The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

April 25, 2007

What Made Cho Do It?

It’s a question that a lot of people these days are asking. Some folks think he was just an evil sonofabitch, and that people like him should be locked up simply for existing. Other folks have a bit more of a nuanced view, because they have a little bit of an understanding of the conditions that lead to a guy like Cho.

I would point out this post at Jacqueline Passey’s blog, where she mentions that she had the occasional fantasy when she was a young’un of sending mythical dragons (yep, she’s a sci-fi fan) off to take her childhood tormentors to experience the celestial dirt nap. Quite a debate has taken off in the comments, as the epic battle between those people who were picked on in school and those people who weren’t rages. At the same time, I’d point out a post that Mike at the No Angst Blog brings up about one of Cho’s victims. This is one of those kids who would have been described as an “at-risk” youth, but turned his life around to become a truly model citizen, the sort that any father would have loved to have court his daughter.

Clearly, the comments at Jacqueline’s place point out a disconnect between those who understand Cho and those who don’t. To put it simply, the folks who understand him know exactly where he came from, and exactly what sort of hell he might have gone through during his life. Not that this in any way excuses what he did, because nothing is justification for murdering innocent people. But I think that Jacqueline, her commenter Phil (who occasionally stops by here), Mike’s subject (and Cho’s victim) Matt La Porte, and even I, understand what might have led to Cho’s actions. We might have seen the same sort of treatment that led to his actions, but we had enough strength as people to overcome that experience. Obviously I can’t speak for any of them, I can only tell my own story.

Childhood, for the popular kids, is a land of milk and honey. For kids like me, it was hell. I can’t for the life of me understand what it was that made me so much “different”. But I know from an early age, probably at least back to 3rd and 4th grade, I was picked on. I think part of it was a defensive thing, because I was one of the “nerds” who was in the gifted program. I know for a fact that part of it was my voice, which for some unknown reason has an odd nasal characteristic (which I think, thankfully, has lessened over time, thanks to puberty which made it deep, and years of smoking which took out some of the nasal character). But a great deal of it, I’m sure, is that from an early age I never really understood or took part in the social hierarchy. I never really understood the rules. I never knew how to stand up for myself and fight back when I was picked on. The even stranger thing about it was that early in life, I found myself growing bigger than those people who were picking on me. As a freshman in high school, I was bigger than most of the seniors. But the nasty thing about it is that those people who would pick on others can sense when they’ve found a target that won’t strike back, no matter how big they are, and they torment that sort of person even more aggressively.

When you’re in a place in life like that, you have a sense of despondence that most people don’t understand. They don’t even have the capability to understand it. After all, to the kids who weren’t picked on, “it’s just high school”. “It’s not that bad.” No, sorry, assholes, but it IS that bad. When you’re in middle school and high school, you don’t know anything different. There were times in high school that I even contemplated suicide, because I simply wanted an escape. But I just had this sense inside that maybe, when I finally got out of that hell, I could triumph. I thought to myself that the real world can’t be as superficial and idiotic as the high school land of cliques and “prom court”.

Luckily for myself, I had a couple of things in my life that helped. None of them were really related to school, though. I was in a large high school, and that made it a little easier to have a few acquaintances who faced some of the same challenges. Thankfully, I also have a very close friend who I’ve known since I was 2, that helped me through some of these times. He wasn’t as much of an outsider as I was, since he found his niche in the band, but I think he was able to understand some of what was going on in my life. As a result, he’s been my lifelong best friend, was best man in my wedding, and is the only person in my entire high school with which I keep regular correspondence.

