Seung-hui Cho was one crazy f*ck, that’s for sure. One interesting item about the case, not receiving that much comment, is the multi-media package he sent to NBC News while he was on break from his killing spree, Carter, B., “Package Forced NBC to Make Tough Decisions,” New York Times (Apr. 19, 2007); Serrano, R. & Zucchino, D., “Shooter took a break to send an angry message,” Los Angeles Times (Apr. 19, 2007); Gold, M., “Gunman handed NBC an exclusive and a quandary,” Los Angeles Times (Apr. 19, 2007). After the requisite gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands, pulling of hair and renting of garments, NBC (fortunately for it) decided the public interest required it to commence broadcasting the video, immediately, as a matter of fact.
By so doing, NBC became the latest of a long line of media outlets to succumb to its own prurient desire not only to report the news, but to make it, too. There are few things more entertaining than news media commenting on news media, and here we have a prime example.
Consider, for example, the case of Theodore Kaczynski, a/k/a “The Unabomber.” He wrote what has come to be referred to as a “manifesto,” a 30,000 word tract entitled, Industrial Society and Its Future. Nothing wrong with that. In several letters, however, he said he would stop bombing people, if a major newspaper printed The Manifesto, verbatim. Incredibly, both the New York Times and the Washington Post capitulated, and ran it in full on September 19, 1995. Ironically, the publication of The Manifesto eventually lead to Kaczynski’s discovery, when his estranged brother noted similarities between it and letters he had received from Kaczynski.
Another writer was the Zodiac Killer. His letters to the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers not only taunted law enforcement with various clues, but also presented interesting and entertaining ciphers, some of which have yet to be solved. He signed the letters with a crosshair-like symbol – a cross, super-imposed over a circle. Like Mr. Kaczynski, the Zodiac Killer conditioned cessation of killing upon publication of the letters, and the San Francisco Chronicle dutifully complied. Unlike Mr. Kaczynski, though, the Zodiac Killer never was found.
Media capitulation is not the only unusual feature tying these three cases together. Equally as interesting is the phenomenon of the killer-writer. What about the deranged criminal mind compelled each of these killers to write letters to the editor (Mr. Cho’s multi-media package being a contemporary version of same). Why didn’t they act out their literary fantasies in some other manner, for example, by scrawling phrases in blood at the scene of the crime — a form of communication adopted by the Manson Family in the Tate-LaBianca murders? What we have here is more than a problem of simple self-expression, or a desire to explain. In the Unabomber case, the manifesto set forth no explanation, although it may have had some efficacy as, ultimately, it resulted in Kaczynski’s capture. It had neither explanation nor efficacy, however, in the Zodiac Killer case. And, Mr. Cho dispatched his missive only after he had commenced his killing spree, therefore, it had no efficacy at all, though possibly some extremely minor explanatory value. As if an event of such tragic proportions is susceptible to explanation. This is a problem worthy of Dostoyevsky – the etiology of crime.