Renowned forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner has examined some of the most notorious mass shooters of recent years. As details emerge about Seung-Hui Cho, the chairman of the Forensic Panel is following the case for ABC News and sharing his insights from his experience and current medical literature. Using the latest informaton, Welner believes the evidence strongly supports that Cho had paranoid schizophrenia.
What does the notion of a South Korean assailant do to the staple notion of a white male assailant as the likely perpetrator of a mass shooting?
Cho reportedly came to the United States in 1992. We know little of his upbringing, but many immigrants are nurtured in cloistered communities.
A person with little ties to the United States draws less from destructive icons, be they Rambo, the Terminator or others whose manhood ties closely with superior firepower and the capacity of one to destroy many. What a forensic psychiatrist would want to know is, how socialized he was into American cultural icons of manhood and militarism?
We cannot generalize about South Koreans. It is an advanced nation with an ambivalent cultural relationship to the United States. Many South Koreans have a tremendous appetite for American culture. There is no greater sense of identification with American culture than choosing America for his college years.
So culture matters?
Absolutely. An assailant who carries out a crime of the alienated, the emasculated, the rejected may have been inspired to a destructive path precisely because of how much he associated mass shooters with the American iconography. I examined Byron Uyesugi, a Xerox repairman who killed seven people in a November 1999 workplace shooting. He was Hawaiian-born of Japanese descent but was educated in the mainland and very much took to the soldier of fortune culture.
A lot of people compare this attack to Columbine. Is this a typical school shooting?
A typical school shooting occurs in high school. The dynamics of a student resentful of a school he is attached to and deeply alienated from have fueled previous high school shootings.
Clearly, the Virginia Tech gunman targeted a classroom building. The more specific a target choice, the more it links to his emotional conflict. We would have to understand his relationship to the school. Was he overly invested in scholastic success and facing impending failure? Or was his failure to succeed, and his relationship to any of the students or groups at the university a source of emotional defeat?
So if the perpetrator here killed with the same dynamics as a high school shooter, does that suggest someone with that developmental level of maturity?
College-age men have a better developed capacity for anticipating long-term consequences, appreciation for the rights and bodily integrity of others, and a better developed conscience than an adolescent. A college-age man is developmentally better able to brake a violent fantasy before it grows into a plan and an elaborate modus operandi to carry out a catastrophe.
Therefore, when a 23-year-old shows an impaired capacity to stifle a fantasy before it develops into a complex mass shooting plan, as a forensic psychiatrist I wonder about the sources of his developmental limitations.
Are you saying that the shooter was a schizophrenic?