A year ago, at the time of the Virginia Tech massacre, I wrote a post about where illness ends and evil begins. The killings raised all kinds of questions for me: theological and philosophical ones along side scientific ones.
Here are some excerpts from that piece, which you can get to by clicking here.
Was Cho Seung Hui–the shooter identified in the Virgina Tech killings–mentally ill or irreparably evil? Did he suffer from a treatable mood disorder, or was he a psychopath unable to be helped?
It’s a theological, psychological, and sociological riddle–an ugly one. Even as the genetic studies of mood disorders continue to pinpoint specific genes that predispose people to those disorders, and the brain-imaging technologies can identify regional patterns of brain activity that distinguish depressed people from non-depressed people, we can’t say for now where illness stops and evil begins.
For my own sake, I hope Cho was more psychopathic or fundamentally evil than he was sick, because I’m on a serious mission to educate people about mental illness, and I’d rather not include him in our flock. We already have Andrea Yates and one if not both of the Columbine murderers among our ranks.
Stories of how Cho simply “cracked” frustrate my efforts at explaining my own suicidal depression and two psych ward stays. If I’m mentally ill, does that mean I could supposedly snap at anytime too, and write freaky expressions of my rage–penning a manifesto against the world–and send NBC a video saying that “Jesus loved crucifying me”?
That depends on how we define evil, mental illness, and the murky terrain in between.
“Evil, that’s what some call it: mass murder, mass shootings, serial killings,” writes Washington Post Staff Writer Neely Tucker in his excellent article, “Dark Matter: The Psychology of Mass Murder.” “The shooter on the Texas tower, Charles Manson, the Green River Killer, the Clutter family killers. People search religious texts to divine the dark mysteries of man, looking for a spiritual answer to physical violence. Others delve into psychiatry, grasping for an answer Freud missed, something about childhood violence and sexual dysfunction and rage. Nowadays they trace neurons through the cerebral cortex with glow-in-the-dark chemicals and talk about brain injuries and paranoid schizophrenia and thorazine drips. All anybody has ever found, in the research of evil, is shadows and darkness, misfiring neurons and reverberating psychic pain.”
If I label Cho as an incredibly sick individual, then am I contributing to “continued attempts to psychologize and ‘understand’ such deviance…to avoid applying moral categories of judgment” as Anne Henderschott, professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego suggests? In other words, is labeling him “mentally ill” letting the guy off the hook–kind of like how my sister’s 18-year-old neighbor shot his brother and was classified “insane,” so instead of serving time, he’s drinking Coke and snacking on popcorn inside a rehabilitation center, with more freedom and visitation rights than an incarcerated 40-year-old man who drank some extra beers before driving home?