The Stories of Seung-Hui Cho, Nikolas Cruz, and Adam Lanza
Written By Alexander Greco
May 15, 2019
“Spread me open, sticking to my pointy ribs
Are all your infants in abortion cribs?
I was born into this, everything turns to shit
The boy that you loved is the man that you fear.”
– Marylin Manson
I suppose it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. I don’t condone murder at all—I’d consider myself a pacifist. What I’m about to talk about does not excuse the actions of these mass shooters. Killing = bad. Killing children = worse. The point of this article is to identify a problem, and analyze it. May being “Mental Health Awareness Month”, I decided to talk about one of the greatest mental health issues our nation faces.
Which, in something of a political non-sequitur (in my opinion), has become embroiled in the gun rights debate. I think one of the major failures of Liberals (“my” people) in recent years was taking these school shootings (taking mass shootings in general) and turning it into a gun-control issue, rather than a mental-health issue. There are a few exceptions to the “mental health argument”—there’s several shooters who had no signs of mental illness—but it’s hard to say someone isn’t mentally ill when they decide to kill large numbers of innocent people.
I think part of the problem is in how we define mental illness, and part of the problem is in how we think of mental illness. Depression, for example, isn’t as simple as feeling sad all the time. Depression effects the internal logic of your cognition. Depression changes your decision-making, your sleeping and eating habits, your immune system, the levels of hormones in your body, and the emotional triggers in your brain.
Anxiety isn’t just a matter of feeling nervous all the time. Anxiety raises levels of cortisol, which affects a wide range of things across your physiology and psychology. Your flight-or-flight system is more likely to be triggered (meaning, your body might release adrenaline simply from making eye-contact), and your body simultaneously exhausts itself with the task of vigilance, while also preparing for starvation, homelessness, and sleeplessness.
Aggression—which is actually, in part, a symptom of anxiety (the “fight” portion of fight-or-flight)—is typically linked to testosterone. Aggression is accentuated by testosterone, but it’s more complicated. People with high levels of both testosterone and serotonin are extroverted, confident, and outgoing. People with high levels of testosterone and cortisol are the exact opposite. They constantly feel threatened by those around them, they become anti-social, and their fight-or-flight instinct starts firing off more frequently.
These things aren’t so simple to begin with—depression, anxiety, and hyper-vigilance (anxiety-driven aggression) are enough for someone to snap. They become even less simple when you combine them with ADHD, OCD, Autism, Schizophrenia, different dysphoric or dissociative disorders, and learning disabilities. They become even less simple when you combine them with feelings of envy, resentment, nihilism, low self-esteem, or with social isolation, little to no outlets for emotions, trauma,
In addition, all these things lower an individual’s ability to think rationally. The fight-or-flight instinct can effectively shut off the rational part of your brain (meaning you all but lose control of your actions), and sustained depression and anxiety (essentially, sustained stress-levels) can lower your IQ.
To begin understanding these mass shooters, we have to begin understanding how the mind works. We have to understand the environmental factors, the genetic factors, and the neurological factors that go into someone behaving like this. And, we have to understand that any of us could have done this.
If we truly want to understand why one person could shoot up a school full of children, we really have to begin by understanding one thing. That person is us. We’re no better. They are you and I; those shooters could have been us—any of us.
Any of us are capable of the same emotions those shooters were capable of. Any of us are capable of thinking the same thoughts as those shooters. Any of us are capable of pulling a trigger. It could have been any of us born into the lives of these shooters. It could have been any of us born with the same mental conditions as these shooters. It could have been any of us who were pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and pushed until we snapped.
We like to pretend that wouldn’t have been us, we like to denounce school shooters as monsters, and we like to place all of our own hatred onto the most disturbed members of our population, but we fail to realize that person is us.
We fail to realize that any of us could have done this, and we fail to realize that we are all contributing to the degradation of these shooters. We demonize the lowest among us, when we don’t even look to see how we’ve spawned these demons. We fail to see how we contribute to the loneliness and isolation of our plagued society. We fail to see how we contribute to the insecurity and the self-loathing that runs rampant through our youth. We spend too much time wallowing in our own petty grievances to bear the consideration of someone else’s confusion, frustration, and loathing.
And all those petty grievances that blind us to the lives of others, those grievances bear the same contempt for life, society and existence that urged Seung-Hui Cho, Nikolas Cruz, and Adam Lanza into murdering fellow classmates, high school students, and small children.
The key to turning a child into a mass shooter is to isolate them in their own small box of anxieties, fears, and hatreds. The key is to forget they exist, except for the brief moments we spend kicking them back into the cogs of the Machine. They key is to treat the child like a dog you feed a few times a day, that you kick or swat when it acts up. And, like all neglected dogs that go rabid or feral, one day you’ll have to put that animal down, shrug your shoulders, and say, “There was nothing else I could do.”
