Predicting Extreme Fatal Violence
Under the Radar
In the aftermath of the massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, there were accusations thrown at the administration for its tardy alert that a shooter was on the grounds, and soon the comments became more pointed: critics averred that officials should have known that Cho Seung-Hui was ready to explode. His problems and his risk to others, they maintained, had been visible.
Cho shot two people at a dorm at 7:15 a.m., mailed off a video recording full of paranoid clips to the NBC network, and then proceeded to enter another building and kill thirty more students before taking his own life. He was a senior English major with a litany of grievances that enraged him. By all indications, he'd been angry for years and had patiently planned his mass execution.
Cho had worked out in the preceding weeks, had purchased handguns — even waiting the required thirty-day period. He intended to carry out a grandiose gesture of violence, similar to the Columbine massacre (and only days from its anniversary) but stamped with his particular signature. He aimed to be remembered for a long time, everywhere, for the "punishment" he exacted. An otherwise quiet and sullen non-entity, Cho had a fantasy of being "someone" and a clear agenda in his own mind to achieve it. He aspired to kill the greatest number of people to make history.
People had seen his problems long before the fatal incident. In 2005, Cho was removed from a classroom because students feared him. A teacher had perceived that his profanity-ridden plays bespoke a potentially dangerous mind. He was temporarily institutionalized as a danger to himself, and had allegedly cyber-stalked a couple of girls. Even officials at his high school were aware of his behavioral problems. A sustained intervention and system of tracking him might have made a difference, and such programs are possible because statistical analysis of past such incidents have given us a solid set of danger signals. It's no so much about divining motive as about collecting behavioral signals that alert professionals in threat assessment to advise careful handling.