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Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Of all the categories of murder, the lonely gunman rampage is probably the least preventable. Serial killers leave physical evidence at each of their crimes. Science, psychology, police, media and societal attention often leads to eventual capture, notwithstanding the notable anecdotal exceptions like “Jack The Ripper” and “The Zodiac,” both of whom probably stopped because of a combination of the narrowing search, their incarceration or death due to other crimes or mental illness.

But the sudden rampage killer is different. His explosion of violence comes from a place so deep in his psyche that before he strikes he seems not much different from many others in our society who are merely odd.

After the fact, his descriptors include words like loner, depressed, angry, outsider, sullen, friendless. He is often intelligent, shy, troubled. Almost invariably male, often spurned by an imagined lover, with low self-esteem, alienated from family. He is fascinated by weapons and violence, animal cruelty, and is seen to be wierd and creepy.

Whether the cause is a defect in nature or nurture, whether hormonal, chemical or genetic; whether blame can be laid on childhood abuse, lack of compassion, family, adult, societal, or peer group pressures; the truth is that his profile fits many who never act out so outrageously.

What may be the most interesting facet of Cho is that he was a functioning writer and poet. He finished a play, attended a college creative writing class. That his professor spotted in his writing and behavior a strangeness that was alarming to her and others in her class is not surprising. She desperately urged him to seek psychiatric help and urged her superiors to address his problems.

It appears that his wierdness in appearance and behavior was evident to many and he was subjected to intermittent instiutional attention for the obvious symptoms of "dangerous" mental illness.

It is tempting to cite these facts as evidence that the actions were foreseeable and therefore preventable and therefore to place blame on our system for the event. Our need to have faith that we can control our fates impels us to find causes, place blame, name a fall guy or a deficient policy. Institutional failure - government, education, family, society, values - something caused it, something that can be analyzed, tweaked, corrected.

But that is not necessarily the case.

Back in my PD days, a nut case who called himself The Alphabet Bomber was being tried. He had put a bomb in the LAX airport terminal that exploded the day after I flew out of there to go to Tokyo. He then bombed a bus terminal in a similar way. Two of my friends eventually were assigned to defend him and over the next few years his case clanked around the courts, trying to decide if he was “incompetent” and / or “insane” or was merely evil and clever, feigning craziness to "get away with murder."

One day I dropped into the court and watched the defendant on the witness stand trying to explain his actions. He had worked as a draftsman, and co-workers believed he was a mute because he never spoke a word for a year or more. in his spare time, he had assigned every letter in The Bible a number, and with mathematical logic had eventually concluded that he was The Massiah. Somehow he had also worked out that he had to set off bombs in certain places.

I watched him testify with the aid of a blackboard scrawled with names and superscribed numbers, computations. He was trying to prove that the judge and D.A. were conspirators of the devil. I restrained a laugh as the skeptical judge and D.A. tried to disprove the defendant’s theory by pointing to mathematical errors. I thought that was funny and looked to the spectator sitting next to me to see his reaction. He was busy copying the defendant’s writings into a notebook, faithfully recording every letter and number.

I saw then that I was in Wonderland and quickly escaped. It seemed that if this nutty scary murderer was a click less nutty and scary on the scale, he might have founded a new religion or at least written a book that would have established a cult. He was just the wrong side of Rasputin or Joseph Smith or maybe even Jesus. Charles Manson was in that sort of family tree. Jim Jones and David Koresh are out on another limb.

Madness is at the end of a continuum, a scale which includes not too far away eccentrics, ascetics, iconoclasts, independent imaginative artists, the Marquis de Sade, Van Gogh, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, Poe and others whose imagination and perceptions of “reality” differed ninety degrees from the “norm.”

For every Cho there are thousands of his like who never commit the violence they fantasize. Why he did and others don’t is a mystery that may not be explainable.

In criminal cases, shrinks have sometimes claimed to be able to predict propensities for violence and have been called upon to do so. In death penalty cases, prosecutors have called “experts” to proclaim that the defendant should be executed because he is likely to kill again. In mental health cases, “experts” have measured the risk of release of inmates with mental illness or mere “sociopaths.”

Studies have been done over time which have shown conclusively that these opinions are as reliable as coin tosses. The elements distinguishing violent actors from violent thinkers are so ephemeral and unpredictable that forecasts are useless. In fact, erring on the side of caution results in involuntary incarceration of many more innocent people who would never act violently toward others than is warranted by the actual risk.

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