Sunday, September 13, 2009

Modern Day Mass Murder - The Langauge of Revenge (Or: "Vengeance is Mine... And I'm Willing to Die for It"

Top: Moby Dick
2nd: George Sodini - Pittsburgh Pseudocommando
3rd: Jiverly Voong - Binghamton Pseudocommando
4th: Cho - Virginia Tech Pseudocommando

The “Pseudocommando” Mass Murderer & the Language of Revenge

“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

- Herman Melville (Moby Dick)
Chapter 135, p. 477

“I didn't have to do it. I could have left…. But now I am no longer running…. Do you know what it feels like to be torched alive?.... All the [expletive] you’ve given me. Right back at you with hollow points.”

- Seung-Hui Cho (Video Manifesto)

The term “pseudocommando” was used by Dietz (1986) to describe a type of mass murderer who plans his actions “after long deliberation (p. 482).” He most often kills indiscriminately in public during the daytime, but may also kill family members as well. He comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons, and has no escape planned. The pseudocommando appears to be driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, in addition to having a paranoid character. They are “collectors of injustice” who nurture their wounded narcissism and ultimately retreat into a fantasy life of violence and revenge. Mullen (2004) described the results of his detailed personal evaluation of five pseudocommando mass murderers who, were caught before they could kill themselves or be killed. Mullen noted that the massacres were often well planned out (i.e., not impulsive, the offender did not “snap”), with the offender arriving at the crime scene well armed, often in camo or “warrior” gear, and appeared to be pursuing a highly personal agenda of “pay back” to an uncaring, rejecting world. Both Mullen and Dietz have described this type of offender as a suspicious grudge holder who is preoccupied with firearms.

Mass killings by such individuals are not new, nor did they begin in the 1960’s with Charles Whitman. The news media tend to suggest that the era of mass public killings was ushered in by Whitman at the top of the University of Texas at Austin tower, and have henceforth become “a part of American life in recent decades.” But research indicates that the news media have heavily influenced the public perception of mass murder, particularly the erroneous assertion that its incidence is increasing. Furthermore, it is typically the high-profile cases which represent the most widely publicized, yet least representative mass killings. As an example that such mass murderers have existed long before Whitman, consider a notorious case, the Bath School disaster of 1927, now long forgotten by most. Andrew Kehoe lived in Michigan in the late 1920’s and struggled with serious financial issues, as well as a wife who was suffering from tuberculosis. He appeared to focus his unhappiness and resentment on a local town conflict having to do with a property tax being levied on a school building. After becoming utterly overwhelmed with resentment and hatred, Kehoe killed his wife, set his farm ablaze, and killed some 45 individuals by setting off a bomb. Kehoe himself was killed in the blast, but did leave a final communication on a plaque outside his property. The plaque read: “Criminals are made, not born” – a statement suggestive of externalization of blame and long-held grievance.

Hempel, Meloy & Richards (1999) were among the first to note that the mass murderer with a “warrior mentality” will often “convey their central motivation in a psychological abstract, a phrase or sentence yelled with great emotion at the beginning of the mass murder (p. 213).” To date, the actual communications of the pseudo-commando mass murder have received little detailed analysis. This fact is of interest in that “the words people use … can reveal important aspects of their social and psychological worlds (p.547).” Beyond basic demographic data, the use of language may also suggest different types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or depression, and the individual’s overall level of psychological distress. An offender’s use of language may lend clues about his past experience, ethnic background, and primary motivations.

After having examined the final communications of two pseudocommando type mass murderers in detail in an effort to reveal what themes emerge, and whether such communications can lead to greater psychological insights into to the psychology and motivations of the offender, I conclude that Cho, Wong (and Soldini) shared basic pseudocommando characteristics in common, but also some very important differences. This linguistic analysis begins with the assumption that the offender would not have bothered to write down or otherwise communicate his “manifesto” unless it had great personal meaning. In the cases examined, the offenders took the time and effort to deliver their communications to the TV news media, suggesting that it was highly important to them that their “message” be disseminated to the public.

