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The Virginia Tech Massacre and Suicide Bombing By: Nancy Kobrin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, April 30, 2007

What do the Virginia Tech Massacre and suicide bombing have in common?

The question may seem obscene following such a terrible tragedy and at a time of mourning. It is, however, mandatory to understand violent hatred rather than write it off as as unexplainable and  random -- and the result of our violent times or a mental illness.

Recently, I wrote about April being a violent month. The reason why it is relates to the idea and fantasy of rebirth associated with Spring. A prominent psychoanalyst [1], Dr. Doris Brothers, wrote to me: “What you had to say about April in your poignant article seems prescient in light of the horrific killings/suicide at Virginia Tech. Life, it seems, must be snuffed by those for whom living with joy and hope is the ultimate threat.”


We are still only in the early stages of understanding, but there are some points which are being overlooked. Violent hatred does not care how we label it. The labels are causing us to remain inside the boxes of “domestic violence,” “criminal violence,” “political violence” and even "mental illness." Hence the impossibility of thinking outside the box.

Since we live in a global world and aggression breeds aggression, once its fire is lit, violence rapidly burns through these boxes. Suicide bombings also incite violence in other peoples' minds behind closed doors, be it a home or a dorm room. 

While such violence is universal, in this age of political correctness, we forget that we are more similar than different as human beings. All of us harbor a little murder and suicide -- as M.D. Karl Menninger once said. On account of our own terrors, we wind up colluding with the aggressors. Such violence is undergirded by a universally shared rebirth fantasy. Think of it as the ultimate fantasy of control, which gives us a sense of starting over, wiping the slate clean and, for some, stopping unbearable pain. It is one thing to believe in Jesus Christ, and it is another to think that one is Jesus Christ, as Cho did.

The police at Virginia Tech initially assumed that the first murder scene was related to domestic violence. They were right. But they might not have known why – namely that Cho was acting out a classic rebirth fantasy through fusing in death with his victims routinely seen in domestic violence and serial killing. This rebirth narrative is exacerbated by traumatic bonding (a fusion) of early childhood. It is visually and concretely expressed by a death fusion years later. 

All cultures struggle with this issue but more so if it engages in shame-based child-rearing practices. In America, too, there are pockets of shame-honor cultures and families. One of the best books about this rebirth fantasy is by the forensic psychiatrist and talk show host Dr. Keith Ablow, Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson (2005).

Here is a cursory list of how similar the two kinds of violence might be. Cho also did something that many suicide bombers do: make a last telephone call home usually to the mother before committing the atrocity. As more details come out, more similarities may possibly be discovered: 

Chou                                                           Islamic Suicide Bomber

1. Asian shame-honor culture                       1. Arab shame-honor culture

2. Devalued female                                       2. Devalued female

3. Over-idealized mother                              3. Over-idealized mother

4. Taboo to separate from mother                4. Taboo to separate from mother

5. Lack of identity                                        5. Lack of identity

Signed his name with a “?”  & Ismael X         Carries out attack to gain an identity

Murders to gain notoriety                               Murders to gain notoriety

6. Stalked women                                        6. Islamist Sharia - women under surveillance

7. Puritanical/moralistic                                 7. Puritanical/moralistic

8. Sexually repressed                                   8. Sexually repressed

9. Violent writings                                        9. Violent jihadist tracts

10. Fight to the Death                               10. Filipino Moro Jihadi model

11. Set fire                                               11. Immolation in suicide attack

12. Loner/schizoid                                    12. May appear social but under façade more of a loner than might be imagined

13. Murder-suicide; serialized murder       13. Murder-suicide; serialized murder by proxy

14. Body parts                                         14. Body parts

15. Fuses in death with victims                  15. Fuses in Death with victims

16. Rebirth Fantasy                                  16. Rebirth Fantasy cum 72 virgins

17. Unable to enjoy life                             17. Unable to enjoy life

18. Bomb threats                                      18. Bombs                                               

19. Felt controlled                                    19. The son is the only male that mothers can openly control

20. Victim blaming                                   20. Victim blaming

21. Multi-media martyr-like video            21. The Martyr’s video

22. A thought-out process                       22. A thought-out process

The similarities are striking. Conceptualizing violence in this way has not made it onto the forensic radar nor into our homes. Generally speaking, well-adjusted children do not grow up to murder. This is not to say that there aren’t also exceptions as well as intervening factors, i.e. genetics, biochemistry, idiosyncratic history of trauma, and why some who were abused, never choose to become murderers or why some who have a mental illness never commit murder.


What can we do? Take early childhood development seriously. Next, we can understand how hatred fans the flames to become the tipping point for murder. The need to hate and the need to have an enemy are learned behavior. Even though Cho was bullied in an American middle school, not every school child who is bullied becomes a murderer. His autism was not diagnosed until he immigrated here. Interventions were needed in early childhood. Even then there are no guarantees.

As for the jihadists, we know that they are fed a steady diet of hatred early on. It’s happening here in America. Recently, I was told by a retired teacher about an incident involving his mother and aunt who are in their 80s and who volunteer to read to kindergarteners. A little Somali girl along with her friend asked one of the women what she was wearing on the lapel of her sweater. She replied – “why it’s an American flag.” To which the little girl responded – “I hate America.” Her friend chimed in, “I hate America too.”

One can imagine the daily diatribe these kids are subjected to at home. We must show them by our actions that we are here to help them. A little child who has learned to hate cannot genuinely love as the hatred expresses her own terrors. Hating is too big a burden for any child’s little shoulders to bear. Such violent hatred puts a child at a terrible psychological disadvantage. Because when it comes time to venture out into the world and negotiate its complexity, the child already feels under siege. Finally, the one thing we must never do is give up hope so that these children learn from us to hope that their lives will be better.

[i] Author of The Shattered Self: A Psychoanalytic Study of Trauma (1993); Falling Backwards: An Exploration in Trust and Self-Experience (1995) and Toward a Psychology of Uncertainty: Trauma-Centered Psychoanalysis (in press).


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Nancy Kobrin is an affiliated professor to the University of Haifa, Arabist, psychoanalyst and author of the upcoming book, The Sheikh's New Clothes: Islamic Suicide Terror and What It's Really All About.

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