NBC is taking some abuse for broadcasting some of Seung Cho's Quicktime confessions that he mailed to them from the crime scene, between the two shootings. They justify this by saying that it was a fair question, on the audience's part, as to whether or not this guy left behind anything that would explain why he did this awful thing, before shooting himself and putting himself beyond our ability to question him. I've heard not a few experts say no, that the guy was so clearly deranged that nothing he said would have any relationship to reality, that the only thing worth studying about the guy is what he did, not what he had to say in his own defense. And if those experts are right, then yes, the Virginia Tech shooting survivors and the families of the deceased suffered from having this guy's face and voice all over the airwaves for nothing.
Me, I'm not so sure.
But then, maybe I have an odd perspective to bring to this, and not just because I'm documentedly and demonstrably crazy myself. See, the thing that jumped out at me from those video excerpts, even the probably no more than 60 or 90 seconds of them that we were shown, is, "Wait, I've heard this before, and wow does he look familiar." And when I thought about what I knew about the local science fiction fan that he so incredibly closely resembled in face, voice, dress, posture, speech patterns, gestures, mannerisms, self-justifications, and morbid interests, I was able to make some sense out of what he said about why, in his opinion, as many VA Tech students as he could take down with him had to die. Not "make sense" in the sense of agreeing with him, but "make sense" in the sense of understanding why he said and did what he did. When I get done explaining this to you, I won't have much to contribute in the way of a suggestion as to what we should do about it, but maybe I can explain it a little better. Maybe some of you have suggestions, after that. Beats me.
Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Quite a few years ago, when I was in the local SCA, a prominent local SCAdian and fan (with an even more visible son in local fandom) introduced me to her youngest son. Like many people at that point, I didn't even know that she had more than one son, and I'll tell you why: she had, herself, clearly and visibly given up on him, and wanted nothing to do with him, and wanted to protect her friends from him. I swear to the gods, when he walked up to where we were talking, she introduced him to me in exactly these words: "Oh, this is my other son. His first name is [name]. His last name is Go Away." And that's how she introduced him to literally everybody, as Go Away [name], or [name] Go Away. His own mother. No wonder he turned into one of the locally famous Four Fanboys of the Apocalypse.
[Name] Go Away is crazy, and he comes by his crazy honestly. I don't generally hold "crazy" against people; in fact, I usually like the crazy ones more than the ones society tells me are sane. But [name] Go Away isn't just crazy, he's actively creepy. Even when he keeps his mouth shut, women complain about his inappropriate staring and creepy invasions of their personal space. Once he starts talking, it's even worse. He mumbles just as badly, and sounds just as hostile while he's doing it, as Seung Cho did. And worse, when he does start talking, it's about the same things that Seung Cho did, his obsession with violence, especially towards women. [Name] Go Away has often tracked me down at science fiction conventions and in coffee houses to show me his poetry, which is almost word-for-word identical with the descriptions we've been given of Seung Cho's poetry, namely execrable in quality and almost exclusively about violent feelings about women. [Name] Go Away doesn't fancy himself a screenwriter the way tha Seung Cho did (at least, not so far as I know); instead, he fancies himself an artist. All of the artwork he's shown me consisted of lavishly technically detailed drawings of monsters or robots torturing, murdering, decapitating, disemboweling, and desecrating the corpses of improbably large-breasted naked women.
That's all he knows how to talk about with girls, too, his own creepy murder-fetishistic art and whatever bits of murder-fetishistic art he's imported from Japan or elsewhere lately. So, unsurprisingly, [name] Go Away doesn't get laid any more than Seung Cho did. At least as many women have filed stalking complaints against him just for making the first romantic advances towards them as did women that Seung Cho approached. Like Seung Cho, [name] Go Away probably can actually say with absolute confidence that no woman has ever loved him, maybe even with more confidence than Seung Cho because I can't tell you whether or not Seung Cho's mother loved him. And (and here's the particularly relevant part), like Seung Cho, [name] Go Away doesn't understand why not. He offers the same excuses, even: that there's something morally wrong with those women, that they're shallow and stupid, and that they reject him for not being wealthy. Like Seung Cho, he knows that some of the women he's met and was attracted to have had sex, and often with men that [name] Go Away (like Seung Cho) considers his moral, intellectual, creative, and social inferiors; like many self-proclaimed (and deeply self-dishonest) "nice guys," this enrages him and he blames both the women and the "inferior" men who seduce them. And like Seung Cho, no attempt to get him to change his behavior or his attitudes has ever been successful.
I want to make one very important point here: [name] Go Away has been like this for at least 14 years, and has never hurt anyone in his entire life. Nor do I know of any reason to think that he is any more likely to hurt anybody, woman or man, than anybody else you have ever met. If it were to turn out that perfectly creepy guys like him were about 1 per 1000 likely to some day hurt a woman, well, let me point out that that would, if anything, make scary creeps like him statistically safer than the polite, hygienic, safe-seeming ones, if for no other reason than guys like him seldom get close enough to women to hurt them. If you think that I'm singling out [name] Go Away as someone who needs to be locked up and sedated to keep him from being the next Seung Cho, you have completely missed the point, and should probably be ashamed of yourself. This is America, and it is profoundly un-American to even consider locking up and forcibly sedating 1,000 innocent people just because 1 out of that 1,000 will some day hurt somebody and we don't know which 1.
