Explanation for Violence at Virginia Tech Provided by Shakespeare

As I sat in my regular seat at Washington, D.C’s Shakespeare Theater less than a week after Seng Hui Cho’s shooting rampage at Virginia Tech left 33 people dead including the shooter, I watched the play, Titus Andronicus, labeled by “Literary Associate” Akiva Fox in the Playbill Program as “Shakespeare’s most violent play”.  As it unfolded, I couldn’t help but reflect on what makes the violence in Titus Andronicus more pronounced and therefore more unsettling than the other Shakespeare plays I have seen performed on that same stage.

The answer is that unlike the other plays I have seen, in this one the results of the violence are not only graphic but the audience cannot avoid seeing them unless it collectively looks away from the stage. Furthermore, in this production unlike some others, there is no attempt to soften the visual trauma called for in the original script by employing tongue-in-cheek humor or the stylization of the violence so often used to soften the discomfort it might otherwise produce.

So it is with the slaughter at VPI and before that at Columbine High.  We watched them on TV and we saw pictures in the print media.  There has been very little attempt to shield the victim’s family, friends, colleagues and the public generally from the modern day equivalent of the fictional severed heads, hands and tongues exhibited on stage in Titus Andronicus.

The result is that we are again witnessing the usual response from government at all levels.  Virginia Polytechnic Institute is investigating, The State of Virginia is investigating, and the Federal Government is investigating.  Each has established distinguished and well intentioned Panels and Task Forces which are expertly staffed with well credentialed psychiatrists, psychologists, and law enforcement officials to determine “what happened”, “the facts”, and the “root causes” of the behavior which caused the tragic deaths of 32 innocent people and serious injuries to others in what had been a bucolic campus in rural Virginia.

Let’s suppose they do just that.  Obviously that would mean that one or more of these investigations will somehow find a way to diagnose ex post facto the depression, psychosis and/or other mental condition which presumably developed to the point that it drove Seng Hui Cho’s homicidal rage and actions.  What then?  Even if we believe that the pronounced diagnosis is not just a theory, but a convincing one, as Professor Donald Black, a Sociologist at the University of Virginia points out, “it cannot explain why many other people with those same conditions or diseases, in fact the vast majority of people with those conditions have never done and will never do what Cho did”.

So what use would this information or “profile” be to society or to government?  Are we prepared to take steps as a part of the college admission process to require the testing necessary to profile and then screen applicants and even students already attending our colleges and even High Schools?  Then are we prepared to exclude or even suspend or expel those who fit the profiles?  Will we let them back in if they consent to therapy?  Who will monitor and ultimately certify that an applicant can be accepted or a student has been “treated” sufficiently to merit readmission to classes and living quarters at a college, university or even a High School in our county, state, and nations?  Who will pay for all of this?

As a practical matter the answer to all of these questions is that none of these procedures can be put into place in a manner that would be workable and affordable.  Therefore applying a cost-benefit analysis, it is clear that it is not efficient to even contemplate it.  Moreover, even if we were prepared to pay for the diagnostic personnel and procedures to be employed, we could not effectively shield our citizens from potential harm without victimizing a large population whose only sin is needing mental health treatment and an even larger population whose privacy has to be wholesale invaded solely because they applied to college or wanted to attend High School.

What then can we do?  We can recognize that the risk of a repetition of the behavior we just endured at Virginia Polytechnic Institute can not be entirely eliminated by determining what psychological conditions and/or psychiatric disorders Cho or any other particular individual was suffering from at the time of his deadly rampage and then trying to detect its presence in the general population by massive testing.  We can also recognize that Professor Donald Black’s theory that “…Most violence is a way that people handle grievances” is worth considering and researching further because there is empirical evidence to support it. If you went to assess the likelihood that a particular individual will commit a violent act do not examine his upbringing or his mental condition.  Look at his relationship with the group that constitutes his potential target, i.e. students at university, dorm residents, student organizations, faculty, etc.  If it is noticeably troubled, take precautions.

This actually is doable with existing professionals and paraprofessionals (student and faculty counselors, if they are organized and trained to observe and monitor these situations and individuals.  As James Gilligan, a scholar of violence, who was a prison psychiatrist, has written, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this loss of face”.

Professor Black further develops this theory by emphasizing that “the vectors of social geometry propel individuals to do what they do…There are particular social configurations that produce various kinds of behavior.  It is the configuration that generates the violence.  It is not peculiar to the individual.  There is not something in the individual’s mind that brings the event into existence”, says Black.

Based on my own experience of observing evidence of criminal activity for 25 years on the Bench, I don’t agree completely with Professor Black that “there is not something in the individual’s mind” that motivates criminal activity. As a minimum, my experience tells me that an individual’s personality, shaped by his or her biology, environment and history, may affect his response to a particular social configuration or relationship.  But the theory is still worth researching further and developing for the reasons cited earlier.

This theory of Professor Black’s, even if it is not accepted in its pure form, as is the case with this writer, still threatens some bedrock premises of our criminal justice system.  The theory, as Washington Post columnist Shankar Vedantam notes, “…threatens conservative beliefs about the role of personal responsibility and accountability for criminal acts as well as liberal notions about there being a psychological or “humanistic” explanation for all behavior.  Nevertheless, as long as no one claims to know how to predict future behavior and therefore how to stop human beings from killing or hurting other human beings, we ought to explore every possible explanation for what people do and why they do it.  The debate about what we do about violent crime should not be limited to what columnist E.J. Dione calls “technical details or ideological predispositions”.  More on those on another day.

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