When a serial killing hits the news, our initial reaction is shock and dismay. We are stunned by the arbitrariness of the crime, the randomness of the attack, as some heretofore peaceful world -- a McDonald's, a small town, a university campus -- becomes the scene of atrocity.
But I found through my research that these crimes were the opposite of unpredictable. The perpetrators were almost always males, almost always white. They were in their 20s to 40s.
They loved guns. In their childhoods, the majority of these men, whatever their class or ethnic background, were exposed to cruel psychosexual violence. They developed into frustrated loners who nursed their grievances into elaborate revenge fantasies. When they finally crossed the line from fantasy to bloodshed, they invariably wore Army surplus clothing or some militaristic garb. Witnesses said Cho Seung-Hui, 23, the South Korean citizen who slaughtered 33 people at Virginia Tech University last Monday, was dressed as a kind of post-apocalyptic Boy Scout.
What became clear as I read the stories of dozens of men like Seung-Hui was that the first question we ask in our shock and horror -- Why? -- really does have an answer. Criminologists and profilers know enough about these killers to fill out the character arcs of a million "C.S.I." episodes.
Researching story after dreadful story, I found great comfort in these answers, which, to my mind, were not as simplistic as the standard post-shooting debates over guns or prisons or violent TV shows.
Berserkers, I discovered, undergo a process that the criminologist Lonnie Athens termed "violentization," a socializing toward violent behavior. Richard Rhodes detailed Athens' approach in his book, "Why They Kill: Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist," a book that deservedly became my bible on these dark matters.
Athens found that people become violent after experiencing what he calls "a series of intense, noxious social experiences" in childhood or sometimes after. These experiences lead them to believe that, in Rhodes' words, "serious violence is the best way to protect themselves, to punish people they perceive to be evil, and to get what they want."
"The most important consequence of Dr. Athens' work is that it offers solid scientific evidence to support programs of violence prevention," Rhodes told an interviewer. "If a violent novice must fully experience and complete all four stages of violentization to become a dangerous violent criminal, then intervening at any point along the way should prevent that destructive outcome. Preventing child abuse and violent domination, sheltering and protecting battered spouses, teaching negotiation skills to counter violent coaching, giving belligerent children counseling and better alternatives rather than simply expelling them from school, punishing initial violent performances to make sure their perpetrators consider them defeats rather than victories -- these and other interventions can prevent violent novices from becoming full-blown violent criminals."
Whenever news of the horrid sort we face this week broke, I always found comfort in the results of my research and in Athens' and Rhodes' insights.
But this Virginia shooting threw me for a loop.
As news trickled in on the victims of the largest mass shooting in American history, I found myself fixated, for obvious reasons, on one in particular.
Professor Liviu Librescu, 76, saved the lives of dozens of his students when he blocked the shooter's way into his classroom. Librescu, a renowned Israeli mechanics and engineering lecturer, was shot to death on the spot.
"But all the students lived -- because of him," Virginia Tech student Asael Arad -- also an Israeli -- told Israeli Army Radio, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Librescu was a Holocaust survivor who died on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day. He survived the Nazi occupation of his native Romania, and survived the oppressive communist regime that followed. He found safety first in Israel, then in America.
"My father blocked the doorway with his body and asked the students to flee," his son Joe Librescu told the Post in a telephone interview from his home outside of Tel Aviv. "Students started opening windows and jumping out."
Librescu's story has to make me wonder whether even my complex answers suffice. Some men experience brutality and become monsters, some witness evil of historic proportions and become saints. It is all much more mysterious than I will ever know, than any of us think we know.
May Liviu Librescu's memory be a blessing.
May all the victims' memories be a blessing.