In his detailed case study of five pseudocommando type mass murderers who were caught before they were killed, Mullen (2004) described a number traits and historical factors that these individuals had in common. In particular, they were bullied or isolated as a child, turning into loners who felt despair over being socially excluded. They also were described as being generally suspicious, resentful, grudge holders who demonstrated obsessional or rigid traits. Narcissistic, grandiose traits were present, along with the heavy use of externalization as a way of coping. They held a worldview of others being generally rejecting and uncaring. As a result, they spent a great deal of time feeling resentful, and ruminating on past humiliations. Such ruminations invariably evolved into fantasies about violent revenge. Mullen noted that the offenders seemed to “welcome death,” even perceiving it as bringing them fame with an aura of power. As most all of the literature on the pseudocommando heavily references the offender’s motivation of revenge, a more in depth analysis of revenge from a psychological standpoint may be helpful.

The Psychology of Revenge

“He piled upon the whale’s hump the sum of all the general rage and hate… and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

- Herman Melville (Moby Dick)
Chapter 41, p. 154

The desire for revenge “is a ubiquitous response to narcissistic injury (p. 447).” And so it should be of interest that an emotion as intense and ubiquitous as revenge has received little study relative to other emotional drives. Both psychoanalysis and forensic psychiatry have merely skimmed the psychological surface of this destructive cognition. Yet consider how revenge “hides” in plain sight, at least in Western culture. For example, Greek mythology is “awash in revenge themes.” Revenge is the central motive in at least twenty of Shakespeare’s plays, and a main theme in many of today’s Hollywood movies. The success of movies such as the “Death Wish” series, and more recently the “Kill Bill” series, speaks to the public’s fascination with, and indeed their delight in, “the sweet taste of payback.” That there exists a strong, primal universality of the revenge theme hardly requires in-depth socio-anthropological study. And perhaps its readily evident nature, its conspicuousness, allows it to become more easily dismissed by psychological science. Across almost every culture, the taking of revenge, when “justified,” has assumed “the status of a sacred obligation (p.199).” But in many cultures, since biblical times and before, there has always been the principle of functional symmetry in seeking redress, such as the Old Testament’s admonition of an eye for an eye.

Fear and anger, in the form of the “fight or flight” response, are linked physiologically and psychologically. We will not be surprised that where we find anger, fear may also be found, perhaps obscured in the background. Human aggression, as an expression of revenge, may be traced back to this psycho-physiological link designed to enhance survival. But at this point in the stage of our evolution, affronts to our self-esteem, status, dignity or narcissism are responded to “as though they were a threat to our survival (p. 123).” We have maintained the physiological hard-wiring, which is available for excessive use in situations that do not involve survival of the body, but instead survival of the ego. I use the term ego here to represent the mind’s tendency to create the illusion that there is a “self” or identity that desires to sustain itself, seek pleasure and avoid narcissistic (ego) injury just as zealously as one would attempt to avoid harm to the physical body. This ego survival instinct becomes “sublimated into striving for an enduring sense of self which is an object of value in a field of social meanings (p. 23).” Thus, violent revenge may be viewed as a “fight response” to a particular “perceived threat to the sense of self,” its pursuit of pleasure and its various “immortality projects (p. 25).” Because the self or ego must be defined in the social-meaning field, it is the Other on whom we depend for our highly valued identity. In individuals with vulnerable, fragile egos, conflict with the Other arouses fantasies of, and sometimes actions to, dominate and/or obliterate the Other. The individual whose ego is damaged may harbor and nurture destructive rage that eventually transforms him into an “avenger.” Indeed, it is the frustration of the need to “preserve a solid sense of self,” that is often “the source of the most fanatical human violence [as well as] the everyday anger that all of us suffer (p. 85).”

But this righteous anger is, in reality, a vainglorious “pseudo-power,” as it is merely a reaction to intolerable feelings of powerlessness and humiliation. Nevertheless, there comes a point in time when this pseudo-power is the only defense the avenger has left to ward off the annihilation of his sense of self (ie., his identity and self-esteem). This is why, when the potential avenger’s ego is threatened or hurt “in such a devastating way… the only thing that remains is to persist in the ‘unremitting denunciation of injustice’” (p. 189) For certain individuals, there is no turning back or giving up on the “crusade,” because there is a perverse “honor” in refusing to normalize the perceived injustice. This is, in fact, the “hidden logic of the… avenger” (p. 83-84) – to sustain a perversely heroic “refusal to compromise, an insistence “against all odds” lest his heroic fantasy and fragile ego surrender to the reality of a “self” (or lack thereof) that he finds intolerable (p. 190).