But the real thing that made it bearable was withdrawal to a safe haven. When I was 11, my parents enrolled me in martial arts, and I was able to take my experiences there and run with it. Much like the victim of Cho that Mike profiles in the above link, the sort of rigidly-enforced rank structure, and the idea that anyone who applies himself can succeed in a merit-based system, allowed me to both express myself and find an outlet for some of my issues. As I grew into my role at the karate school, I started to also be given responsibilities and privileges. I became an instructor, and I saw how some of the younger students looked up to me. This started to give me the sense of self-worth that classmates were trying to take away from me. The day I earned my black belt, I really began to gain confidence in myself, and understand that I was actually accomplishing something pretty special. Even more fulfilling was the school’s demonstration team. The largest demonstration we ever gave was in front of a crowd of nearly 3,000. It was my participation in that team that made me realize that I had talents and skills, and that there was a world out there that would value those talents, even if my classmates would not. (That experience was also what helped me conquer my fears of public speaking.) To this day, I consider my martial arts experience as something that really saved me as a person. Had I not had something that could both be an outlet for the pain I felt at school, and which could also fulfill my human needs for achievement at an age where I really needed to feel some self-worth, I have no idea where I’d be today (or if I’d be here at all).

I never really faced those people at my high school as an equal, because I had an outlet and never really felt that I had to. Things got a bit tougher when I got to college, and again, I was lucky enough to use the lessons I’d learned to get me through. When I got into college, I never thought I’d have joined a fraternity. But one night, I went up with a friend from the dorms to the house he was pledging, and immediately felt a connection with some of the folks there. They were a group of laid-back, relaxed guys. They weren’t the pretentious jerks I’d seen at other houses. It seemed like they were a group of guys I could be happy living with. So I ended up rushing, getting a bid, pledging, and moved into the house my sophomore year. It was then that I began to face some trouble. You see, when you live in a house with 50 other testosterone-fueled 18-23 year olds, there’s a lot of back and forth ribbing that goes on. But I’d never been exposed to that, other than being picked on as a child, and so I fell into my old patterns of being hurt by that behavior, instead of standing up for myself. And began to fall into the despondence I had experienced in high school. But I struggled through it, and I suddenly had an epiphany. If I didn’t show them that they hurt me, they didn’t get any enjoyment out of it. All of a sudden I started to learn how to play the give-and-take of jocular insults, instead of being the victim. I began to see a very pronounced change. Suddenly the people who would get on my case and throw out a jagged verbal barb weren’t the people who were trying to hurt me. Those folks would head towards easier marks. The people who would do something like that were the types who knew I had something to throw right back at them. All of a sudden I understood the difference between playful ribbing, and hurtful attacks. And when I learned that, I realized that nobody in the world could hurt me unless I let them.

There are days that I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t gone through what I have. And truthfully, I’ve grown to really like the person I’ve become. I don’t think I’d be that person if I didn’t have the experiences I’ve had. Part of what has made me a fiercely independent person is the fact that I was never part of the “in” crowd, and I grew to choose my own values instead of what the “popular” kids chose. But I look back on all the things that have gone on, and I see the ways it could have been different. I’ve seen what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had to face. I’ve seen the sort of treatment that Cho Seung-Hui endured. And I understand what might have driven them to the actions they took. It’s not right. It’s not something that should have happened. But I’ve been in a despondent stage where all I wanted was an escape, and where I felt rage towards the people who were making my life hell. I was strong enough to fight through it, with the help I had available to me. I was raised by good, loving parents who gave me other options. I took those other options, and used them to make myself a stronger person. And these days, I consider myself to be a strong, independent, ethical person, who took the attacks of youth and fashioned them into armor which has protected me ever since. Folks like Cho or the Columbine kids didn’t have those outlets, and didn’t have the tools I had to work through those problems. And they lashed out as a result.

I look at the kids who are sitting in the position I was 12 years ago, as a confused, hurt, depressed 16-year-old, and feel truly sorry for them. I know what it feels like to be an outsider in the high school culture, where it’s only acceptable to be “in”. People who have never been there don’t have a clue how painful it is to think that there’s no place in the world where you have value. It’s a false belief, to be sure, because in the grand scheme of things, high school culture is stupid and pointless and has nothing to do with the real world. But how many kids see beyond that, when the world around them doesn’t seem to offer any understanding? It’s a false belief, but it SEEMS real.

