April 19, 2007
The Killer in the Lecture Hall
By BARBARA OAKLEY
THE sticky note on my door was wiggling. It was a gift from a student.
Glued to the middle of it was a cockroach.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that I was an unpopular professor. To the contrary — according to student evaluations, I might as well have had a sign on my forehead that said “Kindly.”
I was told later that the cockroach was a symbol of love from — well, let’s call him Rick. Rick had recently moved into the lab across the hall from my office, where he spent the night in a sleeping bag under one of the benches.
Rick, who had been a student for more than a decade, sometimes whiled away his time discussing guns and explosives with some of the more munitions-inclined faculty members. He admitted that he kept his basement stocked with a variety of “armaments.”
Sometimes I wished I had an armament, although, like Virginia Tech, my university does not allow firearms on campus. I wished that because, not only did Rick attach love-cockroaches to my door and live across the hall from my office and possess a small armory, but Rick watched me all the time. Sometimes he followed me out to my car — just to make sure I was safe.
When I complained about Rick to the dean of students, I was told there was nothing to be done — after all, “students have rights, too.” Only after appealing to that dean’s boss and calling a raft of fellow professors who had also come to fear Rick’s strange behavior was I able to convince the administration to take grudging action; they restricted his ability to loiter in certain areas and began nudging him toward the classes he needed to graduate.
In a strange way, I could see the administration’s point. Rick looked fairly ordinary, at least when away from his sleeping bag and pet cockroaches. It must have seemed far more likely that Rick could sue for being thrown out of school, than that I — or anyone else — could ever be hurt. The easiest path, from their perspective, was to simply get me to shut up.
Many professors have run across more than their share of Ricks. At least one Virginia Tech professor noticed that Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 32 people on campus on Monday, was potentially dangerous and did her best to warn the administration and the police. (So did at least two female students.) But there is only so much a teacher can do — “students have rights, too.”
It’s a simple fact that, for every deranged murderer like Mr. Cho there are thousands more oddballs just below the breaking point. I know one quasi-psychopathic incompetent, for example, who remained on the campus payroll for over a dozen years simply because his supervisor was afraid of being killed if he was fired.
It’s long been in fashion to believe that people are innately good, and that upbringing and environment are responsible for nasty personalities. But research is beginning to show that mean, sometimes outright evil behavior has a strong genetic component. Some of us, in other words, are truly born bad.
Researchers at King’s College London have recently determined that if one identical twin shows psychopathic traits, the other twin, who coincidentally shares precisely the same set of genes, has a very high probability of having the same psychopathic traits. But among fraternal twins, who share only half their genes, the chance that both twins will show psychopathic traits is far smaller. In other words, there is something suspiciously psychopath-inducing in some people’s genes.
What could it be? Medical images of the brain give tantalizing clues — the amygdala, the “fight or flight” decision-making center of the brain, may be smaller than usual, or some areas of the brain may glow only dimly because of low serotonin levels. We may not know precisely what set Mr. Cho off, but we are beginning to home in on the unusual differences in certain neurochemistries that can make people act in bizarre and dysfunctional ways.
Still, the Virginia Tech shootings have already led to calls for all sorts of changes: gun control, more mental health coverage, stricter behavior rules on campuses. Yes, in a perfect world, there would be no guns, no mental illness and no Cho Seung-Huis. But the world is very imperfect. Consider that Britain’s national experiment with gun-free living is proving to be a disaster, with violent and gun crime rates soaring.
In other words, most of the broad social “lessons” we are being told we must learn from the Virginia Tech shootings have little to do with what allowed the horrors to occur. This is about evil, and about how our universities are able to deal with it as a literary subject but not as a fact of life. Can administrators and deans really continue to leave professors and other college personnel to deal with deeply disturbed students on their own, with only pencils in their defense?
Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, is the author of the forthcoming “Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.”