The psychotherapy literature on revenge suggests that fantasized revenge is a familiar cognition in the daily life of humans. It is not at all uncommon for patients in psychotherapy to communicate, either consciously or unconsciously, fantasies of revenge. In the treatment of the various stress response syndromes “clinicians may encounter intrusive and persistent thoughts of vengeance associated with feelings of rage at perpetrators (p. 24).” While the revenge fantasies most often have the emotional content of “hate,” and “fear,” in persons with fragile egos, fear may easily devolve into frank paranoia. Thus, the prognosis of the individual with strong revenge fantasies will always have to consider his particular ego strength, along with the usual forensic factors of social/situational stressors and appropriate risk factors. In very disturbed individuals, revenge fantasies may even include rage at the self, leading to either suicide and/or homicide-suicide.”, Other research findings suggest that people, even today, generally believe in the “utility of aggression (p. 1316).” In particular there is research evidence suggesting that strong anger can serve as an attention-focusing emotion, making it difficult to think about other things. Anger thoughts can thus be a vicious cycle; the more people think about them the angrier they get, and the angrier they get, the harder it is to think about anything else (p.1317).” The psychotherapeutic challenge would seem to be the fact that rumination on revenge fantasies may prevent the individual from “engaging other strategies (e.g., trivialization) that would have allowed them to move on and think about something else (p. 1323).”

But let us return to the utility of revenge fantasies for the pseudocommando, and in particular, why they are so unrelenting in individuals with the ego vulnerabilities of strong narcissistic and paranoid traits. In such individuals, the revenge fantasies are inflexible and persistent because they provide desperately needed positive emotional effects. The avenger can make himself feel good by gaining a sense of (pseudo) power and control by ruminating on, and finally planning out his vengeance. These fantasies may lead the avenger to “experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice (p. 25).” There seems to be the promise, perhaps stemming from thousands of years of evolution and stoked by our society’s present day honor of it, that the avenger may resurrect his identity and mortally wounded ego via the revenge scenario, which “functions as a defense against being overwhelmed by sadness, helplessness, and hopelessness (p. 25).” Thus, the revenge fantasy falsely promises a powerful “remedy” to a shattered and humiliated ego. It gives the “illusion of strength,” and a temporary, though false, sense of restored control and self-coherence.

According to Menninger, there are five critical elements prompting an explosion of violent behavior: 1) a narcissistic [ego] injury perceived as grossly unfair, 2) hopelessness about a reasonable resolution, 3) the perception that the limits of toleration have been exceeded and some action must be taken, 4) access to weapons, and 5) disregard for the consequences, combined with a sense of “potent” rage. For purposes of simplification, one might use the example of when a child suffers some type of pain. One of the results is usually that the child “wants to let others know about it… to know exactly how he or she hurts (p. 121).” In other words, the internal dialogue may be represented as: “When I am hurt by you, I want you to hurt like I hurt; therefore if you hit me, I will hit you back (p. 121).”

But in the case of the pseudocommando, the drive for revenge will have no truck with either logic or reasonable consideration of adverse consequences. The type of severe narcissistic rage they experience “serves the purpose of the preservation of the self (ego) (p.124)” that has exceeded its limit of shame, alienation and aversive self-awareness. This pain and rage simply cannot be contained by pseudocommando, who then embarks “on a course of self-destruction that transfers their pain to others (p. 128).” It may ultimately be the intensity and quality of the revenge fantasies, acting in concert with other risk variables, which contribute to “whether vengefulness will be a passing concern or a lifelong quest (p. 449).” Dietz has described these individuals as “collectors of injustice” who hold onto every perceived insult, amassing a pile of “evidence” that they have been grossly mistreated. But there is also another way of thinking about their “collection.” To sustain the revenge “romance,” they must collect the unwanted, hated or feared aspects of themselves. This collection is then re-assembled into the form of an “enemy” who therefore “deserves” to be the target of a merciless, incendiary rage. Thus, the pseudocommando maintains object relations with others which are based heavily upon envy and splitting. As a general rule, a more intense desire for revenge signals a more intense idealization of the hated object(s). Targets of a very intense revenge desire must be made out to be worthy of their fate, and so we should not be surprised to see the pseudocommando portray his victims as barely worthy of being considered human beings, much as Cho portrayed other students (whom he hardly knew) as "hedonistic" "brats" who had "raped" his soul. Yet at the same time, he must view himself as blame free, thereby completing the other half of the splitting and projection dynamic.