Seung-Hui Cho was born in South Korea, and immigrated with his family to the US when he was 8 years old. On the surface, Cho was the model child of an immigrant family, coming to America to live a happy, prosperous life. Cho was quite intelligent from a young age, and, after graduating high school, went to Virginia Tech to study Business Information Technology. He might have become another Gary Vee, Andrew Yang, or Steve Aoki. However, it was here, at Virginia Tech, that Cho killed 32 people, and wounded 17 others.
Cho’s family noticed that there was something off about Cho at an early age. Though he was well-behaved as a child, he was incredibly shy and hardly talked. His grandparents noticed that Cho would not make eye contact, and were worried about him. In middle school, Cho was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, selective mutism, and major depressive disorder. Member’s of Cho’s family believed that he might have been Autistic.
At an early age, Cho resented the members of his Christian church, resented affluent families, and resented his parents for raising him to be religious. Throughout middle school and high school, Cho had difficulty making friends, likely due to his condition(s). He was placed in special ed, was brought to speech therapy lessons, and was given medications for. However, nothing seemed to help Cho in any long-term way.
When Cho went to college at Virginia Tech, he received little to no therapy or psychiatric help, and was frequently reported for odd behavior by students and faculty. Cho’s roommates complained about strange behaviors, such as writing on the walls of Cho’s room, or taking pictures of the other roommates at night. Cho began referring to himself as “Question Mark” while talking to roommates, or when introducing himself to girls.
Cho was removed from a poetry class because his teacher found Cho to be “mean” and “menacing”, and called his writing “intimidating”. Another teacher noted that Cho was intelligent, though awkward and insecure, but also found Cho to be obnoxious and arrogant. This teacher was also concerned with Cho’s writing, and felt that Cho was incredibly angry. Despite many members of the faculty and staff knowing about Cho’s behavior, little was done to intervene.
Cho also reportedly stalked a number of female students at the college. Cho made contact with several women, who he then tried to meet in real life, but each time was sent away, or was reported to the authorities. At one point, Cho wrote a Shakespeare quote on a board outside a girl’s room. After this, he was given a warning from campus security, and never bothered anyone else.
During his senior year at Virginia Tech, after ceasing to go to classes, or study, or do much else than write and ride his bike, Cho legally purchased two handguns. A month after this purchase, he began his shooting spree that ended the lives of 32 people. Cho took his own life before he was apprehended.
I think the problem with Cho is that no one took the time to listen to what he actually had to say.
It wasn’t even that he had anything particularly controversial to say. He didn’t like religion. He didn’t like rich people. He didn’t seem to like anyone, and he probably didn’t think anyone liked him.
Cho had difficulties to begin with. It’s unclear whether or not the early onset of his depression and anxiety was triggered by some event, or if it had biological origins. However, it does seem to be that his social difficulties and speech difficulties were biological or neurological. Some have ruled out that Cho actually had autism, but the diagnosis fits like a glove. Among the symptoms and signs of autism are speech disorders, social disorders, emotional disorders, and the inability to connect or empathize with others. People with autism can have difficulty controlling emotions, which can lead to violent outbursts (though people with autism are not inherently violent), and they are predisposed to psychotic episodes.
Cho was obviously highly intelligent from a young age, and was likely highly-aware of his surroundings, the people he made contact with and the events of his life, but did not know how to handle any of these things. He did not know how to communicate with others—and this may have been wholly caused by a neurological “error” in his brain. Cho might not have been able to rationalize events of his life, or rationalize his own behavior, or his brain might have been over-rational. He might have had too much going on in his mind at once, and might have been overwhelmed by reality.
This coupled with emotional difficulties—both the inability to cope with emotion, or the inability to control his emotions—would have led to erratic behavior on Cho’s part.
As Cho grew older, as he entered adolescence, his entire body-chemistry would have begun to change. Along with this, Cho would have to contend with heightened levels of testosterone, and a newfound sexuality. This might have been too much for Cho. Not only would he have had difficulty with his own changing psyche, Cho would have had immense difficulty with the changes of his fellow classmates.
Cho couldn’t connect with children his age before adolescence, but, with this onset, he would not know what to think of others, or how to interact with others. A single human being, for Cho, would be a complex system that his brain struggled to rationalize.
Once Cho began attending Virginia Tech, he would no longer have the support of his family and therapists, and his isolation would only grow. With little to no social skills, his attempts at friendship and romance would quickly falter. With little to no awareness or support for his condition from the faculty and staff, Cho’s mental condition would fester, and Cho would be punished for emotions, thoughts and behaviors he had little control over.
His only outlet would have been the poetry and other things he wrote, but these were also rejected by those around him.
