Was Cho Seung-Hui--the shooter identified in the Virginia 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?
Instead, maybe the theological language of evil is more useful when describing a person like Cho.
I know from being a Catholic--and a theology major--that the Bible says that we are responsible creatures who are all born with a conscience. According to "Gaudium et Spes," (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, one of the 16 documents of Vatican II): "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment.... For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.... His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."
During that terrible time, I couldn't think correctly. I couldn't process and interpret situations accurately. And I did some idiotic things in a hypomanic state, for which I begged forgiveness afterward. Was my conscience on mute in those moments? Why didn't it keep me from right actions? More to the point, was the devil alive and active in my soul, ready to attack during a vulnerable point so to sway me toward the dark side? Or was I so sick at that time, like my doctor tried to explain to family members, that my illness dictated my behavior?
My own brief encounter with this kind of darkness showed me how fuzzy the boundaries can be between illness and evil. And it makes it that much harder for me to arrive at a firm conclusion on where Cho falls on the spectrum.
"[Mental illness] is why we can talk about behavior as evil," says Jennifer Geddes, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. "To murder people is an evil thing to do. Now, what brings someone to do evil can be a whole range of factors: psychological problems, biochemical problems, past abuse that would person has suffered. When something this tragic and horrifying happens, we need that word to name it."
Three months after the Columbine massacre, the FBI convened a summit of prominent mental health experts to diagnose the killers and attempt to explain what went terribly wrong inside their heads. Journalist Dave Cullen shares their conclusion in his Slate.com article, "The Depressive and the Psychopath: At Last We Know Why the Columbine Killers Did It."
Cullen describes the personalities of both Klebold and Harris, and why it's so important to regard the two as separate people given that Klebold was a depressive and suicidal hothead who could have been turned around, while Harris was a psychopath without a conscience--"evil," according to my understanding of my religious teachings.
Cullen quotes Dr. Robert Hare, author of "Without Conscience": "Psychopaths are not disoriented or out of touch with reality, nor do they experience the delusions, hallucinations, or intense subjective distress that characterize most other mental disorders. Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised."
"Because of their inability to appreciate the feelings of others, some psychopaths are capable of behavior that normal people find not only horrific but baffling," Hare writes. "For example, they can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner."
I don't know if I'm comforted or alarmed by this assessment of Harris, or by our inability to decisively place Cho within pre-set definitions of "mentally ill" or "evil."
"For now, there are no real answers, no real solace, no real consolation," writes Tucker of the Post. "The answers to heartbreak, to unending loss, are only what we make them to be. They are only the best we can do."
This I do know: as the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry advance, we will learn more and more about the brain and why people "snap" or are predisposed to kill and murder. But until then, our only option is to pray for all souls--the mentally ill, the psychopaths, and even the evildoers among us.