We are now at a point where we can summarize some of the main psychic functions that the pseudocommando’s wish for revenge serves:

  1. The revenge fantasy “provides sadistic gratification, and perhaps has an evolutionary basis (p. 608).”
  2. The revenge fantasy helps the pseudocommando obliterate an intolerable reality and aversive self-awareness. His rumination “dominates thought and impels action much as an addiction or erotomania does (p. 605).” The avenger could be said to have “fallen” into romantic/idealized hate. Just as Captain Ahab believed he had been “dismasted” by the whale, he reached the final stages of narcissistic inaccessibility, and plunged irretrievably into a “romanticized” downward spiral of reality-destroying nihilism and death.
  3. The revenge fantasy serves as a defense against feelings of shame, loss, guilt and powerlessness. The pseudocommando not only denies his powerlessness, but also goes even further, gaining “virtually limitless power. An eye for an eye soon gives way to a life for an eye….(p. 603).” In this way, revenge “is an attempt to restore the grandiose self (p. 605).” It allows the pseudocommando’s “omnipotence” to rise triumphantly from the ashes of shame, loss and vulnerability.
  4. The revenge fantasy maintains the status quo of the pseudocommando’s primitive object relations, which are based heavily on envy and splitting. The greater the revenge wish, the greater was the idealization of the hated object. The targets of revenge must be worthy of their fate, and so must be dehumanized, demonized and kept bereft of merit. Yet at the same time, the avenger must view himself as utterly blame free.

The peril associated with these revenge dynamics, especially in a potential pseudocommando, is that they inexorably collide with reality in such a way as to render the defenses ineffectual. Reality will ultimately creep into his life in various ways, threatening him with aversive self-awareness, and requiring that he “feed the monster” – ie., cultivate stronger, more intense feelings of persecution and hostility towards his victims. Once this process becomes well entrenched, the pseudocommando begins to tread down the path of cognitive deconstruction, nihilism and death.

Pseudocommando Psychodynamics: Persecution, Envy & Nihilism

“They do me wrong, and I will not endure it…. I must be held a rancorous enemy.”

- Richard III

Thus far, we have seen how the pseudocommando’s revenge wish is linked to an ego disrupting injury, followed by fantasies of violence in which he struggles to re-establish his sense of identity. Now I should like to focus on the developmental psychodynamics observed in many offenders who have strong paranoid and narcissistic traits, and cling to the position of the aggrieved “victim,” despite overwhelming evidence that their own actions have placed them in their unpleasant situation. These offenders may become stagnated in their own self-pity, anger and persecutory ruminations. It is possible that the harsh early childhoods that some of these offenders endured may have contributed to their impaired ability to trust others as an adult, leaving them with a strong self-centered, paranoid character style. According to developmental theory, a more healthy development necessitates the transition away from What Klein called the “persecutory position” to a more mature stage, called the “depressive position.” The study of violent offenders using this theory has suggested that impediments to psychological development may cause the offender to become relatively fixed in a persecutory developmental stage, or what Klein has called the paranoid-schizoid position. In this stage, most of the individual’s worldview is based on feelings of mistreatment and frustration at what is perceived as “intentional” harm, or purposeful withholding of gratification. Fixation at this stage is associated with the use of more primitive defense mechanisms such as splitting, externalization and projective identification. In contrast, the offender who has reached the depressive position will have developed the capacity to entertain feelings of concern or worry that he has injured or destroyed some aspect of society (eg., his fellow man). Cognitions associated with the depressive position include regret, victim empathy and interests in making reconciliation with society.

