Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Tale of Two Columnists

Both Bob Herbert and David Brooks have written about the VT massacre in today's New York Times columns. Comparing the two pieces is a fascinating exercise.

Brooks sees in the massacre a bigger moral question about individual responsibility and his newest pet idea that we are all just toys acting out evolutionary schemes orchestrated by those all-powerful genes:

Over the next few days, we'll ponder the sources of Cho Seung-Hui's rage. There'll be no shortage of analysts picking apart his hatreds, his feelings of oppression and his dark war against the rich, Christianity and the world at large.

Some will point to the pruning of the brain synapses that may be related to adolescent schizophrenia. Others may point to the possibility that an inability to process serotonin could have led to depression and hyperaggression. Or we could learn that he had been born with a brain injury that made him psychopathic. Or perhaps he was suffering from the ravages of isolation.

It could be, for example, that he grew up with some form of behavioral illness that would have made it hard for him to interact with and respond appropriately to other people. This would have caused others to withdraw from him, leading to a spiral of loneliness that detached him from the world and then caused him to loathe it.

Over the next weeks, we could learn these or other things about Cho Seung-Hui. And as we learn the facts of his life, we'll be able to fit them into ever more sophisticated models of human behavior.


But it should be possible to acknowledge the scientists' insights without allowing them to become monopolists. It should be possible to reconstruct some self-confident explanation for what happened at Virginia Tech that puts individual choice and moral responsibility closer to the center.

After all, according to research by David Buss, 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had a vivid homicidal fantasy. But they didn't act upon it. They don't turn other people into objects for their own fulfillment.

There still seems to be such things as selves, which are capable of making decisions and controlling destiny. It's just that these selves can't be seen on a brain-mapping diagram, and we no longer have any agreement about what they are.

I'm too tired to do a proper spring cleaning on this, but note how Brooks reads lessons to all of us from the behavior of one mentally ill man. Bob Herbert looks at the behavior of that one man and reads lessons about other men like him:

But a close look at the patterns of murderous violence in the U.S. reveals some remarkable consistencies, wherever the individual atrocities may have occurred. In case after case, decade after decade, the killers have been shown to be young men riddled with shame and humiliation, often bitterly misogynistic and homophobic, who have decided that the way to assert their faltering sense of manhood and get the respect they have been denied is to go out and shoot somebody.

Dr. James Gilligan, who has spent many years studying violence as a prison psychiatrist in Massachusetts, and as a professor at Harvard and now at N.Y.U., believes that some debilitating combination of misogyny and homophobia is a "central component" in much, if not most, of the worst forms of violence in this country.

"What I've concluded from decades of working with murderers and rapists and every kind of violent criminal," he said, "is that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one's manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act."

Herbert's angle lets us see something that might be done to stop such massacres in the future. Brooks' angle would make us throw our hands up and decide that we are all either condemned just to sputter on as gene-directed machines or that we can somehow wrest ourselves from that by individual acts of free will.