Saturday, May 05, 2007

Cho and VT - Paul Purcell's Take

I have mentioned Jonathan Bernstein's Crisis Management newsletter a few times in the past (and if you think you may ever wind up dealing with crisis communications -- even when little Bobby knocks a line drive through the neighbor's window -- you owe it to yourself to subscribe).

One of his regular contributors is Paul Purcell, author of Disaster Prep 101: The Ultimate Guide to Emergency Preparedness. Purcell recently published his take on the tragedy at Virginia Tech. It is reprinted below, with his permission. My commentary -- which Purcell has not seen or approved -- follows the article.

Seung-Hui Cho, Virginia Tech, and Homeland Security

In today’s news, coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre continues as does the debate over whether or not the shooter’s twisted, angry, “multimedia manifesto” should have been aired, and/or whether or not the content should be pulled. Both sides of this debate are heavily weighted, but let’s look at a few key issues.

On one hand, there are those who feel air-time for killers only breeds more killers; that it spurs on the copycats and gives the proverbial “15 minutes of fame” to those least deserving. There is logic to this as evidenced by the fact that there have been cases of similar threats on at least ten campuses around the country in recent days (though we don’t know if they were copying the incident or acting out due to the tape).

On the other hand, there is immense educational value afforded by the fact that such a deranged diatribe as this is available for study. Used in the proper way and kept in the correct context, this video collection of self-exhibited symptoms is a priceless source of psychological insight rarely found.

We owe it to those who lost their lives in this tragedy to glean every positive detail that can be used to make our world a safer place. This should be done for much the same reason that we might conduct an autopsy, reconstruct an accident, or dissect a terror attack. To do anything less would be to fail to honor the memory of the victims.

What is puzzling is the fact that several networks have said they will not broadcast Cho’s recorded rant. However, they have not hesitated to discuss in detail each minute step of the attack starting with the first murders in the dormitory, all the way through Cho’s chaining the doors to hold his victims captive as his rampage took him classroom to classroom. This does nothing but provide a tactical education to potential copycats. On top of that, refusing to air the video offers a level of privacy and consideration to an individual who was of smaller caliber than either weapon he carried, and whose rights were forfeited by his own actions.

To the peaceful majority of the general public, and to the growing population of public safety professionals, Cho’s tape and its availability offer several unique considerations and distinct opportunities:

  1. Not airing the tape, with its undeniable demonstration of the depths of Cho’s disturbance, would give too much room for creative speculation of “why.” Without showing his depravity, troubled and impressionable minds might envision him a hero in much the same way Jesse James and Billy the Kid - both notorious outlaws - were elevated to hero status simply because so few people knew how vicious the two really were. Airing the tape gives us the opportunity to show Cho for what he was and let those who may be contemplating similar acts see the true nature of such perpetrators. They are not heroes, they are not normal, they are not revered, and what mental malfunctions they may have will be shown to the world.
  2. Broadcasting the tape allows those with human resources management responsibilities, whether in an educational or professional setting, to see some of the “red flags” of potentially dangerous behavior and to hopefully learn some of the indicators that may be present when someone is about to “pull a Cho.” Failing to show the tape would let this type of education slip by.
  3. The most important aspect of all is the in-depth glimpse Cho’s diary of dementia gives both the public and homeland security into the hate-induced perspective of the terrorist psyche. Despite outward appearances and statements to the contrary, little terrorist activity is based on religion or politics. Terrorism is generally based on fear and envy; mostly the envy of the “have nots” who feel we are the “haves” and are somehow responsible for their misperceived lot in life. There is no reasoning with this type of mindset, no placating, no negotiation, no pacification, and this mentality isn’t something that can be switched off by dollars or dialogue. So it is with terrorists, so it was with Cho, and so we need to better understand those who seek to do us harm.

A full discourse giving proper attention to both sides of the “to air or not to air” debate could occupy volumes that would dwarf the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is not the purpose of this short article to come to a concrete conclusion, but merely to point out the fact that we do have treasure that can be extracted from the tragic, and that hopefully this type of valuable education can avert the next potential atrocity.

Learn to draw meaning from misfortune, always be kind to others, and above all stay safe!

About the author: Paul Purcell is an Atlanta-based security analyst and preparedness consultant with over 20 years risk-management experience, and is also the author of both “Disaster Prep 101” and “The Case File.” More about the author and additional articles of interest can be found at:


A day or two after NBC received Cho's video, the Detroit affiliate, WDIV-TV, announced that it would no longer air the video (as have many other stations). As Purcell points out, such a video could prove to be an invaluable training tool for safety, security, human resources, and managerial staff tasked with workplace safety. Purcell doesn't explicitly mention this, but I suspect one consideration in his second and third points above is the insights that could be gained by psychologists and psychiatrists.

For academics and professionals, the video is a valid tool. Where I disagree with Purcell, however, is constantly replaying the video over and over for the general public. For much of the public -- not exposed to the seamier side of humanity as we are -- the video could be quite disturbing, with its overt psychopathology. It could also serve to aggrandize Cho (as Purcell points out). This is a valid concern, especially with those like Columbine killers Harris and Klebold, and others considered "losers" or "weirdos." It also causes additional pain to the families and friends of the victims.

Researchers and serious students should have reasonably unfettered access to the video, for the reasons laid out by Purcell. The psychology of the mass killer or serial killer is still not fully understood. Retired FBI agent Robert K. Ressler, in his book Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI, delved into the psyches of killers like John Wayne Gacy, John Joubert, Ed Kemper, and others, while a number of authors have written about Ted Bundy, Gary Leon Ridgeway, Albert De Salvo and similar notorious cases. But we still do not know what makes these men -- and for the most part, they are men -- tick. We have no idea what causes them to kill when others don't.

Ted Bundy, arguably the most prolific mass killer in American history (and most written about), steadfastly refused to reveal his motivations (until shortly before his execution, a delaying tactic which ultimately failed). Other mass killers, like Cho, Harris and Klebold, were themselves killed before they could be studied.

The psychology of the mass killer needs to be studied in much greater detail, and Cho's video is an important part of that education.

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