Chain Letter Society: On The Virginia Tech Tragedy genre: Nouveau Thoughts & Six Degrees of Speculation

Chain Letter Society

It is being widely reported that at least thirty people have been killed on the campus of Virginia Tech University. Apparently the shootings were carried out by a lone gunman that witnesses report to be a male in his early twenties. The motive is unclear at the moment, but the incident certainly looks to be reminiscent of Columbine and a number of other similar events that have happened in school settings.

Clearly, it is far too early to draw any conclusions about this particular tragedy, but let me suggest that it isn't too early to begin discussing the dynamics that may be contributing to the recurrence of these horrific events...carried out by individuals seemingly far too young to have problems so significant that they are willing to act out plans that can only be seen as life ending...even though it doesn't always end with their immediate death.

Again, we lack sufficient detail to fully understand this particular situation, but we are hearing that this shooter was perhaps looking for his girlfriend. My first assumption was that perhaps the tipping point for this shooter may have been the end of a relationship and the inability to accept that reality. Regardless, each of these events has been triggered in some way by circumstances that are apparently beyond the coping abilities of these young individuals.

The question is why? What is happening in our society that leads these individuals to commit unbelievable acts of violence with such detached disregard? Over the next few weeks, there will certainly be endless attempts to decipher the motivations and the mechanics that have made these situations all too prevalent. Let me offer my own hypothesis.

We have become a society that is obsessed with winning…what I have called the “Chain Letter Society". Let me explain. A chain letter is basically a pyramid scheme whereby a list is circulated and those receiving the list are asked to send money to the first name on the list, add their own name to the bottom of the list, and then forward the list to a number of new people (often ten). Over time, each name is supposed to reach the top of the list and each person is supposed to receive large sums of money from the many people participating in the chain. The problem with chain letters is that, by sheer mathematics, they cannot work except for possibly those few individuals who originate the letter. The bottom line is that there aren’t enough people on the planet to allow all those who participate to benefit.

So how does that relate to today’s tragedy? Again, we have to consider the mathematics of life. In this country, the value placed on being the best, being number one, or being famous has become a focal point for our American culture. Parents today raise children to believe that they are privileged and can and will be the best…and the inference is that they must in order to have worth or value. It’s as if narcissism has become the trait of choice.

Is this an oversimplification? Perhaps, because the desire to succeed or achieve need not lead one to get a gun and kill people every time one fails to win. Nonetheless, one can surmise that the push to be first and the sense of privilege instilled in children will no doubt manifest itself as pathology in some portion of these individuals.

It seems to me that a growing number of parents no longer teach their children to find self-satisfaction outside of the construct of being the best at something or being famous. All too many parents believe that they can and should raise the next Tiger Woods…the next American Idol. One need only read the news to see the signs. It’s the father at a soccer game that attacks the referee or the opposing coach or even a child they view as a rival to their own son or daughter. It’s the mother who tells her daughter to attack the girl that was selected to be a cheerleader. It’s the parent that pushes or schemes to assure that his or her son or daughter date the boy or girl from the prominent family.

Sadly, in this construct, a successful life becomes elusive because it requires one to be the best…and by definition only one can be the best…leaving the rest to be viewed as the losers. Granted it’s more subtle than overt…but then doesn’t that simply help explain why no one anticipates that these perpetrators are about to cross the line of no return? If a child perceives that their parents love or approval is conditioned upon the success of the child…again whether that be spoken or implied…intentional or not...then more and more children are going to find themselves alienated and lost.

Further, if these individual’s first experience with alienation comes from those who should be considered fundamental and unconditional loved ones…it shouldn’t be difficult to understand how they can dehumanize fellow students or co-workers. It also shouldn’t be a stretch to think that they can blame fellow students or co-workers for their lack of success and therefore hold them responsible for their perceived alienation at home.

In watching the aftermath at Virginia Tech, one sees signs of the dynamic I’m suggesting. Each of the major cable news networks appears to have been deluged by student callers seeking to tell their story on national television…and that included at least one student that had actually been a shooting victim. Maybe I’m wrong, but should calling CNN after being shot be the instinct we want driving our children? What does that say about the priorities we are communicating to our children? Should recounting ones experience with being shot on national television become second nature? Doesn’t that indicate a misguided value system or at the very least a desensitization to the real meaning of tragedy and death?

