence, means to address it, the high touch systemic approaches needed, etc. I think one of Newman’s points that I didn’t take on, that might have made this more revealing, is that while these kids are isolated loners in that they exist in their own troubled heads, often times the worlds in which they orbit are not isolated and anonymous places. She contradicts the assumption that they live in worlds where people aren’t invested in one another (a world you have difficulty conceiving, given how much trouble you’ve had digesting the ASR social isolation article), and points out that nonetheless, at the local school level, kids still get lost. As you point out, this outcome could be easily expected at a place like VA Tech (imagine a dorm with 895 students!!!). In places like this, we need to break students down into smaller and smaller populations to manage their needs, and that gets expensive and ever more difficult to coordinate, and we’re back at Newman’s organizational deviance problem.

    I think I am particularly gripped by this event given its extraordinary, unprecedented nature (considering my resume of late is 9/11 and Katrina work!) that exposes so deeply some of our enduring social problems that they become obscured in our processing of what’s happened (more plainly, what you said – we all get that troubled kids are central here, but we’re going to respond by talking about guns).

    I am also really shaken by what’s happened, not least because I’m on my second large, urban campus, but because universities can alternatively be the best place you’ve ever been (we’ll be prying my cousin Jane’s fingers off the fence surrounding BC in about a month), or totally overwhelming, anonymous pressure cookers in which kids just get totally lost (high-profile suicides at NYU, BU, and MIT being cases in point). Given that the typical onset of mental illness occurs at college age, and that universities have moved away from an “in loco parentis” model in favor of (relatively) dispassionate institutions for first-time adults, it seems we’ve got a critical dilemma on our hands of how to care for all kids and not miss the outliers that have the potential to wreak the most havoc.

    I think the university’s decision to not rapidly publicize the “domestic dispute” they considered the first shooting to be illustrates this quandary well. First of all, it sounds so ludicrous to all of us in hindsight that they didn’t alert the campus-wide community of a freakin’ shooting in one of the dorms. But if they see VA Tech as a collection of loosely assembled groups and institutions more akin to what might comprise a small town, then it’s more plausible that they might decide that a “contained” “domestic” altercation was enough for the local police blotter and not a “breaking news” report on the local media.

    Of course, it always seems ludicrous to me that MIT or Harvard take the length of time they do to report muggings, assaults, etc. on the streets surrounding the campuses, and equally absurd that they try to assure us that it occurred between an “isolated” group like the homeless down the street from a shelter…that just so happens to be located next door to an MIT dorm. I understand there needs to be a balance between information as power for campus members versus fomenting hysteria, but often it seems their communication decisions are more to facilitate their own management of events versus helping campus members make decisions about their own safety.

    Thanks for provoking my thoughts on this further.

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