On April 16th, 2007, at around 7:15 in the morning, Cho Seung-hui went to a room on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, a high-rise co-educational dormitory on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. There he shot and killed Emily Hilscher, a possible unrequited love interest, and Ryan Clark. Cho then returned to his own room in another building on campus and reloaded his weapons.
At around 9:45 he walked to Norris Hall on the same campus, and in nine minutes of terror, Cho shot forty-nine people, thirty-two of whom died, before shooting himself in room 211.
The sheer magnitude of this killing and carnage caused Americans to catch their collective breath as the story dominated the news media for days. One tearful young lady being interviewed by a reporter said, “He just snapped! There wasn’t anything we could have done.”
No. He didn’t just “snap.”
But that’s the sound-bite that will make its way into the majority of eyewitness accounts during media coverage of heinous acts of violence. In fact, at least two professors at the Institute found Cho’s behavior leading up to the massacre to be growing more disturbing. He had intimidated several female students by photographing their legs under the desk, and his writings began to take on more violent and obscene themes.
On at least two occasions leading up to the shooting, Cho received a verbal warning from campus police regarding stalking complaints.1
To those who investigate such tragedies, Cho’s behaviors prior to the shooting would have been a familiar reprise. As presented in Chapter Two, it is not possible to pre-identify those who commit such acts based on a personality profile or employment screening. However, it is quite possible to identify patterns of changes in behavior for which there is great statistical data that justifies an elevated level of attention to employees who demonstrate certain changes in behavior. It is important to remember that not all individuals who exhibit these behaviors will go on to commit workplace violence.
As emphasized in Chapter Two, profiles to identify those who may commit workplace violence have very little merit and may create more problems than they solve. In the same way, even the examination of acute behaviors and behavior changes presented in this chapter comes with a caution. Stressful life experiences, illness and loss come to everybody. All but just a very small minority get through those experiences without resorting to violence. Supervisors who are managing for engagement are likely to become aware of some of these highly stressful situations in their employees’ lives. They are also much more likely to be made aware of them by engaged employees. Even when these stressors are coupled with the behaviors we will mention later in this chapter, the focus of the supervisor’s action should be on supporting the stressed employee in the workplace and not in the context of simply preventing violence.