Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cho, the responsible

I've noted this before, but it's worth noting again:

In his little book Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, philosopher Herbert Fingarette distinguishes two senses of the word "responsible." In the first sense, being responsible means being the locus of a given action. In the second sense, it refers to being an accountable moral agent. The first sense applies when we think of, say, a bear attacking someone: no one seriously attributes malice to the bear. The second sense is more in line with how we approach premeditated murder: the killer is not only the enactor of the murder; he is also someone who can be held accountable for having done wrong.

How responsible was mass murderer Cho Seung-hui for his actions? My purpose in this essay is to affirm that Cho was ultimately responsible for his actions, that he is indeed the proper object of blame, but that freedom and responsibility are complex concepts that necessarily lead us outward from Cho to the question of how his actions are interconnected with both internal and external factors. The purpose here is not to present facile, pat answers, but to gain an appreciation of the problem and promote some reflection thereupon.

As the news agencies allow us to delve further into the troubled psyche of Cho Seung-hui, theories are being put forth as to the nature of Cho's insanity. I don't think anyone questions that Cho was insane, but there has been speculation as to whether Cho's pathology was exacerbated by a condition like autism or its close cousin, Asperger syndrome. If I had to choose between the latter two, I would choose Asperger's (see here and here for a description of each condition).

I've written before that compulsions and human freedom are not mutually exclusive:

Human freedom works in and through one's compulsions, impulsions, and other assorted predispositions. The circumstances in which we are presented with only one explicit path to follow are exceedingly rare. I take people, including those deemed "depressed" or "drunk" or "insane," to be responsible for what they do. Even the victims of cognitive disorders documented in books like Oliver Sacks's classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat are able to articulate a worldview emanating from their peculiar brand of rationality.

Consider this: if you hold the victimological position that someone is, say, irretrievably insane, then it would be consistent to advocate euthanasia for that person. What, after all, elevates that person above the status of a rabid dog? We shoot or euthanize such dogs. What "humanity" are we responding to, that we feel the need to keep an insane human being alive? In the case of a rabid dog, an entity that is a danger to itself and to others, we choose a practical solution that grants us, the potential victims of the dog, permanent peace of mind.

Yet most members of the victimological school of thought would recoil in horror at the idea of euthanising (or shooting!) the dangerously mentally ill. I find this hypocritical. If someone is a complete victim, that person's no longer a person. A more consistent stance would affirm that, even in the insane, there exists some measure of freedom and choice. If we are unable to grant the existence of that freedom, we are unable to grant that person's humanity. If we are unable to grant that humanity-- to the memory hole!

Whether the horizon of our choices be wide or narrow, choice exists, and therefore freedom exists (NB: I've argued the same thing re: Muslim sensitivity to those Muhammad cartoons-- the Muslims who get violent at the sight of such cartoons are to blame for their violence; they have the choice to react violently or not). To that extent, people are accountable for what they do. When you know a person is depressed and suicidal, you don't treat him or her like an automaton. You don't bring out the cattle prod, the chains, and the straitjacket right away: you reason with that person. You beg, cajole, coax, implore, argue, wheedle, rage-- whatever it takes to help that person see the light, or at least see that someone cares about them. You don't throw up your hands in defeat and say, "OK... it's your decision. Go jump if that's what you want."

It is not as though the insane are completely closed off from what happens in the world. They generally react to stimuli-- their physical surroundings, the speech and actions of others, and so on. In Cho's case, we see he was fully capable of speaking fluent (if incoherent) English at length; he was probably influenced by movies; he was also capable of calmly planning and executing his massacre. Cho interacted quite capably with the outside world. To say that Cho was at a point where he had no other alternatives (as he himself seems to argue in his video) is to absolve him of his crime, to grant him animal status and remove the possibility of blame. I reject that point of view.

Cho was, to some extent, a prisoner of his compulsions, but at bottom, he was free to do what he did. His plan took time; he made choices at every step, and at every step, he could have chosen another path.

But the boundaries of human freedom are hard to determine. I've written on this before:

[H]ow expansive is human freedom? This has always been a problem with arguments about free will: they rarely seem to consider the nature of the interaction between the purportedly free agent and the agent's surroundings. Do I reside inside some invisible "sphere" of freedom? Does my skin define the boundary of my freedom?

