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Breeze perspectives: The mystery of a madman

We should accept abnormalities and become better communicators

He has been called evil, an animal, inhuman, a monster, a loser and even the “face of Satan.” Some forgo metaphors entirely, claiming the reason he shot and killed 32 people was because he was simply a bad person. But realistically, none of the emotional appeals the media have used in the labeling of Cho Seung-Hui, the shooter in the Virginia Tech killings, apply in the rational, 21st-century world that we live in today.

The fact cannot be denied that Cho Seung-Hui was mentally ill. Whether it was informing people about his girlfriend who “lived only in the dimension of his imagination and traveled by space ship,” taking twenty seconds to respond to any questions asked to him, writing psychotically juvenile plays or listening to Collective Soul’s “Shine” on repeat for hours and scrawling the lyrics to the song across his dormitory wall, all the signs of madness were there in Cho Seung-Hui.

Even in his final video, it is unclear exactly why Cho carried out the attacks. His manifesto is even more scattered and “lacking logical governance,” as MSNBC justice correspondent Pete Williams put it.

The sporadic nature of his thought process demonstrates characteristics of schizophrenia, a complex disorder that involves hallucinations and delusions. Paranoid delusions and feelings of persecution sometimes occur in these cases. In addition, Cho displayed symptoms of disconnection from general consensus reality consistent with a form of autism known as Asperger Syndrome. Cho had also been previously diagnosed as autistic.

Cho’s possible mental disorders did not affect his intelligence. In fact, Cho was academically successful, and this is in part what prevented society from stepping in and declaring him legally insane. This has also been why some have been reluctant to admit that mental illness was a factor in the killings, and why some cling to the primitive notion that Cho was simply “evil.” To an onlooker, Cho would seem very normal. But academic success is by no means a good measure of a person’s sanity.

In late 2005, Cho apparently phoned his roommates over Thanksgiving break, telling them that he was on vacation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in North Carolina, and claimed that he had grown up with the president in Russia.

Cho’s deluded and possibly schizophrenic beliefs seem to have pervaded his life. His autistic behavior made it impossible for him to communicate normally with society. He was isolated, and this reinforced the autistic tendency to create fantasy worlds to live in.

The day that the media got wind of the killings, the search for a scapegoat to take the blame was on. But they couldn’t find one.

The usual topics that so-called “authorities” and the media come up with to try and figure out why a school shooting occurred, were inevitably discussed — violent video games, rock music, Satan, an abusive childhood, the internet, drugs. But in the end, we are left with only one viable cause in this case. It is a cause that links many of the incidences of crime, especially school and workplace shootings, across the world: profound mental illness.

Mental illness can be relative. What is normal to one person may be an extreme eccentricity to another. However, there are some objective elements to the diagnosing of a mental illness. In Cho’s case, those elements were strong enough for a court to declare him an “imminent danger to [him]self or others,” and that he was incapable of volunteering himself for treatment. Tragically, help was not to come in time.

We must attempt to recognize those around us who need help. Sometimes, this can be more difficult than it sounds. It may not always be obvious when a person is suffering — it could be anyone: your neighbor, a friend, a stranger, a relative. The easiest way, therefore, to alleviate the social problem of alienation is to keep our channels of communication open with our fellow human beings. When mental illness is coupled with environmental factors like isolation, the chance that a mentally ill person may act out in a negative way becomes even greater. Communication with every member of society is, therefore, absolutely vital to prevent events like those of April 16 from occurring again.

It may be difficult in light of these sad events. However, we, especially those of us who are college students, should continue to embrace every individual as part of the community, in the ideals of humanistic and democratic traditions, regardless of his or her eccentricities. And it may be difficult to forgive, but in demonizing the perpetrators of such heinous acts, we lose a piece of ourselves — the hatred we carry on a day to day basis only serves to poison us mentally, from the inside out. We must remember that those who are labeled eccentric are people much like ourselves, save that they may lack the capacity to suppress their emotions, may be isolated by society and may harbor a mental illness.

Steve Borowsky is a sophomore biology major.