The persecutory cognitions of the offender in the paranoid-schizoid position are felt by him as threatening, undeserved attacks upon his “self” (ie., identity or ego). This is of interest in that Dietz has noted that most, if not all men in the U.S. who have killed ten or more victims in a single incident have demonstrated “paranoid symptoms of some kind (p. 480).” Over time, paranoid-schizoid offenders develop strong but primitive defenses to protect against their expectations of being mistreated. Consistent with their feelings of being persecuted, such offenders also suffer from strong feelings of destructive envy. As regards envy, it is important to note that the offender at the paranoid-schizoid stage is not necessarily envious of the Other’s possessions or social status, but the way in which the Other is able to enjoy these things. Thus the offender’s true goal is “to destroy the Other’s ability/capacity to enjoy” the prized object or status (p. 90).” For example, Cho provides an excellent example of this in his manifesto when he chides other students according to his perception that they possessed “everything” they ever wanted, such as “Mercedes…. golden necklaces…. trust fund[s]…. vodka and cognac.” Yet in the same manifesto, he reveals his powerfully destructive envy, stating: “Oh the happiness I could have had mingling among you hedonists, being counted as one of you, if only you didn’t ***** the living ***** out of me.” Via projection, such individuals perceive others as persecutory not only as a result of paranoid cognitions, but also by their views of others as withholding the “goodness” and happiness to which they feel entitled. Similar cognitions were described by Mullen (2004) in his previously mentioned analysis of five incarcerated mass murderers. The offenders were described as suspicious, resentful grudge holders who had strong feelings of persecution or mistreatment. They tended to ruminate over past humiliations, and harbored resentment over old social rejections.

In contrast to the paranoid-schizoid position, the depressive position allows the individual to more smoothly confront reality. It involves the capacity to have feelings of responsibility, guilt and concern over harm done to others. During long-term incarceration, some offenders may eventually take up pursuits suggestive of attempts to negotiate the depressive phase. For example, a man sentenced to life for murder may become involved in running the prison “lifers” group, or take up creative pursuits such as art, music or poetry – all examples of “reparative” activities. Yet empirical experience will assure us that many offenders are unable to achieve an attitude embracing personal accountability and reconciliation. In particular, some of these offenders go on to develop remarkably fixed, chronic feelings of persecution. Clinical observations suggest that some of these offenders who remain fixed in the persecutory position ultimately develop an entrenched nihilistic attitude. This nihilism then pervades their worldview, cognitions about treatment, and life in general. The risk here is that their loss of, or failure to find meaning may result in feelings of hopelessness, suicidality and other self-defeating actions. Thus it might be hypothesized that once the offender reaches some individual-specific level of nihilism, he may demonstrate a significantly reduced ability benefit from efforts designed to extend help, and will have little motivation to self-regulate his behavior. It is important to keep in mind that these offenders feel persecuted by society or “the system,” and therefore have strong feelings of rejection by society. These empirical observations of the adverse effects of social rejection and nihilistic beliefs in incarcerated offenders are consistent with research findings in non-incarcerated populations. For example, social rejection has been found in normal subjects to increase feelings of meaninglessness, decrease self-awareness and lower the ability to self-regulate behavior.,

Social science research has shown that when nihilism and the drive to avoid painful or aversive self-awareness becomes strong enough, there is a significantly increased risk of suicide and/or self-destructive behaviors. This theory has been called the “escape theory” of suicide to denote the suicidal individual’s motivation to escape aversive self-awareness. According to escape theory, when the individual is unable to avoid negative affect and aversive self-awareness, a process of “cognitive deconstruction” occurs in which there is a rejection of meaning (nihilism, hopelessness), increased irrationality and disinhibition. Suicide then becomes the ultimate step in the effort to escape from meaningful awareness and it’s implications about the self. In applying this theory to the psychology of the pseudocommando, the stage of cognitive deconstruction would seem to signal a potentially deadly turning point. Having tried, but failed, to place his aversive self-awareness outside of himself, he redoubles his efforts to externalize. Such efforts return to him as even more powerful persecutory attacks from the outside. In select individuals, this may culminate in a real life physical attack directed outward to avoid what is within. For the pseudocommando laboring under a heavy burden of persecutory ideas and negative affect, consciousness of his true predicament is self-torment. As a conscious being, bits and pieces of reality will ultimately bubble up into awareness, and contemplating them too closely is, for him, the equivalent of an unending suicide. The constant assault by reality, and his own persecutory attacks, results in a collapse of the psyche. This collapse fragments his ego into bits and pieces of unspeakable pain. His existence has become the endless self-destruction of a subject given over to a condition of catastrophic anxiety, fear and rage.