So there’s a message in this story. And that message goes out to the people reading this who are in the same place I was 12 years ago. I have a feeling that those sorts of people have followed this story to the end, because I’m sure you feel like I’m speaking right to you. And I am. I’ve been there. I know how much it hurts. And no matter how much it feels like there’s no way out, it gets better. The world’s a really big place, and the speed at which everyone forgets who the prom queen was will make your head spin. 10 years after high school, when that prom queen is on her third kid and has lost her figure, all she has left to hold on to in life is her memories of the “good old days”. You, on the other hand, have the world open to you. Dream big, hit the throttle once you graduate, and leave the rest of those assholes in your dust.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 12:20 am || Permalink || Comments (7) || Trackback URL || Categories: Around The 'Sphere, Personal Life


  1. Great post!

    Comment by Jacqueline — April 25, 2007 @ 12:34 pm
  2. Brad –

    The problem as I see it here is actually rather simple–we keep our kids in a state of total powerlessness by denying them the chance to take ownership and any responsibility for their own lives until their teens. The wishy-washy, everyone-who-tries-really-hard-gets-an-A mentality in the government school system only makes this situation worse by ensuring this kids can’t tell when they’re really succeeding at something from when the adults just don’t want to hurt their feelings.

    In talking about your own experience with martial arts, the core factor I see is that in martial arts, as in most sports, a good performance is clearly and easily distinguished from a bad one. This allowed you to take ownership of what you were doing without depending on an adult or popular kid to tell you what was “good”.

    I had a similar experience with music. I was one of those kids who never got a date to a dance, never got invited to parties, was treated like a doormat by every passing popular kid. Fortunately, I was also a kid who would fight back early and often enough most of the tormenters would keep a respectful distance. (Doesn’t mean I *liked* doing it, though.) I wandered from class to class, trapped on campus for eight hours a day with people I couldn’t stand, always ready for the next slight or affront to come my way. It was a pretty rotten way to live, and I had no self-esteem at all.

    When I was in 5th grade, I started playing the trumpet. At first I did it because we all had to do some music thing in school, and that was the one that seemed like the least trouble. Over the years, I kept playing, never quite taking it seriously. Then, one day in 9th grade, I discovered something–I liked the way I sounded when I played. All that work was suddenly worth something. *I* was worth something.

    Suddenly, the validation was coming from something I could control, my own skill and hard work, instead of my position on the social star charts, which was at the whim of the popular kids. It was the one thing, small as it may be, that made me realize that I could control the direction of my life.

    Back to my larger point, most kids growing up today don’t get the opportunity to figure this out because they grow up going from one managed situation to the next, the power over their lives kept in the hands of parents and teachers, while the underground world of playground politics creates a power structure outside the one imposed by adults where the distribution of power is skewed towards those who are adept at playing their fellow kids like little violins.

    For most kids, this is a nonsensical situation that is tolerated because they don’t know any better. For some it creates a private little hell with no hope of escape. For a rare few, it creates a pressure cooker which turns out a killer.

    The sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

    Comment by Quincy — April 26, 2007 @ 2:39 am
  3. I don’t know where you get the idea that childhood is a great time for the popular kids.

    I went to a small private school in a small city and my mother is a big gossip, so as an adult I now know a lot about what kind of skeletons were in the closets of my classmates. A parent’s suicide. Years of sexual abuse by an older brother. A father jailed for sexual abuse of his daughter. A parent’s death from cancer. This is what the popular girls were dealing with when they went home. And that’s just the spectacular stuff – there was plenty of garden-variety emotionally abusive marriages, alcoholism, and adultery.

    I used to have a huge chip on my shoulder about my social rejection as a child, and then one day I really took a hard look at my memories and I realized that no matter how mean those girls were to me, I was a toad and I wouldn’t have liked me either. Blame the other kids all you want, but seriously ask yourself if you act any differently when presented with the same situation as an adult – insofar as we can ever be presented with the same situations as adults, since we are never forced into proximity with others not of our choosing in the same way.

