Archive for April 2007
Since January when I started working on my startup, the first and only thing to drag my attention away from that work was the Virginia Tech massacre. It all started for me when I was out running errands Monday afternoon. With her eyes glued to the television set on which she normally watches afternoon soaps, the lady behind the counter at my local Lebanese deli announced that over 30 had been killed. Startled, I said: “What!?! At a university?!” Since that moment, the story has gripped me.
So I decided to put an end to this obsessive attention of mine with two podcasts. Together, they explain why I lump Cho’s actions on Monday with 9/11 and Katrina. One obvious connection is that all three events share the following trait: They treated us to images of American bodies in positions and states that shocked us to our core.
In 9/11, it was the sight of American bodies jumping out of the top story windows of the World Trade Centers. For Katrina, it was pictures of untended bloated American bodies floating down rivers in New Orleans that used to be streets. And on Monday, it was the images of our stripling American youth being carted out of ivory towers in body bags by the dozen.
But I argue there’s even a deeper connection linking these three profoundly disturbing events. I argue that all three are the bastard children of our national lust for petroleum oil — a lust that is 60+ years in the making. Now, while the supporting arguments concerning 9/11 and Katrina are obvious circa 2007, the argument concerning Cho is more subtle.
Here are my two podcasts on this:
- (127) The Three Horsemen: 9/11, Katrina, and Cho: Background (46:50). How did the Virginia Tech massacre make me feel? NYTimes treatments of the three events. Why these three stand out from previous acts of terror, weather disasters, and mass murders. How oil lust led to 9/11 and Katrina.
- (128) The Three Horsemen: 9/11, Katrina, and Cho: Why Cho? (50:38) What could our national lust for oil have to do with Cho? Lust for oil => death of community => alienation. Combine this with America’s cultural vaccuum, and we have the most fertile soil for the Chos of the world. (Except maybe for Quebec.)
And now, it’s back to work for me.
Let’s get a little more specific on what we’re talking about here. Check out Wikipedia’s page on “mass murder.” What I’m talking about are incidents with the following characteristics:
- The perpetrator murders at least four people in one day
- The perpetrator ends his day by intentionally killing himself
- Chief among the perpetator’s motives is perceived revenge
- The perpetator chooses his victims indiscriminately — ie. to the perpeptator, the victims are mere instantiations of the sort of people against whom he seeks revenge.
- Afterword, the perpetrator is revealed to have planned out his crime before-hand
Now, with that definition in mind, go to the part of that Wikipedia page that lists examples of mass murderers. The page does not mention the criterion used for inclusion on this list. I presume the unstated criterion is: “How disturbing was the incident?”. If so, then this is an excellent list to study.
With the above definition in mind, identify such incidents perpetrated within America. According to my count and this list, America experienced this sort of mass murder 11 times since 1857. Specifically, in the following years:
1927 (Kehoe), 1966 (Whitman), 1986 (Sherrill), 1991 (Hennard), 1998 (Beck), 1999 (Furrow), 1999 (Harris and Klebold), 2005 (Weise), 2006 (Huff), 2006 (Roberts), and 2007 (Cho).
Except for the Whitman murders, all of these incidents occurred during an “Unraveling” phase of American history, according to Strauss & Howe’s Fourth Turning theory. Indeed, 8 of the 11 occurred during the tail end of these phases, when the country was really unraveling, just before the crisis phase.
So if, as I am, you’re inclined to see Mr. Cho as the third horseman of the coming apocalypse (joining 9/11 and Katrina), you have some history to back you up.
Some random thoughts on the Virginia Tech incident of yesterday:
- I’m having trouble getting my brain back on my work, and off this issue. Apparently, I’m not the ony one. Top search query on Technorati this instant: “Virginia Tech”. #2? “Cho Seung-Hui”. Also, nytimes.com has a team on the matter, posting updates as fast as the rest of us are commenting. It’s the only story that matters right now.