With no clear path in life, with no friends, with no romantic relationships, and with no support, mentoring or counselling, Cho’s isolated hatred would consume his mind. In the year leading up to the Virginia Tech shooting, Cho’s mother contacted the minister of a church in Virginia, seeking help for Cho. Members of the church claimed Cho was possessed by a demon. However, the church was not quick enough in their efforts to save Cho’s immortal soul.
Nikolas Cruz was adopted at birth, along with his brother, Zachary. His mother, Brenda Woodard, was a violent, homeless drug addict. Nikolas’s adoptive parents were affluent Florida-retirees, who indulged Nikolas and Zachary with a large house, an impressive playground, and video games. He was raised as a Catholic, and was generally well-loved by his adoptive family.
By age 3, Cruz was found to have developmental delays. He would later be diagnosed with OCD, ADHD, depression, and emotional behavioral disability. Cruz was medicated for all of these. It is also possible that Cruz had autism, and Cruz may have experienced some form of hallucinations. Cruz’s IQ was below average, and likely ranged from 70-90.
When Cruz was 5, he was alone with his adoptive father at home, and watched his father die of cardiac arrest. Throughout his early childhood and adolescence, Cruz would be in and out of various schools, including special-ed and adult-ed programs. Cruz was bullied throughout his life, even by his brother, Zachary, and his brother’s friends.
As a teen, Cruz became fascinated with guns—which his adoptive mother purchased for him. He began showing signs of a disturbed psyche at school, at home, and on social media. He had several violent outbursts at home, some of which included threatening his family with guns. He drew Swastikas and other hate symbols on his backpack and notebooks, and frequently used racial and ethnic slurs. On Instagram, he posted pictures of him with guns—sometimes holding the guns to his head—and spoke about committing violent acts.
Cruz did poorly throughout school. He failed many of his classes, and had difficulty making friends. His primary goal in late adolescence was to get his GED, and enlist in the army. Shortly before he shot up his former high school, Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, FL, Cruz’s mother died. He moved from house to house, living with different friends and family friends, and continued trying to get his GED.
On February 14, 2018, Cruz told his friend’s mother—who he’d been living with at the time—that he wanted to go fishing that day. Instead, he went to Stoneman Douglas High School, where he murdered 17 people and injured 17 more.
It’s honestly unclear what Cruz’s motive was, or if he had a clear motive. Cruz’s life seemed to be looking up for him at the time, despite his mother’s death (which may have been a trigger for a psychotic episode). Cruz was employed, was doing well in his classes at the time (which included Junior ROTC), and seemed to be living rather happily at a friend’s house.
His friend’s considered Cruz to be well-behaved and polite. They said they saw no signs of this coming, despite knowing about his history. They even let Cruz keep his guns in their house, and felt safe around him. They even went as far as to say they were proud of Cruz, his accomplishments in school and JROTC, and his ability to stay employed.
It’s possible there is a single trigger that set Cruz off, but there’s no evidence of one. If there was a trigger, it wouldn’t have had to be a major one. Cruz had emotional difficulties throughout his life, which included angry outbursts and violence. Cruz had difficulty managing his own behavior, and likely had difficulty rationalizing right from wrong, or understanding what was socially acceptable (though I’m sure he knew murder was not socially acceptable).
As someone who was frequently bullied, and experienced clinical anxiety and depression from an early age, Cruz likely felt threatened by the world around him. He was likely a very insecure child, who may have acted violently as a sort of self-defense mechanism. There’s no way of knowing what went on in the Cruz household, and no way of knowing what went on inside of Cruz’s head.
Cruz would have had difficulty acting rationally in different situations, and might not have had the cognitive capabilities to think about his actions, or think about long-term goals and long-term consequences. Cruz may have gone to Stoneman Douglas on a complete whim. He may have been going to fetch his fishing pole, and saw his gun-safe. He may have received a message on Instagram, Facebook, or wherever else the day of or the days preceding the shooting.
However, Cruz was not so cognitively disabled that he would have no understanding of his actions. Cruz was smart and sane enough to have known what he was doing, and would have had the wherewithal to make the plan—though it was likely a haphazard plan. He wouldn’t have had the same understanding that a typical adult would have, but Cruz was at least intelligent enough that he most certainly would have received his GED and graduated from the JROTC before enlisting in the army.
Nikolas Cruz is a gray area. In videos of him, he seems to grasp what is happening, but only up to a certain level. He has some control over his behavior and emotions, but had a far smaller threshold than most people. This combined with the fact that he was in a constant state of anxiety (at the very least, a precursor to fight-or-flight) meant that anything could have triggered him at any moment.
All of this coupled with the minimal support he received from schools, his permissive parenting, and whatever pre-natal factors that may have affected him (considering his mother was a homeless drug addict) led to him killing 17 people. The drugs didn’t seem to help. Few people seemed to like Nikolas. And fewer people were willing to help him.
