Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Radical Loser

“It is beyond my understanding…”

The South Koreans are taking the actions of one of their own upon themselves.

The Irish Examiner gives the story from a South Korean newspaper, which reported on a memorial service held in Seoul:

About 130 people gathered at Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul, casting their heads low as they sang sad hymns and prayed for the souls of those killed.

A small table adorned with white flowers, candles and a US flag was set up in the centre of the chapel in memory of the victims.


“Among the 32 killed were bright students who could have contributed greatly to society, and it’s a big loss for all of us,” Cardinal Nicolas Cheong Jin-suk told parishioners. “As a South Korean, I can’t help feeling apologetic about how a Korean man caused such a shocking incident.”

The cardinal said everyone should work together to prevent a recurrence of “such an unfortunate event.”

Some blamed the immigrant parents for working too hard and not paying attention:

In an editorial, the Hankyoreh newspaper wrote today that Cho’s case illustrated a problem faced by many South Korean immigrants in the US, where parents are too busy at work to take care of their children.

“It is the reality of our immigrants that parents are so busy making a living that it’s not easy for them to have dialogue with young children,” the newspaper wrote.

“We should think about whether our society or our (Korean) community abroad has been negligent in preventing conditions that could lead to such an aberration,” it said.

But others, family members, report that even as a young child it was obvious that something was wrong with the boy who ended his life on a horrific killing spree:

“How could he have done such a thing if he had any sympathy for his parents, who went all the way to another country because they couldn’t make ends meet and endured hardships,” Cho’s maternal grandfather…was quoted as saying.

The 81-year-old Kim said Cho “troubled his parents a lot when he was young because he couldn’t speak well, but was well-behaved,” the report said.

In a separate interview with the Hankyoreh newspaper, Kim said the relatives were worried that Cho might even be mute.

So he was observed to be “different” from an early age. Now, after the fact, we can come up with all sorts of possible interventions that might have saved this man and the people he randomly murdered. But such ruminations are like nailing one’s foot to the floor and walking around in circles. It only wears a rut in your thinking.

In an intriguing discussion entitled “The Radical Loser” written in December 2005, Hans Magnus Enzensberger describes the phenomenon of people (mostly men, I would think) like Cho. It is as though he had followed Cho around and used him as the exemplar for the type he describes:

It is difficult to talk about the loser, and it is stupid not to. Stupid because there can be no definitive winner and because each of us, from the megalomaniac Bonaparte to the last beggar on the streets of Calcutta, will meet the same fate. Difficult because to content oneself with this metaphysical banality is to take an easy way out, as it ignores the truly explosive dimension of the problem, the political dimension.

Instead of actually looking into the thousand faces of the loser, sociologists keep to their statistics: median value, standard deviation, normal distribution. It rarely occurs to them that they themselves might be among the losers. Their definitions are like scratching a wound: as Samuel Butler says, the itching and the pain only get worse. One thing is certain: the way humanity has organized itself -competition”, “empire”, “globalization” - not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process, the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round. But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come.

Much of what Enzensberger says here is spot on. But “empire” and “globalization” are not causes, they are merely particular ways that human beings may organize or view themselves. “Running amok,” for certain vulnerable individuals has always existed, and always will. Our understanding of the process as it works out in the individual is very limited. Thus, Enzensberger provides his own correction to the idea that it is somehow “competition” that is responsible for the isolated individual:

Since before the attack on the World Trade Center, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists have been searching in vain for a reliable pattern. Neither poverty nor the experience of political repression alone seem to provide a satisfactory explanation for why young people actively seek out death in a grand bloody finale and aim to take as many people with them as possible.Is there a phenotype that displays the same characteristics down the ages and across all classes and cultures?

Cho Seung-huiNo one pays any mind to the radical loser if they do not have to. And the feeling is mutual. As long as he is alone - and he is very much alone - he does not strike out. He appears unobtrusive, silent: a sleeper.[my emphasis] But when he does draw attention to himself and enter the statistics, then he sparks consternation bordering on shock. For his very existence reminds the others of how little it would take to put them in his position. One might even assist the loser if only he would just give up. But he has no intention of doing so, and it does not look as if he would be partial to any assistance.

