Teen Terrorists

Though Cho Seung-Hui was not a teenager, he sure acted like one.

Neuroscientists have made much of the relatively late myelinization of the frontal cortex, so that teenagers often are lacking in frontally mediated cognitive skills such as perspective taking ability, empathy, and anticipation of consequences. Developmentally, such abilities often don’t come on-line until the late teens or early twenties. So, many teens who lack external controls are in essence developmental psychopaths – though, fortunately,it is rare for them to engage in the Columbine-like planning that is required for a murderous rampage.

But even a brief examination of Cho’s obsessive urge to film himself, his comic-book poses, and his inability to engage in any authentic encounters with others reveals that he was operating in a world of superficial images and neurological narcissim. He didn’t care about other peoplebecause, in essence, he didn’t know they exist. The statements of relatives indicates that Cho was “cold” since early childhood, suggesting that he was somewhere on the spectrum of autism. Autistic individuals often form a fascination with a single classification of objects – whether it’s table legs or weapons. One high functioning autistic man I evaluated in the past – and who engaged in an impulsive and dangerous assault – was fascinated by NASA and the space program. He knew the names and accomplishments of every astronaut but had little awareness on the inner life of his roommate.

David Brooks in an insightful column (NY Times; 04-19-07) discusses the genie that has been let out of the bottle in uncovering the neural sequences, or absence of such, that appear to facilitate criminal behavior. The blame your brain approach is the elephant in the room of the criminal justice system, and who will be surprised when every legal defense is accompanied by the appropriate magnitic resonance images? The truth of the matter is that the deck with which each of us is playing has more or less cards, or different cards, than the next man’s or woman’s. And thus the games that we play with each other are according to rules that vary from game to game, and even from hand to hand.

And that means that we are lost in a quandary when attempting to determine if Mr. Cho should be the focus of our anger or pity. Did he, indeed, ever stand a chance of becoming a complete, competent person? Or was he predestined to evolve involve into the one-dimensional rage-filled cartoon character that he eventually became?

If he was nothing more than a genetically programmed mass murderer, then what of our society’s much ballyhooed defense of individual freedom, of free will? And what of our rage at the terrible terrorists responsible for 9-11, were they too a few neurons short of a full deck? What of the child molesters who represent our society’s current scarlet sinners? There is neuropsychological reason to believe that the temporal lobes of pedophiles show grievous anomalies that may motivate their perverse preferences. Are they too truly mad rather than bad? And if that makes a difference, is it a difference that makes a difference?

The implication of neuro-biological determinism is that the medical and psychiatric paternalism of decades past could well return, for if it is forces external to your free will that determine your behavior, then it is forces external to you that must, in situations of danger, restrict your behavior. The moment that we discover that free will is an epiphenomenon of our capacity for self-consciousness is the moment that documents like the Constitution become extraneous, and liberty becomes a quaint concept, like the flat earth, that people believed before they knew the truth.

The irony is that the cognitively limited murderers like Cho may play a huge role in changing how we understand human behavior, and in this way his narcissistic rantings may capture an element of truth, and he will become the dark super antihero he always longed to be.