- This event seems next in the line that begins with 9/11, and moves to Katrina. So we have 9/11-Katrina-Virginia Tech. But what does this trail of woes mean?
- It’s a Rorschach test. It means whatever you think it means. On this site, I’ve told you what I think it means. Maybe others will start seeing it a similar way. Because Mr. Cho, it seems, emigrated to the U.S. from Korea with his parents in 1992 when he was about 9 years old. So this incident can’t be written off as a “crazy foreigner” thing. No, this is about America.
- The hanging question is the following: What is it about America that led Mr. Cho to do what he did yesterday in Virginia — when we all know with certainty that had his family stayed in Korea, he would not have done the same thing at the Univeristy of Seoul yesterday? What is it about America that Katrina played out like it did? What is it about America that brought on 9/11?
- What is it about America?
You tell me.
Like pretty much everyone, I suppose, yesterday’s tragedy at Virginia Tech unsettled me. Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised by such events in this great nation, that one did surprise me. It surpirsed me by its setting — at a university — and, of course, by its magnitude.
But then, of course, my brain turns to looking for patterns. One sidenote: I suppose this blog could be entitled: “In Search of Obscure Patterns”. Most everything I’ve written or podcasted about here would fit under that heading. Anyway, on with this pattern.
The New York Times starts us off nicely with a timeline of Major Fatal Campus Shootings in America. The timeline stretches all the way back to 1927. But look closer.
There was one amazingly horrifying event in 1927, then another in 1966, and the third happened in 1997. But after 1997, these campus mass murder events start occuring every year. Every year, that is, except for the years 2000-2004.
Let’s look even closer. The 1966 event involved a former solider named Charles Whitman. I’d read a little about Whitman during my work on Personality and the Brain. It turns out that Whitman had developed a tumor on one of his amygdalae (I think it was the right one). This tumor transformed his personality, making him hyper-aggressive, and unraveling his social relations. So I’ll throw that data point out as a marker of larger social dynamics.
That leaves us with 1927, plus the collection beginning in 1997. What’s the pattern?
Well, the one that hits me concerns Strauss & Howe’s Fourth Turning model. According to that model, 1927 was part of the tail end of the prior “Unraveling”, and 1997-present comprises the tail end of the current Unraveling. Aha, we have some symmetry here.
But then how do we explain the missing 5 years: 2000-2004? First, note that it’s not as if there weren’t campus shooting events during those years. Rather, it’s just that these events were not “major” as far as the national news services are concerned (ie. many victims).
Still, why no major events during those 5 years? My best guess is as follows: for the 17 months from Columbine in April 1999, to 9/11 in September 2001, the nation was “on high alert” for Columbine-copycats. So I’ll bet that a little bit of research for that period would uncover foiled major plots.
As for the “quiet” period from 9/11 to March 2005, I think a different answer serves us here. I recall from a biography of Sigmund Freud that Freud once said his practice dropped off considerably during the First World War, but then picked up again after the war. Recall that Freud’s practice comprised therapy for insane people. Basically, the point is that during the war, people were too busy trying to stay alive to enjoy the luxury of going crazy.
Fast forward to 2001-2005. These were the days of 9/11, “condition Orange”, cowed Democrats, and so on. Basically, it was war time. But by 2005, it had been four years since 9/11, and there had been no terrorist attacks on our soil.
Accordingly, I believe, the major campus mass murder sprees began once again. I say “accordingly”, because I suspect the dynamic works like this: during war time, the crazy would-be shooter is, like everyone else, engaged in discussing the war, and thus is distratced from his own insanity. But as the war subsides, the latter thoughts emerge once more.
The last thing I’ll say here is that I see these horrifying events as symptoms of our time. In other words, symptoms of the Unraveling of the basic flawed assumptions of our society. If that is true, then the events yesterday at Virginia Tech are troublesome signs for this ailing nation.