Cho's Coin Toss

The media and blog world is breathlessly trying to figure out what drove Cho Seung-Hui to kill so many people at Virginia Tech, and what to do about it.

First, as tragic as it is let's keep this incident in perspective. This morning on Fox News I heard that in a normal year about 20 people a year die violent deaths on American college campuses. This year's total will be higher, obviously. Meanwhile about 1700 college students die every year from alcohol-related incidents. If the goal is to save as many lives as possible, which problem should we focus on - guns or booze? For that matter, how many babies are aborted by Virginia Tech students each year? I'm guessing it is more than 33.

I've come to the conclusion that Cho's killing spree resulted from a series of coin tosses. Can you flip a coin and get heads ten times in row? Probably not. However, if we put a thousand people in a room and have them all start flipping coins, we can say with statistical near-certainty that one person will get ten heads in a row. The rub is we can't know in advance who it will be.

So what were Cho's coins? Here's what we know.

  • He was, according to relatives, afflicted with some sort of mental illness from early childhood. After the family came to the U.S. he was diagnosed with autism.
  • For whatever reasons, the family did not get Cho any treatment for this condition.
  • He had to make a transition from Korean culture to American culture.
  • He was unable to relate to his peers during his school years. He may have been shunned and bullied.
  • Both his parents worked long hours trying to establish new lives in the U.S.
  • Cho's older sister graduated from Princeton, maybe creating unrealistic academic expectations.
  • His creative writing involved dark, violent themes.
  • At college his social awkwardness continued and intensified.
  • He was referred for psychiatric care, but a judge determined he was not an imminent threat to himself or anyone else.
  • From what we know, he was not given (nor did he ask for) any psychiatric medications that might have helped his condition.
  • He was able to buy two guns and learn how to use them.
  • He did not have any sort of religious faith or firm moral principles.
  • He was surrounded by the violent, relativistic modern American culture.
Many people face several of these challenges and do not become killers. We can't pull out one of them in isolation and say that it was the deciding factor. Lot of kids have trouble adjusting to a new school; usually, they get past it. Kids is creative writing classes often write creepy stories; should every young Stephen King be hospitalized? The vast majority of people who buy guns do not use them to kill anyone.

Most of these conditions are innocuous until they combine to strike the same person. All the coins came up heads for Cho. If one or two of them had rolled the other way, maybe 33 people would be alive right now. We can't know.

I'm not suggesting it was all just fate, and none of this relieves Cho of moral responsibility for what he did. My point is that the frantic search for "answers" is ultimately pointless. The answers are clear. We just don't want to hear them, and we don't want to accept that these events can't always be stopped. We want a perfect world.

Our efforts to prevent such incidents in the future will probably have unintended consequences and ultimately not accomplish the goal we want. Yes, there are lessons to be learned and things we should change: better mental health care, for one. At the end of the day, however, we have to accept that we live in a fallen world and evil will always be with us.

Evil came to Virginia Tech this week. It will strike again.


Pistol Pete said...

Very good analysis of the some of the factors involved in the killing. I agree better mental health care is always needed. Still, the presence of radical evil persists even when we try to treat the problems.

Good blogging.

Anonymous said...

Very good analysis, I agree.
As tragic as this act and many others that happen in our nation are, we need to focus more attention and resources on prevention of those problems which affect thousands, even millions of people. But then there is not enough sensationalism in most problems is there? The media and our lawmakers want to focus on the issues that will draw the most attention not do the most good. We will never see more media coverage or laws made regarding alcohol deaths of college students. We will never see more media coverage of child abuse death caused by parental neglect than by the horrific act of a sex offender, even though deaths because of parental neglect happen frequently and the more sensationalized act of killing a child has less than a hundredth percent of a chance of happening. But yet, our lawmakers spend more time and resources trying to protect our children from the rare chance of such horrific harm than protecting the thousands who need to be protected from parental abuse, obesity, health problems, and many other issues that lead to the frequent deaths of our children. Our lawmakers are not in the business of making laws that protect the most people, young or old. They are in the business of making laws that gain the most attention and we the voters sit back and allow it.