The Obliterative State of Mind

“How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”

- Herman Melville (Moby Dick)
Chapter 36, p. 136

"I didn't have to do it. I could have left. I could have fled. But now I am no longer running.”

- Seung-Hui Cho (Video Manifesto)

Returning briefly to another literary example, Shakespeare’s Richard III is a classic example of a mind committed to revenge, and driven by powerful grievance. His state of mind may be regarded as an “obliterative state of mind,” in that it functions to spread more grievance, destruction and ultimately annihilation. Such individuals may come to embrace a self-styled image based on low self-esteem or negative self-perceptions that may be tinged with an ominous or threatening undertone. That is, they embrace their dark, negative cognitions, and fashion them into a recognizable suit of “black” armor. Just as Richard defined himself by his own deformity, so Cho defined himself by his “outcast” status – even dubbing himself the “question mark kid.” Thus, persons driven by envy and destruction tend to see others “as in the light and [choose] to stay in the dark… (p. 702).” In the case of Richard III, his inner envy and destructive narcissism lead him to consciously adopt the role of reprobate:

“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

As previously discussed, toxic levels of “envy and narcissism… can fracture the personality, hold it hostage and in thrall, by being fuelled by triumph and contempt…. (p. 703).” However, there is more at work here than envy alone. The developing pseudocommando must hold fast to his “hatred of anything such as growth, beauty, or humanity which is an advance over a bleak, static interior landscape (p. 710).” In addition, Freud pointed out that it might be easy to miss another important psychological motive behind Richard’s decision to “prove a villain.” Specifically, the pseudocommando’s notion that “Nature has done me a grievous wrong…. Life owes me reparation for this…. I have a right to be an exception, to disregard the scruples by which others let themselves be held back. I may do wrong myself, since wrong has been done to me (p. 314-315).” It is this feeling of being an “exception” to the rules, of being entitled to harm others or break societal laws, that fuels the pseudocommando’s obliterative state of mind. And once he has embraced this mindset, he condemns himself to a mental space in which “he cannot envision rescue from this commitment to a killing field externally or internally (p. 709).” The narcissistic injury which is utterly intolerable is “essentially nihilistic: nothing matters, all is despair…. all goodness and substance are obliterated, so that nothingness defines the domain (p. 710).” This is the obliterative mindset – destroy everything, embrace nothingness.

Such individuals require mental “sanctuary” from the oppressive, relentless nihilism that assails them. It is only from such a sanctuary that he has a hope of achieving greater mental clarity, freedom from persecution, reclaiming the notion of the other’s potential “goodness,” and relinquishing his pseudo-empowering revenge fantasies. Sadly, it is the case that some individuals may never be able to relinquish the “Ahab – Richard III” state of mind, as all attempts at empathy may be met with suspicion, defensiveness and contempt. Beyond having internal object relations that are primarily fixated at the paranoid – schizoid stage, it could be said that such individuals’ destructive revenge fantasies and refusal to compromise have reached a fatal and malignant stage. At this point, the individual is unable or unwilling to re-emerge from the “heroic” fantasy of ultimate revenge, with an emphasis on the concept of fantasy. As the pseudocommando comes closer to turning fantasy into reality, he must undergo a process in which he comes to increasingly accept that he will be sacrificing his own life. It may be that this obstacle is easier for him to overcome where: 1) his catastrophic thinking leads him to believe violent homicide-suicide is his only option, and 2) his nihilistic, obliterative mindset has caused him to feel that his “self” is already dead, and the death of his body is simply an inevitability. These dynamics have the ultimate effect of undermining his capacity for undistorted judgment, finding meaning in life, and sublimating aggression. Now he is able to override his survival instinct, and reach the point of “willingness to sacrifice one’s body (p. 73).”