Obviously, the above is ridiculous: first, my skin is porous and is constantly replacing itself; it's not a definite boundary. At the microscopic level, it becomes very difficult to see where "I" end and "my external circumstances" begin. Second, my surroundings are often no less an extension of will than my material body. I get into a car; the car itself articulates my will as I move toward my destination or follow my whim. My tea mug comes to contain tea because I set in motion a series of "circumstances" that culminate in the tea-poured-into-mug event. I throw a rock. Fire a gun. Launch a nuke. Shout an obscenity. Type a blog post.

What, then, are the boundaries of human freedom? A single person can profoundly alter the course of history: Jesus, Hitler, Rosa Parks. A mass of people can get together and make almost no ripple in history. The boundaries of human freedom seem impossible to define; the effects of human action seem impossible to calculate.

I believe that Cho is, in the end, a perpetrator and not a victim. I feel no pity for him. And while I reject analyses of the massacre that focus primarily on systemic reasons for Cho's actions, it would be wrong to deny that Cho and his environment existed-- like everything else-- within a larger web of interconnectedness and intercausality. This web ensnares us all; it is this web that now resonates with pain as people with direct and indirect connections to Virginia Tech try to puzzle out the horror of what happened.

Did Cho's family life play some role in the killings? Perhaps, but this doesn't take into account how Cho's sister turned out so differently. Did Cho's lack of a social life throughout elementary, middle, and high school play a role in his rampage? Undoubtedly, but most marginalized children-- including those with mental problems-- do not eventually become homicidal.

It is legitimate to ask questions about Cho's background; the danger is to focus first on the individual and then extrapolate from that to larger, systemic causes, thereby reaching the false conclusion that "we created Cho." No, we didn't. Cho might be said to fit several profiles-- the profile of the loner who goes berserk, or the profile of the Asperger's child, or the profile of a certain class of psychopath. But as we have seen in the past, the analysis of these profiles has little predictive power. As debate over what to do next intensifies, I hope that people will keep this in mind. Clamping down on guns, arming college students and professors, psych-profiling students and employees, beefing up building security, having a "national discussion" of whatever people think are the salient issues-- none of these measures is likely to result in the prevention of more such mass murders. When someone sets their mind to destroying something, they usually succeed if they are careful and methodical. Cho was both.

The above doesn't mean we simply give up and await the Grim Reaper, of course. People are free to experiment with security measures and have their discussions; it may be possible to affect the frequency with which such horrors occur, and this, too, is a sign of our human freedom: we can indeed manipulate circumstances.

Freedom and responsibility are often hard to define, whether in the abstract or in specific cases like that of Cho Seung-hui. We cannot expect all of what happened to make sense; at the same time, we cannot arrest all speculation, because there is a chance that some potentially useful information will be uncovered. We cannot see Cho as a person out of context; he lived among us, affecting and being affected by his environment. But we most assuredly cannot absolve Cho of the wrong he did. Some of us might see our way clear to forgiving him, but even forgiveness is an acknowledgement that a wrong has been done.



Anonymous said...

Don't take this the wrong way--it's a genuine question, not a rhetorical one. But I'm wondering why it would matter to decide whether or not Cho is morally responsible for his actions. Regardless, he's beyond human action now. Or is the point that we should not hold anyone else responsible, perhaps for the purpose of justifying some kind of action, whether retributive or policy change? Or is there some other point to such an analysis? And if so, what?

Again, these are genuine questions. What happened, happened. We can't punish Cho, we can't rehabilitate Cho, we can't intervene with him in any way. And yet we (a vague, inclusive, editorial-type "we") think and talk about things like this: was he responsible? Is he accountable in some way? Is the exploration of such questions--can it be--more than an expression of feelings, satisfying a need to gain some sense of control by making sense of things, or some kind of abstract philosophical question? Is there a "so what" to follow? And if so, what might that be?

Me, I don't know. But I think it's worth thinking about.

Kevin Kim said...

It matters because some folks are going to look at the evidence for Cho's insanity and try to absolve him of guilt. Because nature abhors a vacuum, it will not be enough for such people to leave the situation alone: they will want to assign guilt elsewhere, so the debate will rapidly switch over to "Where Did We Fail in This?" mode. That's when I'll be antsy, because I think it's important to remember that we (i.e., society or some fuzzy, Foucaultian notion of power dynamics) didn't fail Cho. He failed himself, and the killings weren't inevitable.

Aside from that, I agree: it's kinda too late to say or do anything more. It's just a matter of moving on. That's easier for me than for two of my friends: unlike them, I don't have any intimate ties to VA Tech.

So my basic motivation in writing this piece was to speak out against what I know is coming.