April 18, 2007
Taking a Break Between Shootings Is Unusual, but Not Unheard of, Experts Say
By BENEDICT CAREY
The long delay between the first and the second set of killings at Virginia Tech on Monday — presuming there was only one gunman — puts the attacker in a small minority of mass killers.
In a database of murder and mayhem that goes back more than 100 years, Dr. Michael Stone, an expert on personality disorders and killers, said he found only a few apparent delays among more than 40 rampage killings, at offices and schools.
Several experts said yesterday that the nearly three-hour delay between shootings may have been a matter of nerves, or practical necessity. The gunman may have gone into hiding or abandoned one plan for another, for maximum effect.
The police have identified the gunman in the second shootings as Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old student who systematically moved through an engineering department building, apparently shooting students and professors at random.
It was reported yesterday that guns found with Mr. Cho, one of which was used in the first killings, had their serial numbers scratched out, suggesting that the killer may have had two plans, not just one, said Roger Depue, former chief of the behavioral science unit at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and founder of Academy Group Inc., of Manassas, Va., which advises corporations and schools on security.
If it was the same person, Mr. Depue said: “One possibility is that he had a primary target and a secondary one. If the first shooting had gone as planned, maybe he doesn’t do the second one. If it doesn’t go well, he thinks, ‘Well, if they’re going to take me, then I’m going to plan B.”
Mr. Depue added, “There’s a suicidal idea as well as a homicidal one.”
A rush of commentary on the Internet and elsewhere portrays Mr. Cho as consumed by dark thoughts; in an obscenity-laced play posted on AOL.com and attributed to Mr. Cho, an angry 13-year-old accuses his stepfather of murdering his real father. But little about Mr. Cho has been confirmed.
The details that have emerged from Monday’s rampage portray the gunman as a generic malcontent. He reportedly left a note with a list of grievances against “charlatans” and “rich kids” on campus. He was angry at a former girlfriend, fellow students have suggested. And, inevitably, he was described as “troubled” and a “loner.”
Another mass killer who took a break between killings was Charles Whitman, who in 1966 killed his wife and his mother. Hours later he climbed to the 28th-floor observation deck of the clock tower at the University of Texas and opened fire, killing 14 people before he was killed by the police.
Mr. Cho does not shatter the mold for mass murderers. A 2000 analysis of 102 rampage killings by The New York Times found that most were perpetrated during the day, by educated white men. Seven of the 102 killers were Asian men. About a third took their own lives.
Many others die in a hail of police gunfire, a kind of provoked suicide, Dr. Stone said. For both groups, the rampage may be fundamentally a suicide mission, some experts said.
“I think that a person can be so humiliated, mortified and enraged, and lack the language or the skills to deal with that, and in rare cases what begins as a suicidal urge then becomes homicidal,” said Dr. Frank Ochberg, chairman emeritus of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, who worked with officials at Columbine High School.
Suicide bombers provide a telling contrast to suicide mass killers. They are chosen for their mental stability, while rampage killers are typically mentally troubled, said Dr. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who directs the political psychology program at George Washington University. Suicide bombers are usually directed by a commander, and believe in a fundamental sense they are acting to save the world, Dr. Post said.
Mass killers like Mr. Cho operate on their own, and are likely to want to end the world, their own and others’. They do not snap, so much as collect perceived injustices and insults and grievances, plot carefully and act deliberately, said Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist who runs the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia. “There’s a grandiosity in some of these cases, a contrast between the reality of who the person is, and who they aspire to be, how they expect to be treated and how they are treated, a contrast that magnifies their depression and anger,” Dr. Cornell said.
He said the project advised teachers and administrators on how to investigate and act on threats before they are carried out. But the school has to identify a threat before it can do anything.
Despite the familiar descriptions in the Virginia Tech mass killings and other recent ones — by “troubled loners” with grievances — there is no profile of a potential mass killer.
“Trying to draw up a catalog or ‘checklist’ of warning signs to detect a school shooter can be shortsighted, even dangerous,” cautioned a report by the F.B.I. compiled after the Columbine shootings, because when publicized, such lists “can end up unfairly labeling many nonviolent students as potentially dangerous or even lethal.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company