You’re free to call Nikolas a monster, if you’d like. However, just as monstrous was the life he was born into, his biology, his neurology, and the people and places he came into contact with.
Adam Lanza was diagnosed with developmental problems at 3. He had difficulty with communication skills and socialization, in addition to sensory disabilities. In elementary school, Lanza was diagnosed with sensory-integration disorder. At the age of 13, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and then obsessive-compulsive disorder at 14. Not only did Lanza have difficulty communicating and socializing, but he also had crippling anxiety and repetitive behaviors. On top of this, Lanza’s father believed his son had undiagnosed Schizophrenia.
He had few friends throughout his life, with the exception of friends he met online (namely friends he met on World of Warcraft). Lanza was overstimulated at school, and had difficulty coping with other classmates, walking from class to class, and doing schoolwork. Teachers considered him to be both intelligent and strange. He was a highly uncomfortable student, and once had an anxiety attack that was so bad he had to be hospitalized.
Other than failed attempts at medication and therapy, Lanza received little help for his conditions. In late adolescence, he developed anorexia, and at the time of his death—when he shot himself at Sandy Hook Elementary school—he was malnourished to the point that he had endured brain damage and major physical deterioration. He spent most of his time playing World of Warcraft, with his windows blacked out so no light got in.
Lanza’s mother had been planning on moving shortly before the Sandy Hook incident, and the anxiety of leaving his home may have set Lanza off. Lanza killed his mother with one of her own guns, then went to Sandy Hook Elementary, where he killed 20 six and seven year-olds, and 6 teachers. Then Lanza committed suicide.
Did Cho, Cruz and Lanza kill because of their mental illness?
However, their mental illnesses provide insight into why they committed these atrocities.
All three individuals had issues communicating with others. They had no real way to express themselves, had no real friends they could trust or share their problems with, and they all experienced deep pain and suffering.
All three had a deep hatred of life. Seung hated his religious upbringing, he hated the students he went to school with, and hated the teachers who reported him to the authorities. Cruz showed hatred towards other races and ethnicities, hatred toward other classmates, and hatred toward what few friends and family members he had. Lanza hated his mother, hated school, hated society, and hated life in general.
They were all in pain. None of them fit into society. None of them were able to connect with anyone else. None of them found anything in life they loved doing. None of them had an outlet for their thoughts or emotions. None of them had any way to ease their pain, other than retreating into isolation, retreating into a dark silence.
Life was worthless. Life was going nowhere. Life was falling apart all around them. There was no substance to their existence, no meaning to their existence, and nothing comforting about their existence.
Each of them thought the world had abandoned them. Each of them had been lost in life. Each of them had wondered far away from society. Each of them was struggling in their own way to find their way back, but none of them could.
No one listened to them, but they all wanted to be heard, and their messages are clear.
“You sadistic snobs. I may be nothing but a piece of dogshit. You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.”
- Seung-Hui Cho
“I’ve had enough being told what to do and when to do. Telling me I’m an idiot and a dumbass. In real life, you’re all the dumbass. You’re all stupid and brainwashed. Today is the day. The day that it all begins. The day of my massacre shall begin. All the kids in school will run in fear and hide. From the wrath of my power they will know who I am.”
- Nikolas Cruz
“I carry profound hurt—I’ll go ballistic and transfer it onto you.”
- Adam Lanza
This hurt stems from our society.
This hurt stems from our inability to understand each other.
This hurt stems from our inability to deeply connect with other human beings, and try to put others before us.
This hurt stems from our inability to tear down the walls we put up, and reach out to other humans.
This hurt stems from our inability to understand ourselves, to understand why we are the way we are, and understand why others are the way they are.
This hurt stems from the drudgery of modern life, the blank stares of passersby, and the monotony of a materialistic world.
Ironically, these things embody what made Cho, Cruz and Lanza monsters. They did nothing but continuously build up walls around them that could not be scaled. They had no understanding or control of their own emotions and behaviors, and had no understanding of other people’s emotions and behaviors.
Their lives were chaos. Their lives were endless anxiety. Their lives were hell, and outside their doors were all the people they felt eternally threatened by. They despised the meaninglessness of a materialist society, and could find nothing worthwhile to live for.
We’re all so quick to demonize these people, but it was we who abandoned them, it was we who turned them into who they became, and it was we who named them “monsters”.
If we do not change—if we do not understand the darkness in our own psyche—then we will become the monsters.
These three children did not crawl out from some unnamable void, they crawled out of our public schools and our suburban homes. They weren’t listening to demons, they were listening to the television. They are not monsters, they are us.
What sort of people would we be if our lives were more meaningful?
What sort of people would we be if we strived to understand each other?
What sort of people would we be if we could understand ourselves?