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The Question Mark Kid

— All of us who work with undergraduates strive to foster of a particular kind of intellectual maturity in our students, a maturity that allows a person to understand the violent, destructive, or just plain wrong-headed actions of others, while in no way endorsing, condoning, or excusing those actions. An immature mind thinks that teaching about the doctrines of radical Islam is the same as promoting terrorism; that seeking to understand Nazi philosophy is the same as sympathizing with Nazism; that attempting to see the world from the perspective of a mass murderer is the same as excusing the murderer’s crimes.

The tragic murder of 32 students and faculty this past week at Virginia Tech will be on the minds of everyone in higher education for some time to come. A partial portrait of the murderer, Seung-Hui Cho, has begun to emerge from the many news reports that have appeared in the last few days. Cho had been subject to bullying and humiliation not only in college but also in middle and high school, where some of his classmates “were really mean to him and they would push him down and laugh at him” because of the way he talked. He had troubled relations with women, seeming to want their attentions and then becoming despondent or angry when they rebuffed him. He wrote violent stories about child abuse and revenge. He came from a modest family background and in his final manifesto, which featured him brandishing weapons in a show of intimidation, he “ranted against rich brats with Mercedes, gold necklaces, cognac and trust funds.” He blamed the victims themselves for his murderous rampage, saying, “you forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.” He also appears to have carefully planned the crime, gathering all the needed weapons in advance, and using a chain to lock the building’s doors so no one could interrupt his attack.

And in one of the more bizarre aspects of the story, a former classmate reported that once when Cho was asked to stand and introduce himself during the first meeting of a course, “he didn’t stand up and he said his name was Question Mark.”

We, as educators, should encourage our students to respond with every possible measure of compassion for the victims and their families. But we, as educators, should also urge our students to analyze critically all aspects of the tragedy. If we are to have any hope of preventing crimes like the one Cho committed, it is vital that we attempt, however imperfectly, to understand what causes them. The facile explanations of the popular press—“he was crazy” and “he was evil”—contribute nothing.

Are there any historical examples we can turn to that might enlarge our understanding of this crime? And conversely, is there any way this crime can give us a deeper understanding of history?

Perhaps the story of a mass murderer from the past will be instructive.

Consumed with rage toward people he regarded as rich parasites—people who were living a life of luxury while he himself suffered hardships—this mass murderer developed a careful plan for revenge and slaughter. As he worked out the details of this plan in his mind, the rich men continued to humiliate him for his looks and his apparent poverty, further fueling his rage. He harbored suspicions that a woman he had been involved with was cheating on him with one of his humiliators. He is known to have told violent, gore-spattered stories, and there is some evidence that his grandfather had been physically abusive to him when he was a boy, as well.

In executing his plan for mass murder, he waited until all his victims were assembled in one large building, a building he had previously surveyed and cleared of all objects that might be used for self-defense. He carefully sealed all the doors so no one could escape and so no rescuers could enter. And then, after dramatically brandishing his weapons, he systematically and methodically shot everyone down, one after another, blaming their deaths on their own immoral conduct. At the end of the slaughter nearly a hundred people had been killed. The murderer’s arms and legs, the floor, and all the furniture were covered with blood.

This murderer was Odysseus. He has been studied by psychiatrists for generations.

[The mass murderer, Odysseus]

The name Odysseus comes from the Greek verb ὀδύσσομαι and means “man of hate.” Odysseus generally used that name with pride, but in dangerous situations he sometimes refused to identify himself, or gave false names.

And once, when he felt especially threatened, he said his name was “Nobody.”

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021