Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Predicting Extreme Fatal Violence

Virginia Tech Under Review

Officials knew it was imperative to undertake a study to determine if future such incidents could be assessed for threat and prevented. An eight-member panel released its report on the Cho incident August 30, 2007. The first level of evaluation related to the shooter, the second to the institution's response. Both parts pinpoint communication flaws as the heart of the problem.

Cho Seung-Hui
Cho Seung-Hui

Cho's fantasies and behaviors signaled to even the untrained eye that he was likely to attempt some type of violence. He was enamored of the Columbine incident; he was a loner who expressed extreme anger; he expressed his outrage in violence stories; and he was emotionally unstable. He thought others should be punished for just being who they are. Diane Strickland, a panel member, interviewed forty-four people, including Cho's closest relatives, faculty who knew him, and acquaintances. She also read his tormented writings. Yet still she concluded, "I don't feel that I know him."

Also analyzing the situation was Roger DePue, a former FBI profiler, who wrote about what may have motivated Cho, based on what is known about other mass killers. Such people "act out of a distorted sense of unfairness and disappointment stemming from their own actual inadequacies and unsatisfied needs for attention, adulation, power and control."

Cho experienced plenty of weakness during his sickly childhood — often humiliating for a boy - and he failed to grow emotionally—strikingly similar to Kip Kinkel, a school shooter in Oregon. Other kids shunned him, which only contributed to his feeling of failure. Those pursuits in which he did well failed to satisfy him. He developed anger but no means to absorb or dispel it. Thus, he became catathymic. Other people paid little attention to him and thwarted him by rejecting his writing and his ideas. It's likely that there was an undiagnosed mental illness.

Even if we figured Cho out and knew exactly what triggered him and what we could have done to prevent the tragedy in this case, the next one up to bat who really wants to carry out his or her plan is likely to find a way around the safeguards to achieve his goal. Once such people envision what they want to do, they are unlikely to be stopped by inconvenience alone.

Risk assessment is tricky business, and even experienced professionals who make such assessments every day have no formula. It's easy to miss the significance of some crucial factor. Professionals who undertake it need statistical databases not clinical guesswork. No psychologist can afford to neglect this area of expertise, because in so many contexts, thanks to a case in California, the burden generally falls on them.

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