Why did he do it?
After the Virginia Tech massacre, it is the biggest question
Monday’s mayhem has a striking similarity to Ottawa’s St. Pius shooting deaths of 1975, writes CHRIS COBB.
On the second day, the inevitable question was why? Inevitably, nobody had the answer.
CNN interviewed the mailman who delivered to Cho Seung- Hui’s home. “ The family is sweethearts,” he said, “ always smiling, always polite.”
And it seems that Mr. Cho, the Virginia Tech English major who killed 32 fellow students and teachers before killing himself, was quiet — a loner who kept himself to himself.
Perpetrators of this type of crime are typically quiet, innocuous types, but this common characteristic is always mentioned in news coverage of these events. “ Shooter was gregarious party- animal.” Now that would be news.
British rock star and, later, world hunger activist Bob Geldof was being interviewed at a U. S. radio station in January 1979 when first reports came in of a school shooting in San Diego. Brenda Ann Spencer, then 16, killed the school principal and custodian and wounded eight students with a rifle her father had given her.
When a reporter asked Ms. Spencer why she had done it, she replied: “ I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
The incident inspired Mr. Geldof to write I Don’t Like Mondays for his group The Boomtown Rats.
In the song, Geldof addressed the “ Why” question:
And daddy couldn’t understand it, He always said she was as good as gold. And he can see no reason ’ Cause there are no reasons What reason do you need to be shown?
Ms. Spencer is still in prison with numerous failed parole attempts behind her. In that regard, she is unusual. For most school shooters, these are suicide missions.
Four years before Ms. Spencer fired at her schoolmates, one of the first school shootings in North America had happened in Ottawa, at St. Pius X High School.
The incident is etched deeply into the memories of anyone who lived through it. Robert Poulin, they said, was a “ quiet, intelligent, normal 18- year- old boy.” Except he wasn’t normal. On Oct 27, 1975 — a Monday — he turned up at school with the shotgun he’d bought from Giant Tiger and pumped pellets into a packed religion class and then turned the gun on himself.
Three died, including a classmate and a female school friend he’d murdered in the basement of his Ottawa South home. Many others were injured and damaged physically or psychologically for life.
This was known about Robert Poulin: He was a quiet, studious, not conventionally attractive teenager. He wore thick glasses and was concerned about his pigeon chest.
But he was an A student and a member of the military cadets, where he learned how to shoot a gun. He once listed his favourite hobbies as reading science fiction, collecting stamps and models and wargaming.
He had difficulty striking up a conversation with anyone, especially girls.
One girl, a sometimes fiery but decent, kind, beautiful Glebe Collegiate student named Kim Rabot, had some sympathy for him and went occasionally to his house for dinner. It was Kim he murdered.
But, to this day, nobody knows the reason why Robert Poulin did what he did.
Like Mr. Cho, he was a time bomb and, like Mr. Cho, if he gave signals of his intent, nobody picked up on them.
Mr. Poulin, who had developed an unhealthy liking for pornography, wrote copiously in his diary and, after his death, police found ugly entries in which he wrote of hating his family, of being occasionally depressed and of wanting his first sexual experience.
Mr. Cho also apparently used dark images in his creative writing papers, but we don’t yet know what he wrote. So what? Both killers, and all the rest in between, were obviously disturbed, and adept at disguising it.
But the point is the same today as it was 30 years and many dozen dead and injured victims ago: How could anyone have known?
After the St. Pius shootings, two psychiatrists from the prestigious Clark Institute in Toronto tried to make sense of Mr. Poulin’s troubled mind.
“ To most people,” they wrote, “ it seems only reasonable that the perpetrator of such gross acts of violence ought to be recognizable prior to the act.
“ Yet in our experience, and in literature, we find sudden murderers did not have a history of trouble with the law and they are frequently from cohesive family backgrounds.”
Mr. Poulin was, according to outward appearances, from a cohesive middle- class family and, if the Chos’ mailman is correct, so was Mr. Cho.
One of the Toronto doctors also commented that if psychological tests were conducted on every person, fantasies of violence would be discovered in most.
Mr. Poulin’s father said he couldn’t hazard a guess why he had committed such a hideous crime: “ There was no indication anywhere at any time, even on the morning that it happened.”
Kevin Cameron, an Alberta risk assessment specialist who works with school authorities in the United States and Canada, spent most of yesterday doing media interviews and repeating his salient point: most perpetrators, such as Mr. Cho, Mr. Poulin, Montreal’s École Polytechnique killer, Marc Lépine; and the 14- year- old boy who shot fellow students in Taber, Alta. eight years ago, send out signals.
“ Most people will share some degree of their intentions and ideas with others,” he told the Citizen yesterday, “ and start to talk about what they are struggling with.
“ They do it orally and in their writings. These are pre- incident indicators, or early cries for help.”
But it’s difficult and certainly not foolproof, he admits: “ If someone is 100- per- cent committed to killing, I don’t know how to stop them.
“ But we can work with those who aren’t 100- per- cent committed because they will give out signs.”
But one student might be prone to bar fights on a Friday night and likely pose no danger to anyone except himself and the person connecting with his fist.
Surprise mass murderers like Mr. Cho tend to be quiet, withdrawn and often consumed with their own ideas — ob- sessed with other mass killings, for instance.
But what if an aggrieved student, in a fit of passing anger, mouths off about bringing a gun to school to get even with someone?
“ It’s one thing to make a threat and another thing to pose a threat,” said Mr. Cameron.
“ So one way we determine that is to ask ‘ has this boy or girl done anything to suggest they have engaged in behaviours consistent with their threats?’
Evidence of potential problems can often be found in school lockers or bedrooms at homes — or college dorms.
“ It’s amazing the journals that adults and kids will keep about their plans,” he said.
“ And it’s where you find weapons and explosives. So if you want a quick way to determine whether someone poses a serious risk, go to the typical locations where you find preattack behaviours.”
In other words, go look in the school locker and get parents to scour the kids’ bedroom.
Which brings us eerily and sadly back to the Poulin case and the unavoidable conclusion that history keeps repeating itself.
The Poulin inquest jury recommended that all school lockers be searched randomly every semester and proposed a sweeping, albeit impractical ban on pornography in Ontario.
Mr. Poulin secreted his porn, including a full- size inflatable doll, in his basement bedroom.
The jury also recommended severe restrictions on gun sales, some of which have been implemented, most of which haven’t.
Mr. Cameron says there is little difference between the schools and perpetrators in United States and Canada, except the unfettered access Americans have to high- pow- ered weapons.
“ This is why the incidents in the U. S. are more dramatic,” he said.
“ If the boy in Taber had walked in with high- powered weapons, that situation would have looked very different.”
The final word at the Poulin inquest came from Ontario’s sage chief coroner, H. B. Cotnam, who echoed one of the main themes of the inquest: the need for education and research into what made a personality like Robert Poulin reach such a tragic state without being detected.
“ Hopefully,” said a weary Mr. Cotnam at the close of the inquest 32 years ago, “ there will be something good come out of this.”
Chris Cobb is the co- author, with Bob Avery, of Rape of a Normal Mind, a study of the Robert Poulin case.