I guess I would close with a suggestion that we need to reevaluate our values and begin to focus on raising our collective kindness quotient. Shouldn’t being a good person have merit and why can’t that measure come from sources other than our current standards of success…standards that seem to suggest that goodness is obsolete? Why is the Miss Personality or the Sportsmanship award viewed as nothing more than a consolation prize? Why is having one’s name on the television screen an acceptable instinctual reaction to untold tragedy?

What is going to happen when today’s children…raised with the belief that they can and will achieve notoriety and fame…realize that most of them aren’t the best and won’t succeed in that quest? What coping skills are we instilling and what alternative measures of success are we fostering in our children? In our earnest, though possibly misguided, desire to see our children have more and be more are we not setting them up for disappointment and failure?

The mirror of narcissism can only reflect back visions of grandeur. Isn’t it time we begin to see ourselves as we are, not as we aspire to become? In the end, we achieve our greatest success when we find ourselves. Finding that person is a process of reflection…but not the kind that can be found in a mirror.

Daniel DiRito | April 16, 2007 | 2:15 PM
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1 On April 16, 2007 at 4:23 PM, Dr X wrote —

Another interesting, thoughtful post and I agree generally with your initial intuitions. Assuming there was not some frank psychotic paranoid episode ala the LI Railroad shooter or an organic cause as was suggested in the autopsy of the University of Texas sniper, there is reason to consider a grave narcissistic wound in this case. A cultural emphasis on being best, being superior and being famous are symptomatic of an underlying inattentiveness to the legitimacy of the heart and its fundamental needs and vulnerabilities. Whatever the explanation(s) may be in this particular case (and we may never really know), your insights are thoughtful and your concerns are well placed.

2 On April 16, 2007 at 7:20 PM, Hello wrote —

"It's far too early to draw any conclusions," he says, before drawing conclusions.

3 On April 16, 2007 at 8:00 PM, Daniel wrote —

Dr X,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations. While we don't know the particulars in this case, we don know that there is a pattern of this type of behavior. It is important that we attempt to understand the mechanisms that may facilitate such behavior. I hope we spend some time on that rather than just slipping into a debate about gun control.


Thanks for your comment, although it appears that you may not have read the posting.

First, I made the statement, "Clearly it is far too early to draw any conclusions about this particular tragedy...".

Second, I stated, "Let me offer my own hypothesis".

Hypothesis is defined as:

an assumption or concession made for the sake of argument; a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but my stated intent wasn't to make conclusions about this particular incident but to begin a dialogue about possible causes for the increase in this type of violence.

I realize that many people aren't interested in hearing differing opinions or engaging in thoughtful dialogue to solve problems...but that fact simply supports my argument.

Nonetheless, I thank you for your comment. I hope to hear your own hypothesis and engage you in a meaningful discussion.



4 On April 16, 2007 at 8:37 PM, Anonymous wrote —

Thank you for starting the discussion with a well-thought and well-expressed hypothesis.

5 On April 17, 2007 at 4:10 AM, Anonymous wrote —

It may be entirely too early to point to the hypothesis that you are suggesting. Preliminary reports (sometimes dubious) point to the possible identity of the shooter as a foreign exchange student from somewhere near Shanghai, China. I don't know much about modern Chinese culture, but I wouldn't want to draw the conclusion so early that this shooter was simply a narcissistic psychotic who is a product of his culture.

That said, it seems that the questions you pose about fellow students calling the news channels to speak about the tragedy after it happened could relate well to your hypothesis. Or could they perhaps be a commentary on young peoples' feelings of disconnectedness/loneliness in an electronically interconnected, but faceless, society? Instead of turning to friends and parents to try to work through the initial emotional shock, maybe some of the students felt the only place to turn was to national media outlets.

All in all, a complex issue, but an important one to be asking.