No, my point is this: for days now, people have been asking each other and asking me if there is anything we as a society could have or should have done that would have kept Seung Cho from going off. And in light of this insight, and reading his manifesto in light of this insight, one idea does jump out at me, albeit an impractical one. As Bill Murray said in Ghostbusters, "We just need to get this guy laid." More precisely, what we need is for the [name] Go Aways and Seung Chos of this world to see that at least one woman in this world actually does love them. But which gets laid first, the chicken, or the egg? Seung Cho gave up on being loved a long time ago. Which made him bitter, and filled him to perpetual overflowing with sick and violent fantasies. Those sick and violent fantasies made it even more certain that no woman would ever love him. That no woman would ever love him filled him with even more sick and violent fantasies. I'm not saying it's inevitable that he was going to snap; most people, even crazy ones, have perfectly adequate instinctive and moral defenses against going out on shooting sprees. I wouldn't care to bet on any of these guys odds of growing old without committing suicide, though. And who could blame them? We're a social species. We're born needing love. Who'd want to live if they knew that no matter how long they lived, they would never, ever, ever be loved?
The best that guys like Seung Cho can hope for, once it reaches the point where it shows and they have a reputation, is to be ignored. And if that's the best? Dear gods. There's a reason why our most intensely vicious religious cults use "shunning" as their ultimate punishment, the institutionalized practice of treating people as if they were invisible. Being treated as if you aren't even there is one of the worst tortures the human race has ever come up with; give me an hour of waterboarding rather than a week of being that thoroughly invisible. And yet, out of "politeness," or for fear of violence if they actually state their objection to having guys like Seung Cho around, that is exactly what the polite people in our society do when they're around: pretend that they're not there, and hope that they'll go away. Heck, crazy people don't even have to seem as scary as Seung Cho did to be treated like invisible, inaudible ghosts. A few weeks back, Tom Engelhardt's blog ran a guest column by librarian Chip Ward called "What They Didn't Teach Us in Library School: The Public Library as an Asylum for the Homeless," and hearing how Seung Cho described the treatment he got from his fellow students reminded me of something one of Chip Ward's crazier homeless women said. She is prone to telling other library patrons, "Don't mind me, I'm dead. It's okay. I've been dead for some time now. It's not so bad. You get used to it." At the end of the article Ward makes the point that what she's saying isn't so crazy after all, it's eerily precisely descriptive: by trying to pretend that she's invisible and inaudible, sane people have long treated her (like they treat her fellow socially awkward crazy people) as if she were an intangible ghost, and continue to do so. Like Seung Cho complained that he was being treated.
There's a bit of ancient myth that this reminds me very much of, from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, the Sumerian herculean demi-god, is hired because of his prowess in combat to defeat a nearby murderous rampaging maniac of demi-god-like strength and power himself, a monster called Enkidu. Doubtless what the king that hired Gilgamesh expected was for Gilgamesh to strap on his armor, march out into the wilderness, and slaughter Enkidu, or at least cripple him (even in defeat) enough that mere mortals could finish him off. But what Gilgamesh did instead was to take the advance he was given on the reward money down to the temple of Ishtar, hire a temple prostitute, and deliver her (covertly) into Enkidu's captivity. That temple priestess/prophetess was called to her profession, was only eligible to be hired, because she had the one pre-requisite for the job: she really could love even an ugly, uncivilized, murderous, beast-like murderous rampaging maniac, even someone like Enkidu. What Enkidu started out thinking of as his rape of a captive turned, over the course of a long weekend's time, into love. Enkidu, who had (like [name] Go Away) been shunned by his own mother and who had concluded that no woman would ever love him, discovered that even if she could only be with him for a short span of time, there was one woman who really could love him, and who would continue loving him even after she returned to her temple, even after she was with other men that she loved. And having discovered that, he came in from the wilderness, repented his crimes, cleaned himself up, joined civilization, and in hopes of making restitution for his awful crimes he apprenticed himself to another warrior, one with a reputation for righting wrongs ... his future best friend and lifelong partner, Gilgamesh.
They burned down the Temple of Aphrodite at Corinth a long, long time ago. The Temples of Sumerian Ishtar closed down even longer ago. I've met at least one stripper in my life, a Neopagan activist who calls herself D'vorah, who considers stripping to be her sacred calling, her equivalent of being a sacred prostitute, that it is her spiritual duty to show love and affection to every affection-starved man that walks into her club. (You can read an interview with her in Ellen Evert Hopman and Lawrence Bond's excellent 1995 book People of the Earth.) It's not my place to judge her sincerity or whether or not she's right. But we certainly have no institutionalized, consistent way that really gross, really disgustingly creepy guys like Seung Cho could find love, find the one taste of approximately unconditional love that it would take to convince them that they could become lovable, not in our culture. Nor do I see any way that we could get from here to there. Nor is it at all clear that the mythological and contemporary historical accounts of temple prostitution aren't white-washed justifications; there are historians who argue that the myths and the contemporary histories are propaganda cover-ups of a much less voluntary and much more degrading form of sexual slavery. So I honestly don't know what it would have taken to bleed the anger, the hatred, the inappropriate judgment on the more fortunate, out of Seung Cho. But I know we don't have it, and I know that he certainly wasn't going to find it in an outpatient psychiatric clinic that he only went to because of a temporary court order.