They say Cho Seung-Hui was a loner. One of his professors told a reporter that the kid came three times for personal tutoring, wearing a baseball cap pulled down low and sunglasses. "He seemed to be crying behind his sunglasses," she said.
In the early 1980s, I was a high school student. Nerd. Bullied nerd. Alienated nerd. Depressed nerd. A lone teacher befriended me and helped me get into another school, where everything was great. Not even my parents understood what was going on with me, but Miss Marsh did.
In the spring of 1986, I was in my second semester as a college freshman, living alone and seriously down. I was still pining away over unrequited high school love and felt crushingly isolated. That winter, I'd find my way to an off-campus bar and drink until I forgot about my pain. Then I'd stumble home and listen to the Velvet Underground until I fell asleep.
Killing myself was never a serious option at least I don't think it was. Certainly I never cultivated anger at others for my sorrow. But there I was, smothered by teenage angst, filled with self-hate, surviving on cheap beer and sad music.
Then I got a roommate. God bless you, Joe Zahavi, wherever you are. Your love of life and your friendship restored me along with discovering the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who helped me find my way to faith. A crazy Jew from New Orleans and a melancholy Christian from Copenhagen an unlikely pair that pulled a morose and self-pitying college kid out of the mire.
So I was saved twice by friendship during my teenage years, and by having the grace to respond to lifelines when they were thrown.
Still, it's a little frightening to think about how things might have turned out for me had I continued drifting down that dark river, until I'd lost sight of the last human settlement. Was Cho ever thrown a lifeline? Was he too lost in a fog of self-pity and loneliness that he couldn't see it when it was thrown?
I'm not trying to sentimentalize a mass murderer. The French have a saying, "To understand everything is to forgive everything." That's a warning against letting empathy suspend moral judgment. The liberal errs by exonerating the criminal because he had a hard life. The conservative errs by looking at the criminal and only seeing his vile acts.
Cho Seung-Hui chose to be a killer. But he was not born to kill. The most monstrous thing about that wretched boy is that he was no monster at all.
Another story. In 1992, I was working as a journalist in Washington when I discovered that a mystery caller from northern Virginia twice left threats to kill the president on my office phone line. The Secret Service arrested "Jeff" and told me he fit the classical profile of the political assassin: white, male, in his 30s, a loner. Possibly abused by his father.
When I took the witness stand in his trial, I saw Jeff for the first time. He was small, pale, abashed, pitiful. And guilty as charged.
Before he was sent away, Jeff left me a final voice mail. He said, in a sad, faraway voice: "When I saw you on the witness stand, wearing those glasses, I thought, 'That's who I might have become, if people hadn't done things to me.' "
He was a felon, yes, and got what he deserved. He was also a pathetic human being, lonely and confused and mistreated and filled with hate, or self-hate: a sinner, like me. Who knows where Jeff would be if things had turned out differently for him. Who knows what would have become of Cho Seung-Hui, and in turn the souls he took with him to the grave. Or to you, or to me.
Be kind, friends. Show mercy. We are all strangers in a strange land, and some of us battle unseen dragons.