6 On April 17, 2007 at 6:24 AM, Daniel wrote —

Anonymous and Anonymous,

Thank you both for your comments. I agree that we don't know enough about this particular individual to draw any conclusions. I also lack any sufficient knowledge of Chinese culture (assuming he was in fact from China) to even comment on any potential dynamics that may have been at play. I did hear some discussion yesterday that achievement and shame are influences in Asian cultures...but that's simply me reporting what I've heard...nothing more.

I want to make an important point as I spent much of the night pondering this horrific situation. While I raise concerns about the priorities we have in our American culture, I have also witnessed many remarkable young people. As with any hypothesis, it isn't a method whereby one looks at each individual and that can seem very impersonal. In this time of untold grief, I certainly don't want to be insensitive nor do I want to minimize the amazing acts of courage that no doubt played out yesterday.

My intention is to be a conduit for thought and dialogue...all born of my unyielding fascination for the human condition and my hope that we will always endeavor to promote and bring out the best of our human identities.

Thanks again for sharing you thoughtful observations. I greatly appreciate the feedback.



7 On April 17, 2007 at 7:08 AM, Karmakin wrote —

Regardless of the orgins of the shooter, that doesn't change the fact that the North American education culture is mostly built around this type of thing. It doesn't really matter how a parent brings up their kid, when they go to the school, they're still going to the pressure cooker, where people are still acting in the same way.

I followed very closely the mass school shootings during the 90's. The facts that Daniel put forward, don't just go for the perps.

In each of the school shooting cases it goes for the entire community. From the ground up. Schools are like putting a lid on that pressure. Eventually, it explodes.

School shootings are the explosion of this pressure.

Now here's the million dollar question. Why did they slow down? There was a rash of them, then they really disappeared. VT qualifies, but the latest few that hit the news I don't think does, as they were targeted shootings as opposed to random rampages.

My theory is that the internet, the ability to gain a virtual community helped when their own community was so hostile. Community is something we all need. So it was a kind of a release valve...not that it will never go off. Just that it usually slows it down enough, to get kids out of the pressure cooker. Once they're out, it seems to be over.

But to be honest, I don't think the pressure cooker is good for anything.

8 On April 17, 2007 at 7:17 AM, Tim wrote —

Before Columbine gave these kids the playbook, most people who couldn't cope with everyday drama like breaking up with a college girlfriend would, at worst, commit suicide.

Columbine taught the disaffected youth that they have another option; the mass murder/suicide. Considering how angry these kids are, when faced with the choice of dying alone or ruining as many other people's lives as possilble, which option do you think they'll choose?

9 On April 17, 2007 at 7:49 AM, Paul-Richmond wrote —

Nice theory. Now that we know that the shooter was a South Korean nation and in the country on a student visa, would you like to modify your hypothesis that points the finger at American culture? He must have taken a lot of golf lessons and watched many episodes of American Idol to get up to speed since his arrival in the US.

I know the natural reaction is to want answers to explain such a terrible event. Unfortunately, sometimes the answer is that there is no simple answer.

For now, let's just pray for the Virginia Tech family, of which I am one.

10 On April 17, 2007 at 8:24 AM, Daniel wrote —


Thanks for your comment. As I've said from the outset, we didn't and don't know enough about this individual and this particular situation to draw any conclusions.

Notwithstanding, are you suggesting that since this individual was from another country that my hypothesis is now negated? Perhaps I don't understand the scientific method, but if I'm not mistaken, that isn't exactly how the process works. The reasons that led him to choose to be in this country and the facts behind why he carried out this horrendous crime (here in America) still need to be fleshed out.

Does his being from South Korea explain the many other similar events that were carried out by young American citizens? I don't think so and I also doubt that we can make that conclusion.

You are certainly entitled to your own hypothesis. Regardless, I find that all too often people are unwilling to discuss and consider all the we're prone to injecting our own bias into much of what we espouse and then closing our minds.

You're right that there are likely no simple answers...but at the same time you begin by summarily discounting my observations. I'm not sure how to reconcile that contradiction...but perhaps that is your own bias coming through?

I would be glad to hear your thoughts on the dynamics that may be at play in these types of tragedies.

Thanks again for commenting.



11 On April 17, 2007 at 10:08 AM, Mooser wrote —

All those misbegotten, verklempt, people they make their kids attack the chubby knees of the head cheerleaders with an re-bar, already!

