Guns and Grief

Guns and Grief

DAWN BROKE ON April 16, 2007, as it does always, but this day would soon reveal itself to be unlike any other. For this was the day that a twenty-three-year-old student walked onto the campus at Virginia Tech carrying two semi-automatic pistols—a Glock 9 mm and a Walther P22—and fired close to two hundred rounds, killing thirty-two people and injuring scores more in the deadliest shooting rampage in our nation’s history. Minutes later, long before anyone knew any of the facts, reporters filled the airwaves, the Web buzzed with headlines, and the show was on—a spectacle nearly as obscene as the massacre itself.

As reporters dug for the story behind the killing spree and found that the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, had been ordered by a judge to undergo outpatient treatment after he was diagnosed in December 2005 as “mentally ill and in need of hospitalization,” the din increased, and the psychology of the killer moved to center stage. Nearly every news show featured its very own mental health “expert”—psychologists and psychiatrists, none of whom had ever met Cho Seung-Hui and knew almost nothing about him, yet had no problem offering up instant, and often contradictory, psychological analyses to explain why he did it. Having spent over three decades of my professional life in clinical practice and knowing its uncertainties, I wondered how these guys (and they were almost always “guys”) dared to speak with such assurance, as if psychology were a mathematics-like science where it’s perfectly clear that if you add two and two, you will always get four. It’s as if they had a recipe: pour a little anger into the pot, mix well with violent fantasies, add a big dollop of alienation, and you’ll have yourself a mass murderer. Sounds like a lot of teenagers and young adults we all know, doesn’t it?

I listened to my local public radio station most of that day, then turned to various television news programs during the evening, waiting in vain for one of these experts to acknowledge that, whatever Cho’s psychological state, he couldn’t have killed and injured so many people if he hadn’t had two semi-automatic weapons in his hands. Instead, I heard an orgy of blame.

Because the theory to which most mental health professionals have dedicated their lives tells them that the seeds of the son’s problems must lie in the family, the parents were at the top of the list. This must be a seriously dysfunctional family, they announced. Didn’t these people talk to their son? How could they not have known that this young man was so troubled? Never mind that the parents had tried unsuccessfully to get help for their son, and that this was widely reported. Never mind, either, the obvious fact that whatever our individual differences may be, our psychology is born and takes root in a social environment whose reach is well beyond the bounds of family, an environment in which it is all too easy to get the guns to carr...