Prior to this point, the pseudocommando’s narcissistic inaccessibility led him to be imprisoned in his own revenge fantasies, which served as a faulty/failing life preserver for his drowning ego. But once he reaches the stage of genuine willingness to sacrifice himself and others, there are no further attempts to reach out to the Other; rather, the individual becomes a vortex into which all data is taken and re-configured to substantiate the grounds of the revenge fantasy. He stands as a living example that “narcissism needs no exchange, but requires the other to collapse into it.” At some individualized point during this collapse, the pseudocommando makes the decision to bring his revenge fantasies into the daylight of reality. It is also at this point that he begins to formulate, if he has not already, his final communications. These communications have great meaning to him, as he realizes they will be the only “living” testament to motivations, struggle and “heroic sacrifice.” Therefore, he puts no little thought into them. He pulls the words from deep down within his shattered psyche, and carefully spreads them out for all to see. Like a poker player who lays down his “royal flush,” he reveals his hate-filled, obliterative hand to the shock and lament of all who bare witness.


Both Cho and Wong committed mass murder as defined by the present day, accepted Bureau of Justice definition. Both men killed four or more victims at one location, within one event. Although their violent actions were strikingly similar, their final communications revealed significant and important differences between these two individuals. Both men followed the known pattern of the pseudocommando in terms of being heavily armed, wearing “warrior” gear, committing the act during the day, planning for the act, and expecting to be killed during the mass murder. The final communications of both men also revealed that they harbored extremely strong emotions of anger, feelings of persecution, severely damaged self-esteem, and the desire for revenge. Both had reached the obliterative mindset in which nothing matters, and violent destruction must be the final outcome.

In contrast, careful analysis of their final communications also reveals striking differences between the two pseudocommandos. Wong’s final letter strongly suggests that he suffered from a major psychotic disorder. Even more weight is added to this possibility by his father’s reports of Wong’s psychotic symptoms beginning in his early twenty’s, and Wong’s odd behaviors, some of which are frequently seen in individuals suffering from major psychotic disorders (eg., wearing warm clothing in the summer, isolative behavior, uncharacteristic outbursts of anger). Although he was resentful about the status of his “poor life,” he attributed all of his misfortunes to bizarre persecution by “undercover cops.” He appeared to delusionally believe that it was, in fact, these secret persecutors who had destroyed his chances of assimilating and working successfully in the country to which he and his family had immigrated. In reality, it was likely that his undetected, untreated severe mental illness which prevented him from achieving his goals in his new country. Nevertheless, he could not “accept” his circumstances.

For approximately two decades, Wong felt utterly subject to the cruel and unwarranted harassment of his persecutors (ie., his paranoid delusions). Upon reaching the obliterative state of mind, he reasoned that for once in his life he would not be the passive recipient of persecution. Instead, he would assume the role of persecutor and punishing “judge.” With one act of vengeance, he would show his persecutors that he was not a man who could be tormented forever. His actions would make them “regret” what they had done to him. Further, by killing others, he was able to discharge what must have been a deep abyss full of rage, while psychotically projecting responsibility for the tragedy onto his imagined persecutors. In the case of Wong, we see much less overt envy expressed in his final communication. Rather, his letter dwells mainly on his persecutory delusions and his plan to commit homicide-suicide due to his aversive self-awareness and strong feelings of resentment.

Cho’s final communication is a veritable course on the psychodynamics of envy and social exclusion. He even goes as far as acknowledging his fantasies of being part of the “hedonistic” crowd, who he imagined had unlimited access to all of the pleasurable “debaucheries” in life. Cho’s “manifesto” does not contain any overtly delusional material, although one may argue that his feelings of persecution may have reached delusional or near delusional levels. However, with Cho there is no evidence of bizarre or technological delusions as with Wong. Cho’s letter is rife with externalization, splitting and rage stemming from his feelings of social exclusion. Cho’s letter also contains more direct and overt expression of vitriolic anger as compared to Wong’s letter. But perhaps the biggest difference from Wong is Cho’s romanticized theme of his act as a heroic, grandiose sacrifice. Cho stresses that his own death will not be in vain – rather, he is a Christ figure who is sacrificing himself to “save” the “weak and the defenseless,” which is precisely the way that he likely saw himself – a “pathetic boy” who’s life (and self-esteem) had been “extinguished” by his feelings of social exclusion.

