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What Makes Someone a Campus Murderer?

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As I near the exit for DeKalb on Interstate 88, a sudden blizzard comes out of nowhere, blanketing the road in a swirling white fog of snow. I can barely make out the sign informing travelers of the two exits to this small rural town with its large state university.

The already frigid weather has dropped 10 degrees in the two hours it has taken me to make the drive from central Illinois. The weather seems as uninviting now as the grief that sweeps through this farmland community.

I attended graduate school for a year at NIU. I also have several friends who went to school here. It's been years, but DeKalb remains a familiar place. Today, NIU is looking terribly unfamiliar, however. It's been four days since the shootings and an air of incredulity and sorrow seems to hang over the largely deserted campus. Yellow police tape, some of it broken in places, still encircles Cole Hall.

It is a building I remember well. I was a teaching assistant for a fun class there on the history of rock and roll. Never would I have dreamed that years later this building would be the scene of such sorrow and horror.

Seeing Cole Hall up close now, the desire to come up with answers to the madness that happened here feels especially urgent. Paradoxically, the very senselessness of the violence at NIU seems to invite pat answers.

Some blame violent video games or the media attention killers know they'll get. Others put the onus on the "permissive" 1960s and a generation of parents raising "undisciplined" children. Then there is the allegedly deleterious impact of the Internet, replacing normal human contact with alienated keystrokes and a blogger world of surly, anonymous discourse. Many say the problem is the fact that the public can even buy guns at all.

But isn't the story of the NIU and Virginia Tech murders first of all the personal psychological stories of Steve Kazmierczak and Seung-Hui Cho? What happened in their lives that would cause them to explode in such murderous, heartbreaking rage? Or are we content to pretend that evil is just inexplicable?

In his book "Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill," Jonathan Pincus, MD, chairman emeritus of Georgetown University's Department of Neurology, sees child abuse, mental illness, and brain damage as universal themes in the story of violent murderers.

It's known that humans are born without their brains fully developed, which means that early child abuse, neglect, and trauma left untreated has the potential to resonate destructively throughout a person's life.

Murderers are made, not born. Yet as a society we seem remarkably uninterested in addressing the root causes of crime. Instead, we act as if evil is somehow inexplicable, a condition of the human experience that will never go away. But people don't kill their fellow students just because they went off their medications, or their girlfriend dumped them, or they played too many violent video games.

Fundamentally, every murderer lacks compassion, not only for others but also for themselves. So perhaps the question to ask is: Who stole their humanity from them?

What happened in their lives to lead them so astray? Or do we really want to believe that some babies are just born "evil?"

In front of Holmes Student Center now stands a makeshift memorial covered by an awning where students can sign their names and write messages of support. Nearby, crosses with the names of the victims rest in a high snow bank. Flowers are everywhere. On my visit a steady trickle of students comes to visit the memorials.

As I leave my car and walk toward the memorials, two young women pass me in the other direction. Arm in arm, one holds her head down, as if to hide the tears I can see running down her cheeks. In a moment, as I ponder the names on the makeshift crosses, the same feeling will well up in me. And, I will wonder if we will ever learn how to take care of each other.

This essay was published originally as a guest column in the Feb. 24, 2008 issue of the Pantagraph, a Lee Enterprises newspaper serving Bloomington-Normal and central Illinois.  

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Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He is a featured contributor to "The Flexible Writer," fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). His blog, "Writer's Voice," can be found at

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