Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

I'd just like to add my voice to the chorus of sympathy going out to the students and faculty and staff at Virginia Tech and their loved ones. For some really moving insight into the kind of madness that leads to an event like this, read hilzoy's piece, "Shooters." An excerpt:

I once knew someone who was thinking of doing this sort of thing. (Note: he didn't, and he's OK now. Moreover, while I normally don't predict people's future psychological states, for various reasons I think that he is unlikely to go down this road again. So this is a story with a reasonably happy ending.) I didn't know whether he was serious in one sense: knowing whether, when push came to shove, he would turn out to be one of those people who actually do it, or one of the people who get altogether too close and then, for whatever reason, draw back. I also don't think he knew that. The only being I could think of who could possibly know that was God, and I didn't believe that He existed.

But my friend was quite serious in two other senses. First, he really meant it. And second, the way it happened in his case was that he started saying things like: maybe I'll just become an axe-murderer. He was, at first, mostly kidding, but not entirely. That in itself was quite disturbing. But over time, the way he said it changed from "mostly kidding" to "not really kidding" to "not kidding at all", and, over the same stretch of time, this thought sort of metastasized and spread all over his mind, until it was just about all he thought of.


It should, I think, go without saying that there was something badly wrong with this person, above and beyond the fact that he wanted to go out and kill people. It manifested itself in ways that are similar, in some respects, to major depression. If you've ever talked to someone who is very, very depressed, you know that their thoughts tend increasingly to go round and round the same topics, as though they are trapped in some sort of horrible rut, which moreover tends to constrict with time. And it's very hard to get them out of this: I often have the feeling, when talking to very depressed people, that they are trapped within some entirely smooth sphere, which I am turning over and over in my hands, thinking: there must be some way to open this -- some point which, when I press it, will cause it to unlock, or some way of twisting it that will make its halves swing open. And I try and try, pushing now on one point, now on another, and nothing works; and all the while I can see the person I'm talking to, trapped inside, and I feel helpless.

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