When we think of the Virginia Tech killings, we immediately have the urge to try to figure out what could have caused a lonely, beleaguered student like Cho to commit such violent acts. We want to place the blame somewhere–such as our weak gun control laws, on violent video games and movies. One thing that science has learned during the past few decades is that we are the ones who create monsters like this?usually through relentless childhood sexual abuse. But if we do not acknowledge the role of choice in this scenario, we inevitably set ourselves up for a future in which absolutely all of our freedoms are curtailed.
Most of the analysis of Cho points to our modern understanding of how psychopaths are created. But along with this discussion comes the assumption that such people can’t help themselves, that they are driven to commit violent acts by forces not under their control, and that there is no “cure” available to them. The old-fashioned word “evil” is rarely used.
But if it is truly the case that someone like Cho had no choice but to do what he did, then the next step is clear: We must try to identify these people BEFORE they act and lock them away before they harm anyone. If the abuse they have undergone has rendered them unable to choose, then that becomes our only choice.
Just because a person has been treated badly, does this mean he has lost the ability to make moral choices? Many of us had harsh childhoods (I certainly did) and many of us have fanaticized about killing other people at times: I’ve done it myself. When I think back on my feelings at that time, I’m amazed that I even had such violent thoughts about another person, but I did.
I didn’t act on them, in fact, I didn’t do anything to harm this person. I dealt with my anger by pledging never to have anything to do with him ever again, and I’ve kept that promise to myself. I figured that there would eventually be something that I COULD have done to help him that I wouldn’t therefore do, and even though I (and he) would never know what that was, this would have to suffice for my “revenge.”
I also decided that if he continued to treat other people the way he had treated me (which he did), then his own karma would catch up with him, in that other people would avoid him as well. I’ll never know about the first part of my revenge fantasy, but this part of it has certainly proven to be true.
For most of us, morality doesn’t consist of doing anything hugely heroic. In the Virginia Tech shootings, a professor who had survived the Holocaust sacrificed himself by wedging himself in his classroom door so that Cho couldn’t get into the room to shoot his students. This is the kind of test of true bravery that few of us will ever be called upon to undergo.
But there are quieter examples of heroic moral choices everywhere, if you just know where to look for them. I once knew a woman I felt disdainful towards because her religious beliefs were so simplistic. Then I found out that she volunteered at an AIDS orphanage in Uganda for a month every year, and that shut me up fast.
I have a friend who, unbeknownst to me, has volunteered regularly at a hospice for years. She shared this information with me only recently, when we both became concerned about a mutual friend of ours whose mother was very ill.
I know someone who was short of cash when he received an unexpected check for a thousand dollars. When he found out that the daughter of a friend needed money, he didn’t hesitate–he wired it to her bank account immediately.
I know a couple who were feeling desperate because the husband lost his job. When a young woman confessed to them that she needed help with plane fare home to visit a sick relative, they gave her the money without hesitation, because “it was the right thing to do.”
I?m sure you know similar tales of minor heroics. These are the kind of common, everyday choices that spell the difference between “good” and “evil.” Only if we are confident that everyone is able to make such choices will we be able to continue to live the lives of freedom that we cherish.
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