In Cho’s case, there were attempts at intervention. One of his instructors even met one-on-one with him in an empathetic attempt to alleviate his isolation. She says he was “the loneliest person” she’d ever met. But that’s how the radical loser survives, by isolation:

Many professions take the loser as the object of their studies and as the basis for their existence. Social psychologists, social workers, social policy experts, criminologists, therapists and others who do not count themselves among the losers would be out of work without him. But with the best will in the world, the client remains obscure to them: their empathy knows clearly-defined professional bounds. One thing they do know is that the radical loser is hard to get through to and, ultimately, unpredictable. Identifying the one person among the hundreds passing through their offices and surgeries who is prepared to go all the way is more than they are capable of. Maybe they sense that this is not just a social issue that can be repaired by bureaucratic means. For the loser keeps his ideas to himself. That is the trouble. He keeps quiet and waits. He lets nothing show, which is precisely why he is feared. In historical terms, this fear is very old, but today it is more justified than ever. Anyone with the smallest scrap of power within society will at times feel something of the huge destructive energy that lies within the radical loser and which no intervention can neutralize, however well-meaning or serious it might be.

He can explode at any moment. This is the only solution to his problem that he can imagine: a worsening of the evil conditions under which he suffers.

And when he finally does explode, our reactions are predictable. They are reinforced to the point of caricature by the 24/7 media. Mass murder will definitely lede - there is enough blood there for these vampires to feast on for weeks. Or at least until the next drama.

As some commentator noted, if Imus had made his remarks this week instead of last, his verbiage would’ve been lost in the truly grisly details coming out of Virginia Tech. The incident of Imus would’ve been seen as the trivial thing it was - if it was even remarked upon at all. Imus would still have a job.
- - - - - - - - - -
Enzensberger paints the scenario for the typical rampage, noting that the tipping point may not ever become known. In other words, even educated guesses about Cho’s trigger will remain just that - guesswork:

At last, this radical loser - he may be just fifteen and having a hard time with his spots - at last, he is master over life and death. Then, in the newsreader’s words, he “dies at his own hands” and the investigators get down to work. They find a few videos, a few confused journal entries. The parents, neighbours, teachers noticed nothing unusual.

But that is not true for this case. Cho telegraphed lots of warning signs, but no one knew how to interpret them. He was strange, aggressively isolated, and made those around him feel “creepy.” The sign language of radical losers is not easy to read predictably…

[there is]…for sure, a certain reticence - the boy didn’t talk much. But that is no reason to shoot dead a dozen of his schoolmates. The experts deliver their verdicts. Cultural critics bring forth their arguments. Inevitably, they speak of a “debate on values”. The search for reasons comes to nothing. Politicians express their dismay. The conclusion is reached that it was an isolated case.

This is correct, since the culprits are always isolated individuals who have found no access to a collective. And it is incorrect, since isolated cases of this kind are becoming more and more frequent. This increase leads one to conclude that there are more and more radical losers. This is due to the so-called “state of things…”

However, Enzensberger finds a way out for the isolate. Sometimes he does indeed find some kind of “collective,” some way, however inchoate and nascently formed in his thinking, to belong:

…what happens when the radical loser overcomes his isolation, when he becomes socialized, finds a loser-home, from which he can expect not only understanding but also recognition, a collective of people like himself who welcome him, who need him?

Then, the destructive energy that lies within him is multiplied - his unscrupulousness, his amalgam of death-wish and megalomania - and he is rescued from his powerlessness by a fatal sense of omnipotence.

For this to take place, however, a kind of ideological trigger is required to ignite the radical loser and make him explode. As history shows us, offers of this kind have never been in short supply. Their content is of the least importance. They may be religious or political doctrines, nationalist, communist or racist dogmas - any form of sectarianism, however bigoted, is capable of mobilizing the latent energy of the radical loser.

