Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people and then himself on Monday at Virginia Tech. He was a victim of mental illness that didn't get treated. He was an example of one of the instances where someone who shouldn't be able to purchase guns was able to. In fact, he fell through the educational system, the mental health system and the governmental system. There were enough warning signs to get him help before the tragedy but noone took on the responsibility of taking care of him. And so he spiralled deeper into his psychosis and became a danger to himself and others.
How responsible is society to the mentally ill that are violent? Many people are inclined to call Cho Seung-Hui a monster and take no responsibility but I don't believe he was a monster. He was a deeply disturbed young man nearly completely out of touch with reality. I and many other mentally ill people have been so fortunate that we haven't become violent as a result of our illness but anyone who has ever been lost in psychosis knows that there was always the possibility of hurting oneself and/or others. It could have gotten that bad. There's a saying, "There but for fortune go you or I." Cho Seung-Hui was a human being, he was one of us, and he was ill. He had a mother and a father, maybe siblings and over the years he had some friends. He felt sadness, fear, anger and joy just like any of us.
What went wrong with him? Barbara Oakley, an Op Ed Contributer at the New York Times wrote: "We may not know precisely what set Mr. Cho off, but we are beginning to home in on the unusual differences in certain neurochemistries that can make people act in bizarre and dysfunctional ways." (4/19/07) Ms Oakley is probably right, Cho Seung-Hui may have had some chemical imbalance, a physical problem that created a psychological problem. This chemical imbalance could have been due to a genetic flaw. I believe his illness was so acute that he no longer became responsible for his actions. What should have been done with him before he got to this crisis point? He should have been committed, given medicine and therapy and guided back to a healthy reality. Many people are fortunate enough to survive their psychosis either in a hospital or outside of one with the aid of medicine, therapy and support groups without causing harm to themselves or others. But there are those who are not so fortunate, those who, like Cho Seung-Hui are timebombs ready to explode.
The deeper issue is what to do about the acceptability of violence in society. In the U.S. the police carry guns and as it instructs in the Constitution many people believe in the "right to bear arms" and own guns. By owning and carrying guns our society is saying that violence, under some circumstances, is okay. It also says that war is okay. But is it? Is it okay to tolerate killing? Shouldn't we be teaching that violence as an attempt to solve problems is no longer acceptable in any way? The children do not know this, they are not taught this. They are taught that the existence of "bad guys" means that there must be a hero and he must be tough. These heroes show that they are tough, yes and clever, but not smart. Smart is changing the "bad guys" into "good guys". Smart is seeing the bad guys as sick and in need of help rather than more violence.
Somewhere along the line Cho Seung-Hui was taught that violence was okay, that violence was the solution to an intolerable situation. Perhaps he played video games when he was younger, or watched action adventure films or just listened to the news. He knew when he bought the guns that violence was okay because he got easy access to them. Isn't this our problem, a problem of attitude? I have a button that I used to look at when I was struggling to stay in touch with reality. It says "Attitude Is Everything" And it is. If you hold onto negative, paranoid and violent attitudes about life, that's what you get. More negativity, more violence. More people who suffer from mental illness. But if you keep your attitude on the positive and non violent, that's what you draw into you.
The crime an punishment mentality doesn't work. When you call someone a criminal and lock them up and restrict their lives, most don't learn to change their attitude towards the positive. No, they just refine more of the negative, they learn to be tougher, they learn to be better criminals. Perhaps they even see themselves as dark heroes of a sub culture. But they are not, they are sick and lost and no one wants to deal with them properly. There's violence in prison and violence outside of prison. So why are we surprised by the violence that sprouts up all over the country? We allow the guns and the guns get used. Cho's delusional and paranoid and ultimately violent psychosis was not as out of place as we would have it. It was fed by the culture he lived in, our culture. We have to take our share of the responsibility.
A Recovery Blog
This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.