A final contrast between the two is clearly seen in the photos they sent to the media. Whereas the photos sent by Wong consisted mainly of him sitting down holding a gun pointing upwards, Cho’s photos were more numerous and more posed for dramatic effect. For example, Cho aims his gun directly at the camera. In another, he holds two guns with his arms outspread reminiscent of an action movie hero. In sum, Cho’s photos suggest substantially more drama, grandiosity and narcissism. All of this data, taken together with their writings, suggest that Wong primarily suffered from a major psychotic disorder, whereas Cho’s primary psychopathology was characterological. This is not meant to exclude the possibility that Cho had begun to suffer from thought disorder; however, the evidence for this is far less striking than with Wong.

In terms of prevention, the difficult reality is that such events are extremely hard to prevent. Recommendations may represent hopeful or idealistic goals, while the reality is that such events often occur without obvious opportunities for diversion. Yet retrospectively one may sometimes discover “windows” of opportunity that if taken advantage of, may possibly have had a chance of diverting the course of events leading up to the tragedy. Such windows may take the form of family members taking steps to have the potential pseudocommando evaluated and treated, or if necessary, involuntarily treated if mentally ill. Another example might be employees or co-workers notifying authorities once they become reasonably concerned. We live in a society that places a high value on both privacy/individual liberty and safety. This can be a difficult balancing act, yet in the case of an individual who raises the concern of family, friends or co-workers, it would seem that the privacy end of the equation must remain flexible, albeit in a very well reasoned way.

Other prevention efforts may involve: identifying potentially violent, angry, nihilistic persons; identifying communities in which it is more difficult to access adequate mental health services; and improving nation wide research efforts focusing on identifying and preventing such tragedies, as well as fully understanding the long-term public health effects of mass murders. In terms of media responses, it may be helpful to formalize a set of reporting guidelines. For example, it has been suggested that news media should avoid glorifying the perpetrator, and not disclose his methods or number of victims killed. Rather media should emphasize victim and community recovery efforts, and deflect attention away from the perpetrator.


Mass murders are not a recent phenomenon, but have occurred since well before the Charles Whitman shooting in 1966. However, what may be a more modern “twist” on mass murder is the pseudocommando style shootings as first described by Dietz (1986), and more recently by Mullen (2004). Present day access in the U.S. to powerful, automatic firearms, as well as a possible glorification of the phenomenon as a western culture “script” are two factors making these present day mass murders unique.

This article has presented a discussion on the psychology of revenge, with special attention to revenge fantasies in pseudocommando mass murderers. These individuals nurture feelings of persecution, resentment and destructive envy. When they reach the limits of their ability to tolerate or avoid aversive self-awareness, there is a significantly increased risk of cognitive deconstruction and nihilism. The revenge fantasy becomes the last refuge for the pseudocommando’s mortally wounded self-esteem. Prior to carrying out their mass shootings, pseudocommandos often take special care to communicate some final message or “manifesto” to the public or news media. Such communications are rich sources of data about the motives and psychology of the pseudocommando. The field of forensic psycholinguistics may be applied in such cases to better discern primary motivations, the presence of mental illness, and important individual nuances. Analysis of both Cho and Wong’s final communications revealed important similarities and differences between the two mass murderers. It is hoped that careful analysis of the pseudocommando’s final communications may ultimately lead to a better understanding of their behaviors and psychology, as well as future preventive efforts.

I will leave the reader with one final thought - coming from a study by Australian researchers. Chapman et al. (2006), studied mass murders before and after 1996 - the year of a horrendous mass murder in Tasmania. Australia quickly enacted gun law reforms which included removing semi-automatic, pump-action shot guns and rifles from civilian possession. In the 18 years before the gun laws, they found a total of 13 mass shootings. In the 10.5 years after the gun law reforms, there were 0 (zero) mass shootings. Understanding that Australian and U.S. culture have some distinct differences, it still may be very worthwhile to ponder the findings of this (single) study. [Chapman, S., et al: Australia's 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass murder. Injury Prention, 2006; 12: 365-372.]