The Virginia Tech massacre: Some criminal minds are beyond help

A visitor to my web site wrote and asked me why I considered the killer in last month’s Virginia Tech shooting spree to be ‘incapable of benefiting’ from psychotherapeutic help. She was surprised that I, as a therapist, would not echo the opinions of certain other mental health professionals that ‘If only this suicidal young man would have obtained the help he needed in time, this never would have happened.’

I simply cannot imagine how anyone could think this, knowing the facts that we do about this case. From everything I have read so far, this young man had a profound and single-minded ‘commitment’ (if that’s the right word) to acting on his belief that others must pay for his misery. This deep-seated conviction is something that he most certainly could not have been ‘talked out of,’ because it appears to have rested on a very fundamental and malevolent premise that life is hopeless and beyond repair.

There’s a world of difference between a depressed and suicidal person who wants to end it all, and an actual terrorist who is after something entirely different. A clinically depressed person has reached a stage of hopelessness, despair and, in many cases, anger, where he or she is simply seeking escape through suicide. There might be a desire to emotionally hurt others, expressed by the feeling, ‘I’ll show you! I’ll end it all, and then you won’t have me to kick around anymore.’ But, while suicide is undeniably tragic, it isn’t terrorism.

The desire to destroy others is completely different. In his outstanding book, Inside the Criminal Mind, psychologist and author Stanton Samenow described that the criminal mindset is different from everyone else’s. To the criminal, the goal is to harm others, either through fraud or outright violence. He might express or even feel regret for what he does, but not because he realizes that what he did was wrong. He only regrets not having done a better job at it—especially when he gets caught. To the criminal, failing to get the job done right is not all that different from the way you and I might feel about making a big mistake at work. To think that genuine criminal mindsets reform themselves is, largely, a fantasy borne of ignorance about how these kinds of people actually think. Dr. Samenow, working for years with hard-core, violent criminals in a federal psychiatric institution, discovered that psychotherapy can perhaps challenge—but will rarely, if ever, change—the criminal mindset.

The deranged young man who shot all those people at Virginia Tech could not have been helped.

Others wrote and asked me if I thought that his decision to kill himself was the result of an ‘aha!’ moment in which he grasped, all of a sudden, the reality of the carnage he had created, and, as a result, ended it all out of self-loathing. I think the videos sent to NBC by the killer himself, right before the shootings, put to rest any doubt as to whether the murder-suicide plans were in the works from the beginning. Notice how the central theme in these horrifying, rambling tirades was, ‘I don’t have a choice about this.’ This is what all criminals assume. They see themselves as the victims, not the people they victimize. Unfortunately, many people in our legal system and in the mental health field don’t do much to dispel this dangerously flawed attitude.

The Virginia Tech incident is a more grotesque example of something that also applies in much less dramatic situations. We have all come to terms with the fact that people make their choices. This not only relates to mass murderers, but also to so many others who are decent and mean no harm, yet utilize bad judgment throughout their lives.Their loved ones and other interested parties sometimes urge them to ‘get help,’ assuming that the person using bad judgment—who won’t listen to his own reasoning mind or the reasoning of others—will suddenly change course simply because some professional tells him to do so.

To me, the better solution for those concerned about a loved one or friend doing bizarre or dysfunctional things is to take a look at one’s OWN behaviors. ‘Am I enabling this person? What am I doing, if anything, to somehow make it easier for this person to be dysfunctional?’ In others words, don’t get caught up in how to change the mind of someone unwilling to listen. Instead, be true to yourself and refuse to ‘buy into’ their nonsense, no matter who they are.

No one can ever be certain if this would have prevented last month’s disaster in Blacksburg, VA. My guess is that expelling a student who threatened and stalked others—barring him forever from campus without concern for lawsuits or political incorrectness—would have gone a long way toward protecting the rights and the lives of those blameless victims. This, of course, would have involved a shift away from the idea of ‘getting help,’ or magically changing an obviously irrational person’s mind.

Psychotherapy can only help those who want to help themselves. If more people had focused on stopping this crazed young man, rather than thinking of ways to ‘help’ him, innocent lives might have been spared.