Mass Violence Study: Virginia Tech

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The details around Seung-Hui Cho, the lone shooter of the Virginia Tech massacre, were limited in the weeks following the shooting in April 2007: he was a 23-year old male who was born in South Korea and was a senior level student at Virginia Tech University and was known for being extremely shy. However, as the investigation continued the evidence showed that Cho was a troubled young man. While he had no serious criminal record, Cho’s history shows a strong likelihood of mental illness combined with bullying at school as possible reasons for his rampage that killed 32 people. Since Cho’s mental illness lead to his actions, the Individual Trait Criminal Theory best describes Cho’s case because he had lost his ability to tell right from wrong.

Criminal theory, historically, begins with the Classical and Neoclassical Theories which examine the interaction of free will and the individual’s crime. Neoclassical theory discusses that free will is only valid if the person is not insane. The positivists discuss the need to understand crime and classify several biological theories; inferiority, criminal anthropology, heredity, family trees and many other biological causes. Psychological theories examine the mental and intellectual causes of crime and includes discussions of psychopaths and sociopaths. More modern theories include learning theory, labeling theory and biocriminology (Greek).

Current criminal standards that apply to the case of Seung-Hui Cho strongest are the theories under the domain of biocriminology, which includes limbic system disorders, chemical dysfunctions, minimal brain damage and endocrine abnormalities since he was mentally ill. Included in this case would also be Sigmund Freud’s ideas about psychosis since Cho showed patterns of delusion in his actions before and during his violent actions but that his psychosis peaked in his college years. This is becoming a public health issue. In a similar trend, the FBI’s UCR shows that crime is rising on college campuses but that, “It is unknown what may have caused the increase in incidents identified during the past 20 years” but that mental illness is increasingly identified in violent cases on college campuses (“Campus Attacks”).

To know how a mass killer begins means looking at where he or she comes from.  Cho’s relatives were interviewed about his childhood they recounted to the Washington Times that he had speech difficulties as a child but was otherwise well-behaved but closer inspection shows that there were events in Cho’s life that may have been warning signs of his mental state. Cho was a frail child and after being subjected to many unpleasant medical procedures he disliked being touched and his parents were critical of his speech impediment. In middle school, his teachers were concerned about Cho’s extreme shyness and he is diagnosed with “selective mutism” which means that Cho would refuse to speak around certain people. In the 8th grade, Cho is evaluated by a psychiatrist because of his references to Columbine in his writings and he is briefly given antidepressants. The outward signs seems to disappear until 2005 when Cho begins to act in alarming ways. Several instances include: Cho stabbing at the carpet of a girl’s room, taking pictures of classmates with a camera hidden under his desk, violent creative writing assignments, stalking female students and threatening to kill himself. Cho is hospitalized for one night, evaluated and released. In early 2007, Cho begins to purchase handguns and ammunition. While the official report has no evidence of bullying, NBC News receives evidence of possible issues.

NBC News reported that bullying may have been a factor in Seung-Hui’s choice and that he had been mocked by fellow students at Westfield High School because of his shyness and his speech impediment. NBC also interviewed Cho’s classmate, Chris Davids, who recounted stories of a teacher forcing Cho to read aloud and, when Cho declined, threatened to give him a failing grade. When Cho did read, his speech impediment made him difficult to understand and a classmate responded, according to Davids, “Go back to China” (“Ex-Classmates Say Gunman was Bullied…”). In a multi-media package left for NBC Cho expresses his feelings of being “backed into a corner” by some of the people in his life. 

The official report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel discusses the diagnosis in the official report which said that Seung-Hui Cho was likely psychotic, a broad term for mental illnesses which include schizophrenia and paranoia. Killer are most often diagnosed with schizophrenia; which may cause delusions, cause hallucinations or even make the individual completely non-emotional. In the official report, Roger Depue, the former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit said that Seung Hui Cho found “pleasure in planning such a grand demonstration of ‘justice,’” and that Cho’s thoughts were “so distorted that he began [to believe] that his evil plan was actually doing good” (“Official Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel"). Cho had been evaluated several times by psychologists and psychiatrists but was never placed on long term care plans and the official report notes that Cho was a young man who needed help with his increasing mental illness, but did not received the care in time. 

Since Cho was considered psychotic and delusional during his violent massacre, the Classical Theory is not a valid theory to apply to this specific case. The classical theory was created during the Enlightenment and was designed during the belief system that human and criminal behavior were part of free will. It also said that many times criminals acted out their crimes because of a hedonistic reasoning, in that they did so because they received some pleasure or luxury from the act. This cannot be true of Cho since he was unaware of how his actions would end in negative results as the evidence from Depue states, Cho believed his actions to be righteous because of reasons of insanity and not free will. The Neoclassical Theory provided a response to this and modified the Classical theory to show that insanity may be a reason for some criminal action (Greek).

The Individual Trait Theory is the theory that is most likely to apply to Cho since it is a biological (specifically, psychological) reason that he committed the crimes. While there was no identification of his mental illness while he was alive, the report which relied on family interviews, medical records, school records and interviews with staff and students, shows that Cho should have been under the care of a medical doctor for his mental illness. Dr. Greek writes in “Contemporary Biological and Integrated Perspectives” that psychopathy may result in psychological traits that may cause an individual to act in poor judgment or lack remorse or shame. Cho’s consistent violent writings and inability to socialize appropriately paired with the evidence of strange interactions and stalking of female students show that Cho did, indeed, suffer from mental illnesses that caused his violent actions. 

In many of the massacre cases there is a disturbing trend, the shooters are identified as mentally ill and needing help only after the crime has been committed. For Seung-Hui Cho, the signs began as young as the third grade and continued to progress until they peaked during his college years. The college years, according to the FBI UCR statistics, show an increase in violent crime and researchers are studying the onset of mental illness during young adulthood. During his time in college, Cho was even hospitalized and analyzed for mental health issues but it was not identified or pursued by university administration for him to receive care. After his crime, when Cho’s actions were examined, he showed the traits apparent in the criminology Individual Trait Theory that shows that Cho was unable to act upon free will because he was suffering from an illness that trapped him in delusions and psychosis.  

Works Cited

“Campus Attacks .” FBI, n.d.,

"Ex-classmates say gunman was bullied - US news - Crime & courts - Massacre at Virginia Tech" NBC News, n.d.,

Greek, Cecil. "Criminological Theory." Florida State University, n.d.

“Official Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel." State of Virginia, n.d.