The Case of Cho Revisited

The Case of Cho Revisited

This is a republication of a first analysis of the Virgina Tech shootings. Although it is written in essay style, a more precise and detailed version submitted to the Oxford Journal of Criminology was refused publication on the basis that it was not a psychological or sociological theory, but a theory of discourse and Lacanian analysis.

Truth of the Crime and Criminal: A Logical And Psychoanalytic Investigation

by R. Groome

Part I- The Case of Cho Seung-Hui

 0- Introductory Remarks

Cho Seung-Hui’s methodology of murder in the Virginia Tech shootings was no doubt delusional, but it was far from being ill-planned or illogical. On the contrary, Cho objectified the crime he was about to commit in a series of visible traits enabling him to not only identify his victims – the “rich, the snobs, the trust fund babies”, etc. – but to de-humanize them and himself through a vast array of technological devices: internet, cell phones, automatic weapons, digital cameras, etc. What is difficult to admit is that today, in the wake of the school shootings, a similar methodology is now being offered by the majority of experts – the psychiatrists, psychologists, the FBI and CIA agents – who are themselves seeking to objectify the crime by establishing a list of criteria or ‘profiles’ of visible traits that can identify school shooters or predict school violence in the future or after a threat has been made[1].

At one level, such methods are a natural reflex for the gathering of data and the acquisition of knowledge; at another, they become a paranoiac method of objectifying and de-humanizing others[2]. For such knowledge is not only specified by stereotypes, but is discharged in acts of aggression. Thus, the problem of profiling, whether of Cho or the experts, extends far beyond the recent school shootings to include terrorism, racism, and the modern phenomenon of the concentration camp. Beyond these complicities between law and crime, we aim to isolate a more elusive – if not invisible – trait that is systematically trivialized by an objectification of the crime and the criminal in visible traits. In isolating such an invisible trait, our investigation aims to de-objectify the crime, while humanizing the act, thus indicating the place for the autonomy of an experience in a criminological investigation that is inherently subjective.

1- Visible and Invisible Traits

It is commonly stated: where there is smoke, there is fire – the smoke being the visible sign of something for someone. But what happens when we want to make the sign refer to the someone, i.e., where there is a fire, there is someone?  What are the difficulties of not only finding the person responsible, but convicting them if the fire was set unlawfully?

The logic of the smoking gun is similar. What is the difficulty of determining the person responsible? For in a reference to psycho-pathological crimes, the standard oracle: “Guns do not kill people, but people do.” is simply not true. When the expert must read a visible trait as no longer referring to something (as in the case of physics), but someone (as in psychology) the case becomes complex enough to call into question the very principles – or norms – that we take for granted in everyday life.  Indeed, such subjective ‘signs’ become  difficult, if not impossible  to recognize and will be called, for the purposes of this article. an invisible trait. In the school murders at Virginia Tech, we can speak of the knowledge of the crime written in visible traits as a matter for the police and the judge, while the truth of the criminal is written in invisible traits that call upon the psychiatrist and psychologist.

The question remains, however, in the ever growing collusion between the human sciences and a public sector seeking to dominate such problems by force – thus reverting back to the visible signs of the police – are there psychologists and psychiatrists sufficiently disinterested and trained to read such invisible traits? For example, Cho, sometimes signed his name with a question mark, or introduced himself as “Question Mark”; or again, on the day of the crime Cho signed a packaged mail sent to NBC and tattooed himself with the name Ishmael X. Yet, in all of these cases, Cho was not simply lying or a criminal forger, since he actually believed in and identified with the name: it was the truth of the criminal, not a mere falsehood of the crime (as in the case of a writer of bad checks) that was being told in the form of a lie.  Such traits, in any case, remain unrecognizable to a theoretical or practical knowledge (a lie detector test) that would merely attempt to formulate the signification of an invisible trait as a false visible sign.