As time goes on the “experts” will attempt to discern in Cho’s behavior exactly what inner “collective” he managed to find in order to drive his allegiance to slaughter. His posturing, his obvious desire for public acknowledgement in the videos he left behind, the trail of bread crumbs of behavior linking back to the first signs of aberrant behavior will be studied and pondered. A map of his actions will be drawn up and explained…we will forget that a map is not the real territory, that it is simply an abstraction. We will be tempted to see it as an answer. Anything to quiet our unease.

There will be no final answers; our knowledge of human behavior is too primitive, our laws are too limited to handle the truly deviant before he does great harm. These strangers among us, bedeviled by demons we can’t even fathom, will always be here.

Think of people like Cho as you would think of the weather, or geology. We know there will be tornadoes every year, and hurricanes. We don’t know where they will strike or who will be killed. As we grow more knowledgeable about meteorology, better predictions can be made. But the variables will always be too great to pin down precisely the swath of disaster before it sweeps through. We know that some areas of the world are earthquake centers; Iran is one of them. But we take our chances anyway. These events happen to others, never to us.

That is, until they do. Then we are left to pick up the pieces, to numbly dig out the bodies from beneath the rubble, to rebuild towns which have been obliterated. Do we move away from the scenes of such destruction? Not usually. We simply start over, ignoring the annual ritual of hurricane season till next year or pretending - if we live nearby - that the San Andreas fault is not about us.

We refuse to admit it, but aberrations like Cho are simply manifestations of chance, they are “natural” disasters and they will continue to happen. We are all hostages to misfortune - a brief stop in Starbucks to pick up your morning coffee may be the last act of your life. Your disaffected employee may return for revenge, leaving dead bodies everywhere. Your child’s bus driver may fall asleep at the wheel and it may be your child whose brief life is crushed while others walk away.

Parents are burying their dead children — once the medical examiner lets their bodies go. And Cho’s parents are as effectively destroyed as if he had killed them, too. I suspect they are wishing he had turned the guns on them first.

Eventually this horror will be given a name, as 9/11 was, or Columbine. “The Massacre of ‘07” perhaps?

The most useless question in the world in “why.” The most excruciating turn of thought begins with the phrase, “what if…” Yet if it is our children who are gone, those questions are as inescapable as they are unanswerable. When we close our eyes at night, they are there, waiting for us. When we awake in the morning, the ache of loss begins anew.

Life goes on, but for those poor souls swirling in the wake of last Monday morning, it is forever diminished.

Doors are closed quietly, never to be opened again.

Hat tip: Mark Humphrys


History Snark said...

Interesting. But in the end, it gives us nothing. Something was very wrong-perhaps, as you suggested previously, an organic problem- and yet, I can't help but fear that it was all about "attention", and a nice dramatic act to gain some.

Has anyone talked to his parents, or found anything about them? A friend asked me yesterday about a rumor that they had killed themselves, but it sounded too stereotypical. I think that they are the most unfortunate. While I can only imagine the pain of the victims' families, the agony of his parents must be absolutely, completely beyone human comprehension. They are the ones that will suffer the most.

That's one reason why I was so affected by the suicide note written by the Texas shooter. He understood what his family would suffer, and in a perverse way, protected them from it.

Panday said...

That's quite a change on the part of the South Koreans. Lately South Koreans have been demonstrating against the United States as the obstacle to peace and brotherhood with poor, misunderstood North Korea.

JeepThang said...

I don't see how blaming the parents for "working too hard" is any good.
Many, many children grow up in homes where the parents are gone, working, whatever, and they don't turn out to be mass murderers.

Latch-key kids.. I was one, as well.

meh.. I reckon they are just trying to find anything that makes sense for something so senseless.

Dymphna said...

I agree -- it's trying to make sense out of randomness. Might as well demand to know *why* there are hurricanes.

I've worked with pedophiles and know they cannot be helped, only contained. Radical losers, like this one, are the same. They had a TDO (temporary detaining order) on him in 2005 but had to let him go because he hadn't actually "done" anything.

As the writer said, radical losers can't be reached. The family knew something was wrong but they didn't know what.

