The Case of Seung-Hui Cho: Virginia Tech Massacre
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Unable to understand or tolerate Cho's extreme introversion, Giovanni badgered him, asking him to remove his sunglasses, show his face, and participate in class as other students did. When he resisted, she decided he was, as she put it, a bully, an evil presence in her class. Eventually, Giovanni demanded that Cho leave the class.
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He refused. In a letter to her department chair, Lucinda Roy, Giovanni threatened to resign her position if Cho were not removed. The latter took notes. Roy and Ruggiero undoubtedly intended this meeting as a way to assist a student in difficulty. When she said she would tutor him privately for the remainder of the term and gave him a copy of her book, Cho appeared to her to be crying Massengill Report, Ch. There is no evidence that Cho understood Roy's private tutoring as a form of rescue from another professor's wrongful treatment of him.
On the contrary, Cho probably sensed that Roy shared Giovanni's opinion of him. A article in Virginia Tech Magazine described the special friendship between Roy and Giovanni, and said their affection for one another "goes beyond dutiful professional respect or admiration. The next semester, spring of , Cho got on the wrong side of another professor, Robert Hicok, instructor for his fiction workshop.
A student who studied with Hicok the previous fall described him on a teacher-rating site as "a nice guy but you absolutely have to talk in this class. When he talks about class participation he doesn't mean answering questions every once in a while — he means blabbing on and on in front of the whole class every single class.
The more you blab the better. Hicok consulted Roy about what to do with him. Cho probably got from Hicok the same message as from Giovanni and Roy: that he was utterly unfit. That same semester, Cho had similar trouble in a technical-writing course with Carl Bean. Bean's opinion Massengill Report, Ch. Bean thought Cho was intelligent, but would "do as little as he needed to do to get by.
He mistook Cho's terror of speaking for laziness. Bean urged Cho to drop the course. Cho did so, his impression undoubtedly reinforced that everybody in his home department wanted to get rid of him. Additional evidence could be cited from available reports and news articles, but the paragraphs above are enough for the present purpose: to point the way toward an explanation of his crimes focused on the interplay between character and situation instead of on character alone.
It is the weight of collective ill-will that gives mobbing its power. If Nikki Giovanni had been the only professor who treated Cho as an evil presence, he might have withstood her aggression. No one is allowed to question him. I have friends that have suffered the wrath of this arrogant teacher like me. This student had friends to commiserate with and probably other professors to rely on for support. Cho, by contrast, faced alone the shared contempt of his teachers and peers. This is what it means to be mobbed.
To make matters worse, he got a severe putdown in his student residence in late , in the midst of his humiliation in the English Department. In what was presumably a clumsy romantic overture, Cho sent anonymous electronic messages to a fellow resident, a girl he had met through his suitemates. The Massengill Report Ch. Suspecting who had written them, the girl wrote back, asking if the sender was Cho. He answered, "I do not know who I am.
By a name I know not how to tell thee who I am My name, dear saint is hateful to myself Because it is an enemy to thee Had I it written, I would tear the word. The quote must have captured better than any others Cho had come across in his literary studies his feeling of desolation and unworthiness of the girl's affections. He knew she knew who he was, but he was too scared to say so.
Still, like Romeo, he dared to hope she would reciprocate his interest in her. Otherwise he would not have left her Shakespeare's words.
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He was making himself vulnerable, taking the risk of human connection — the only thing that keeps anyone from going mad. The young woman was frightened.
She consulted her father, who consulted a friend of his, a small-town chief of police. The latter advised contacting the Virginia Tech campus police. The upshot was that a campus police officer met with Cho on December 13, , and forbade him to have further contact with the young woman. Later that same day, Cho text-messaged a suitemate saying he might as well kill himself. The suitemate contacted campus police, who took Cho in for questioning that evening, had him assessed by a social worker, then had him committed involuntarily to a psychiatric bed in nearby Christiansburg. He was held there overnight.
Early the next morning, December 14, Cho was assessed first by a clinical psychologist, then by a psychiatrist, then brought before a special justice of the county circuit court, who ruled that Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.
He met with a counselor. According to the Massengill Report Ch. Cho had nothing further to do with police or mental-health authorities, not even when he committed his crimes fifteen months later; Cho killed himself as police moved in. They were odd, but so are many romantic overtures by young people. Even if the girl had declined his advances gently and personally, her rejection might not have cut so deeply.
This was a degradation ritual that anybody would take years to recover from.
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Cho doubtless experienced it as a compounding of the humiliation he had already undergone in the English Department. It must have seemed to him that all relevant authorities at Virginia Tech, along with his fellow students, had reached a consensus that he was crazy, wicked, fit for nothing but to be cast away. Two contrasting forms of participation in a workplace mob are distinguished.
The first is voluntary action against the target, doing something not required. Nikki Giovanni could have left Cho alone. No policy obliged her to challenge him, nor to threaten to quit her job if he were not removed from her class. Similarly, the students who reported Cho to the police could have ignored him or registered their sentiments with him personally. Giovanni and these students exemplify the way of joining a mob we tend to think of first: spontaneous, self-motivated aggression against another that seems justified on some ground or other, though no official penalty would be applied if one simply found something else to do.
The other form of participation in a mob is action that forms part of one's job description. Lucinda Roy, as chair of English, had to do something in response to Giovanni's threat.
Similarly, the police, mental-health professionals, and judge who dealt with Cho on December , , were just "doing their jobs," fulfilling the duties for which they were being paid. A common way mobbings play out is that one or a handful of voluntary participants, who typically have strong feelings about the target, call down on the target a debilitating bureaucracy, an organized array of social-control specialists who take aggressive action not from ill-will or deep conviction, but as routine performance of their job responsibilities.
This was very much the case in the mobbing of Cho in the student residence, which compounded the effect of the mobbing in Cho's home department. The third circumstance that appears to have interacted destructively with Cho's character was the lessons in violence he learned in the courses he took for his degree.