    Comment by Common Reader — April 26, 2007 @ 2:58 pm
  4. Honestly Brad, I really don’t give a shit why he did it.

    He was crazy and evil and needed to be shot in the head or overpowered by 5 guys with a little bit of balls; hopefully being repeatedly shot in the head with his own gun during the struggle.

    Why he in his diseased mind thought he should have done it is completely irrelevant, and pointless to ponder, or care about.

    Comment by Chris Byrne — April 27, 2007 @ 12:51 am
  5. Brad, as a kid, I was not in the “popular” group. I did have a few good friends that I could talk to and I was in band from the 6th grade on. Band was the best thing that ever happened to me in my teen years. I was part of a group and around people who had similar interests as me. I was also a watcher, and saw what some of those “popular” kids were doing and knew it wasn’t right. I decided at an early age, that I wasn’t going to let other people make my happiness. I am grateful for a few good friends that got me thru my teen years.

    I know it helps to try to understand what causes people to do the things that they do. Maybe it explains why Cho went on his murderous spree, BUT he is still accountable for his actions…In my book, God is the one that will judge Cho for what happened.

    Thanks for your post. I am sure there are many that have had similar experience as your. Hopefully we learn something from this…

    Comment by Lucy Stern — April 28, 2007 @ 2:11 am
  6. Common Reader,

    Some of those popular kids might have truly nasty home lives, and some of the unpopular kids might as well. I’m not saying that they’ve got easy lives, only that their lives during the school day are a heck of a lot easier.


    Understanding why it happened has no bearing on the culpability of Cho, nor on what should have happened to him. I agree with you that if someone had put a quick stop to this, we’d all be better off. And I wouldn’t criticize the ferocity of their response.

    But wouldn’t you agree that it might be a good idea to study these situations? We study how wars begin and how to fight them, even though our desire is to stay out of them whenever possible and win them with overwhelming force if we have to get involved in one. If we get a better idea of what causes these situations, it might help us to recognize how to avoid them in the future.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — April 30, 2007 @ 10:56 am
  7. No, actually I don’t. Studying the motivations of the insane is a pointless excercise.

    In fact, studying anything that by definition does not, and can not make sense, is in itself insanity.

    Unfortunately, human beings as a whole have a hard time accepting that anything can possibly be without explanation. Even if we can’t figure something out we say “it’s gods will”; because to our minds THERE MUST BE A REASON.

    Well, to a violent sociopath, or a psychopath; no, there doesn’t have to be.

    Spree killers and serial killers are not motivated by “normal” levels of abuse Brad, they are motivated by their own insanity. Though abuse may act as a trigger, one must already be insane in order to become a spree killer or serial killer.

    Specifically, one must be either a psychopath (which is a biological defect), or a violent and usually dissociative sociopath (which can be biological, or emotional).

    If someone is a psychopath, or a violent sociopath (there are many different types of sociopathy, most of which are physically non-volient); then they need to be segregated from society.

    Preventing bullying et al has nothing to do with that. The only thing that normal levels of bullying will do is force a reaction from the subject; but that reaction is not predictable by “normal” people.

    It is impossible to treat a true psychopath; and someone who is truly a sociopath, especially a dissociative sociopath (violent or not) is very difficult (though not impossible) to treat.

    The lack of understanding of these objective facts causes people to believe that somehow “this could have been prevented if we only stopped the bullying” or some other such nonsense.

    The fallacy is one of projection of ones own emotions and experiences onto a mind who’s thought processes are entirely alien.

    Psychopaths and dissociative sociopaths don’t think the was “normal” people do. They don’t have the same motivations, the same reactions, the same morals or ethics or drives as “everyone else. What works with others doesn’t work with them.

    We look for a reason that “makes sense” to us; but that very act is itself senseless, because the reasoning of violent sociopaths and psychopaths cannot be made sense of; except in terms of their own pathology.

    Comment by Chris Byrne — April 30, 2007 @ 3:59 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.