Don't they Know the only path to sucess sans violence is to have sucessful Republican parents?

12 On April 17, 2007 at 1:19 PM, AM wrote —

Nice blog and post.

This kid moved here when he was 7 or so. He is American for all intents and purposes.

I read that in South Korea, they have never had a school shooting. Hmmm...I wonder why.

Get rid of guns and become vegetarian to develop compassion from within.

13 On April 17, 2007 at 1:25 PM, ummabdulla wrote —

AM, What makes you think South Korea is a nation of vegetarians? Plenty of popular Korean dishes have meat (including dog meat).

And most countries around the world haven't had school shootings.

14 On April 17, 2007 at 1:34 PM, AM wrote —

I never said South Korea was a vegetarian nation. No nation in the world has a majority of its population vegetarian (even in India, it is more like 30-40 percent of the population being vegetarians).

However, to develop compassion, we have to stop factory farming and animal cruelty. Even better is becoming vegetarian. This will translate into compassion for humans and a better world.

15 On April 17, 2007 at 7:54 PM, Jimmy J. wrote —

Does our society promote winning as the highest value? I would say, "Yes." Do we not prepare our children to accept that they can come in second or last and still be a worthwhile person? The answer, once again, is yes.

So, what is the problem? The problem is that we don't accept that:
1. Life isn't fair.
2. All of us are born with different talents and abilities.
3. On the scale of winners and losers, there can only be one winner. But that doesn't demean those who didn't win. Without them the winner has accomplished nothing.
4. Each of us has a unique song to sing. What we bring to life is unique and has worth, even if it means we serve as the waterboy for the team.
5. All we can do is try to encourage each person to discover their talents and abilities. And then we must encourage each to raise those talents and abilities to the maximum extent possible. The loser in any athletic event is a winner if.....he has done his/her absolute best.

When young people are raised so they grasp these ideas, few would feel like such losers that the only way they can get recognition is to do something atrocious and evil.

16 On April 18, 2007 at 8:49 AM, Dr X wrote —

As the picture is emerging, the problems this man suffered appear to run far deeper than the kinds of problems associated with cultural trends. The picture is looking more consistent with preverbal developmental disturbances that occur during the first two year of life.

There is a great deal of research on formation and maintenance of attachment and its profound influence on the developing limbic system during the first years of life. (see bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Allan Schore, for example) The limbic system plays a profoundly important role in non-verbal emotional processing and self-regulation. It is also integral to attachment and the quality of intersubjective experience.

The brain is highly plastic during the first few years and particularly so during the first two years. Neural connections are rapidly formed and pruned within a relational matrix that forms the basis for how well we will connect with others,regulate our feelings, manage fear and tame aggression. This period of time in develpment can be considered an intensive hardwiring period that far exceeds anything that will ever occur again in our neural development over the years. This is why we can learn a language so easily and effortlessly between 1 year and three years old, but 4 years of college study might leave us fumbling and clumsy in our effort. Now, imagine the same sort of powerful neural development taking place in the realm of attachment, relational capacity and emotional regulation during this same early period of life. The effects of disruption in the fundamental regulating relationship with the primary caregiver are devastating.

If we're looking for an example of a previous case that might be closer to the picture we're seeing with Cho, Ted Kacynski, the Unibomber, is probably a closer fit. There is information about Kacynski and his early history that points to the profound impact a disruption in attachment exerted on his development and the genetic role this disruption played in the alienation and paranoid rage that animated his murder spree.

17 On April 18, 2007 at 1:31 PM, Mr. M wrote —

I didn't want to comment on this on the day of the shootings. Even for a horse race addict such as myself, I have sworn not to look at the political repurcussions of this incident, and am still struggling to hold up that oath. Likewise the theories and such that have come out of the woodwork are also something that I have avoided. But when you read and commented on my post, I did read this, and I've been mulling it over.

The ultimate argument you put forth isn't exactly a new one, though it is packaged in a new way, and does provide some interesting insights. At the same time, I'm not exactly sure how viable it is that the chain letter society as you put it could be fully or even partially responsible for the mass shootings that we as a nation have experienced over the past four or five decades.