Someone running amok is considered part of life in Malaysia, like random acts of God.

My intution says that he was probably an untreated schizophrenic, but they're more a danger to themselves...besides, it's all conjecture.

We are rational so we want to ask "why"..

SC&A said...

My take on the 'why,' is simple:

"The escalation of gun violence and the kind of hate to leads to that kind of violence in this country is can be attributed to one cause and one cause alone.

When violence or threats of violence are considered legitimate forms of political or social expression, inevitably violence or threats of violence will manifest themselves.Terror has becomes an accepted form of political and social expression by those who most profess to be non violent or peaceful.

The terror we see here has it's origins in faraway places brought to our TV screens every day.

Those in this country who defend, apologize and legitimize the terror and evil committed elsewhere have facilitated the introduction of terror in this country. They will sooner defend the perpetration of evil and violence than those who would fight that evil ideology that embraces that kind of evil.. "

It's not rocket science.

Profitsbeard said...

A sick little egomaniacal fantasy world turns inside out.

And we have to clean up after such narcissistic nihilists.

As amoral as butcher birds or parasitic worms.

Unfortunately in human form.

Doug said...

`D said,
"My intution says that he was probably an untreated schizophrenic, but they're more a danger to themselves...besides, it's all conjecture."
You're in good company:
This forensic Psychiatrist knows his stuff and has interviewed multiple mass murderers.
He says a small percentage are a great danger to others, sometimes hard to tell. Not Ishmael Ax, however, as many students and teachers have related.
Dr. Michael Welner, Schizophrenia, Rampage Killers and NBC's Decision
Dr. Michael Welner is a psychiatrist experienced in the diagnosis and study of the awful psychosis of rampage killers.

He is one of the experts behind the development of The Depravity Scale, and has just published an article on schizophrenia for

The transcript is posted here, and the audio here.

And so the answer to a news organization receiving a package is, I would say well, what would you do if somebody mailed you anthrax?
Would you open it because of the media’s right to know?
Or would you send it to law enforcement authorities, because they have appropriately skilled people who can handle these things.

Well, the answer is fairly obvious. This is exactly what this is. It is a psychological warfare that has societal, catastrophic ramifications of some kind of biological agent or radioactive agent.
And responsible individuals should recognize what their skills are, and what their skills aren’t.

Doug said...

Regarding NBC Granting his wish for immortality in spades:
(very interesting about not being a catalyst for Copycats when all that is reported are the victims and their suffering, but as soon as the Evil Media grants his wish, further evil is certain to come.)
What’s your professional response to that argument, that the cumulative effect was in fact inconsequential?

MW: My professional response is different for the two groups. For people who had poorly formed plans…mass shooting is not about the victims.
It’s not inspired by seeing people suffer.
It’s carried out by a person seeking immortality. It’s all about a person and what he wants to achieve for himself.

That person so dehumanizes the others around him that that’s what makes it easy for him to kill strangers.

But it’s a person who kills just as he would kill an ant or a bug, or destroy something needed to make an implement. And so essentially, he destroys the soul of a number of folks in order to essentially ingest it, and become that much more significant and inflated.

The only thing that was exposed to us in the early days after the shooting was the grief and suffering of people who lost loved ones.
It was only once Cho Seung Hui was exposed as a figure of intimidation and menace, and done so with such spectacular exposure, that…in intrigue and interest, that we want to know about him, that these kinds of attacks have followed.

HH: So would the next time someone mails a DVD of themselves, or still photos, or uploads of You Tube video, will you trace that back to Wednesday night?

MW: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. How can I not?

Doug said...

Dr. Welner has interviewed several Mass Murderers.

MW: I went to the University of Miami in Florida, and trained at Beth Israel Medical Center in Psychiatry here in New York, and did a fellowship in forensic psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

And when I began practice, took on a full-time practice, and then worked in correction psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan,
and have since graduated, I suppose, to being
chairman of the Forensic Panel, which is a national forensic science practice in psychiatry, toxicology, pathology, and other medical specialties.