A paranoiac method has, therefore, its limits: in passing to the act on the basis of a reading and writing of visible traits, such a knowledge, in order to be something more than just words, is systematically expressed in contradictory forms approaching delirium[3]. That Cho was indeed a “Question Mark”, is exhibited by the contradictory statements of  the medical and legal experts: for instance, K. Godbey (LCSW) petitioned the magistrate stating Cho was an “imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness”, while R. Crouse (Psychologist, Phd.), stated Cho’s “insight and judgment [were] normal”.[4] An insufficient or classical logic inevitably only finds a writing of such contradictions in modes of literary acting out or an aggressive passing to the act that literally ‘signs’ the other through punishment – even if this ‘other’ should become oneself, one’s nation, school, or family[5]. Similarly, and beyond the good intentions of the official experts, the systematic refusal – or inability – to read an invisible trait, not only reduces it to being mere literary writing, but silences it in the name of the standard modes of ‘out-patient’ treatment (the psychiatric prescription of psychotropes and therapeutic imperatives to be calm). Thus, opening up the question of the point at which mental health care can itself become a form of passive and active aggression.[6]

I aim in this article to re-open an investigation of an invisible trait that tends to be trivialized to either the level of literature or to the visible traits of science. By making room in a criminological investigation for a ‘portrait’ of a criminal and the crime that refers to a stylization of a trait – or caricature – that is subjective, and not simply an objective profile, I  ask: Whose proper name signed this tragedy? I will show in Part II how the style of the criminal can be read like a signature left at the scene of a crime: as a mark and testament not merely of the crime in reality, but of the cruelty of the crime in its unreal dimensions. But for the moment, the next section will show how the preliminaries for the detection of the early warning signs and prevention of violence are essentially contained in learning to read an invisible trait.


[1] A methodological distinction can be made between seeking to determine a criminal profile before the act and after the utterance of a threat. This much said, in Methodological Note 1, we show that what appears to be two different methods of identifying traits, are actually two paranoiac modes of reading a truth predicate.


[2] Freud’s theory of paranoia situates its causality as a first phase of the Oedipus complex: in the case of the male, the child is in relation with the mother, and then instead of identifying with the father, he identifies with the mother (as dominant and phallic), thus setting up a homosexual position. In achieving maturity, the person then attempts to love other men like he himself was loved from the position of the mother (the terminology of a ‘queen’ for a dominant homosexual man follows). Consequently, Freud defines homosexuality, not as a perversion, but as the inversion of a paranoia. On the other side, paranoia is defined as a defense against homosexuality in so far as the ‘other’ of the paranoid, for all extensive purposes, resembles himself and is tinged with a certain homo-erotic character. How one can speak in psychoanalysis of the feminine Oedipus or feminine homosexuality will not be entered into in this paper.  But it should be noted that in Freud’s analysis of both homosexuality and paranoia, it is not a question of determining an abnormality or perversion, for he shows how both the heterosexual and unified ego have always already been in a homosexual and paranoid position unconsciously.  Rather, as we will show in Part II, psychoanalytically, it is a question of identifying a structural problem of the splitting of the ego around an invisible trait: the homophobe, for instance, passes to an act of aggression against an ‘other’ in the effort to actualize and separate from a trait – the phallus – that he had unconsciously identified with.

[3] The reason of this systematic ‘contradiction’ is explained in section 3- Methodological Note:  The Invisible Trait as Truth Predicate.

[4] The photocopied transcripts of the involuntary admission and release of Cho by the medical and legal experts can be readily found on the internet at such sites as:

[5] Since Aristotle’s lessons in logic, the philosophical tradition has refused to write and consider contradictions as anything other than something to be excluded from logic.  Thus, statements like, ‘John is home and John is not at home’ or (p and not p), must not be written in classical logic, rather one writes: Not (p and not p). Thus, effacing such a contradiction and rendering it invisible to the logical system. The question remains, however, at what point such contradictory statements, though ‘unthinkable’, should still be considered as a necessary moment of writing inherent to a logical system.  Said otherwise, if the exterior negation of Not (p and not p) is considered non-classically by not allowing for its distribution as in (not p and not (not p)) ó (not p or p), then the effacing of a contradiction can not be taken for granted (as reducible to the law of excluded middle), but must itself be given a rationale. We show how a contradiction, though unthinkable, is not only writable but showable, most often in the forms of literary acting out and criminal passing to the act that literally introduce a negation, if not a rejection, in forms of death and punishment.

[6] It will suffice to recall in this context that in 1949 the neurologist A.E. Moniz won a Noble peace prize for the invention of lobotomy, while claiming it a cure not only for schizophrenia and paranoia, but homosexuality and communism. What will become important to show in Part III is a type of violence that is systematically committed in the name of compassion for the other.