We do have a chain letter society. And it does put at least some of the pressures on our youth and peers that you have mentioned. But at the same time I'm also forced to consider the healthfulness of such a society. Is it detrimental, or is it helpful? By breaking it down to the simplest concepts and then contemplating the extremes, I think we can come to understand and finally resolve this question.

For instance, in the society you describe, the stress is placed on winning and success. You must win, it is your natural birthright. But the opposite of this is a society in which everyone is completely and totally accepted for who they are and what they do.

On the surface, it would seem as though the latter society is the better. You watch the daytime talk shows, and they're all about, "You go girl," and "Big is beautiful." In parallel to the competitive society you document here, we have also seen in the last few decades a different society, one that is extremely accepting, and one that tells us to be who we are.

But, as in any kind of social structure, there are inherent dangers here. The world is changing, growing, evolving. If we were to look at the increasingly global economy, we begin to see patterns. We see that careers are changing in nature, and that stability of purpose is in a constant state of flux. For example, fifty, sixty years ago, you could get a job working in an auto factory, and have that job and be able to support your family for the entirety of your life.

Today, this is not the case. My father, without so much as a high school degree started work in his teens and now nearly sixty, is still working for that company making over a hundred grand a year. My wife, on the other hand, who has a Bachelor's degree in the IT field, is an insurance adjuster, and already knows that she will most likley either be terminated or move on within the next couple of years.

As new technologies are created, boom, become the norm, and fade to obselesence at an increasingly rapid rate, we find that we as a populace must strive to keep up, constantly changing and improving ourselves.

Bringing it back to the acceptance society, what this means is that we have are removing the stressors that result in change, and ultimately improvement. Under these conditions, it is far too simple for people to stagnate, and ultimately get left behind.

This could manifest itself in any number of ways. Put into the model of the globalized economy I put forth above, we could see increasingly larger populations failing to keep up with shifting economic trends resulting in rising unemployment and homelessness. If we are too accepting of the big is beautiful idea, people will increasingly cease to care about the stewardship of their own bodies and therefore suffer from health problems.

Understand that much of how we behave as a society is evolutionary. We put stresses on ourselves because it helps the race as a whole. Take for instance the idea of conceptual beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what does the beholder find beautiful and why? In some societies fat is considered beautiful because it means you have a family that can afford food. Being tanned has gone in and out of fashion, and is linked with populations in the past. In some places being tanned is hot because it meant you could afford the time and money to either sit in a tanning bed or on a beach to earn the tan. In other societies, and times, tanned isn't so great because it implies you are poor as you spend much of your time working in the fields.

This is all not to say that the chain letter society is all that much better. Yes, we push people to succeed, and in the end progress as a species is the result, but we do often push too hard as a result, which is not good for the mental health of a being.

Too much of anything, good or bad, can be bad.

But I think the problem here and in all cases is that at virtually all stages of our life, young and old, we have a sense of awareness. We have our dreams fulfilled or shattered or what have you, and we lash out, and sometimes suffer, or celebrate, but in the end, there is such a thing as rational behavior, and most people follow that within the norms of their society.

Those who have gone into mass shootings, however, have gone beyond rational behavior. Rational, in this instance, is to recognize a problem (I feel like crap because no one likes me) and you attempt to find at least a plausible answer to that problem (I will bathe more, work out more, try to be more friendly, try to relax around people, etc.). There is a clear and logical progression, no matter how faulty.

With this irrational behavior, though, the solution comes nowhere close to fixing the problem. (No one likes me, therefore I will shoot as many people as I can and then die myself). This does not fix anything, and no ammount of logic can employed tomake it at least seem so. Even needs for revenge come up short as often the initial target for the revenge becomes a secondary goal if at all.

Look at the sniper shootings that occured in this area a few years ago. (I mean the virginia maryland area). We now know that the sniper originally was going after his girlfriend, but killed other people to draw suspicion away from himself.

Believe it or not, this is rational. He had a target, intended to illiminate the target, but calculated the need for others to die for self preservation needs.

The end result would have been a logical fix to the problem.

In the case of mass shootings, though, there is no calculation, do you see?

Anyway, that's my thought on the subject. Thanks for stopping by and I'll talk at ya later.

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