Probing Clues Left Behind
The magnitude of his killing spree puts Seung Hui Cho in a category by himself as the nation's worst mass shooter. Yet the contents of the multimedia package he left behind reveal the workings of a criminal mind that was anything but unique. Cho is a "textbook" mass murderer, says Martin Blinder, a forensic psychiatrist in San Anselmo, Calif., who has been a consultant in many mass-murder cases. "He exhibits all the classic signs: psychosis, grandiosity, narcissism, a paranoid view of the world, and the perception of himself as a victim."
The package of 43 photographs, 27 short videos, and an incoherent 23-page statement that was delivered to NBC a day after the massacre paints a chilling picture of a disturbed and extremely isolated young man, one who believes the world is out to get him and has left him no choice but violence. "When the time came, I did it. I had to," he says in one of the videos. "You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today, but you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option."
Rich brats. In other segments, Cho, seething with resentment, rails against the hedonism displayed by rich "brats" who drive Mercedes-Benzes, wear gold jewelry, and drink vodka and cognac. In two of the photographs, he is a smiling, happy college student, but in the others he is more menacing, brandishing a knife, a hammer, and guns. And, true to the typical blueprint for mass murderers, he compares himself to Jesus Christ and others whom he defines as martyrs, including the Columbine killers. "Religious themes, and references to Christ and crucifixion are very common in psychotic disorders," says Stephen Hinshaw, chairman of the psychology department at the University of California-Berkeley. "There's a huge sense of self-aggrandizement and a need for public recognition of pain and suffering."
There are no clues in his rambling oeuvre as to how Cho chose his victims or what exactly pushed him over the edge. And though he speaks of getting even, he never says with whom. In two plays the English major wrote several months before his rampage, he focuses more directly on specific characters. In Richard McBeef, a teenager accuses his stepfather of molesting him and of killing his father. In Mr. Brownstone, three students talk of their hatred for their abusive high school math teacher. "This is a part of the myth that people commit these horrendous crimes, because they were victimized themselves somehow," says Stanton Samenow, a clinical psychiatrist and author of Inside the Criminal Mind. "But even if he was abused, it would still be quite a leap to mass murder."
That said, Cho's writings, which also included poetry, were so violent and profane that they created concern throughout the English department. More than once, teachers gathered to discuss how to handle their troubled student and even took their concerns to university officials. Last week, with the delivery of his postmortem package, Cho's teachers were left wondering once again about the meaning in the messages coming from their student.
But experts say the most telling thing about Cho's elaborate communiqué from the grave is that he sent it at all. "He is so important in his own mind that he believes he deserves to be a national figure, which is precisely why mass murderers engage in such dramatic acts," says Blinder. "And the package he put together shows that he requires a comparable response from the world. And he got one."
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.