Current Ideas: A Blog by Jeffrey A. Schaler

I've created this blog--"Current Ideas"--to share news and views related to my teaching, writing, and interests. If you want to post something, please keep it brief and to the point. Good contact is the appreciation of difference. There's no limit on opinions or information posting, but the tone of this blog is one of reasonably civilized discussion. Hate material is out, as well as unsupported extreme personal attacks.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Search for Meaning in a Killer's Hieroglyphics

The Search for Meaning in a Killer's Hieroglyphics
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 2007; C01

"We cannot predict who is going to do this type of thing and who is not with any more accuracy than guessing and that's just a fact," says Jeffrey Schaler, a psychologist at American University. There are people who "write much more disturbing literary messages than this guy did and never commit acts like this."

Tragedy abhors a vacuum.

"Ismael Ax" said the words on Seung Hui Cho's arm. Or maybe "Ismale Ax" or "Ismail Ax," depending on the news report.

In the absence of much understanding, we study these words, like cryptographers trying to crack enemy code.

After he killed 32 people at Virginia Tech on Monday, Cho died with some variety of this phrase penned to his arm. (It wasn't a tattoo, it turns out, despite earlier reports.) Then Wednesday, NBC News received the package Cho mailed between murders, and here was another clue. The sender is listed on the envelope as "A. Ishmael."

What could these words mean? Are they invoking the biblical Ishmael, born to a lowly servant, cast out by his father, Abraham? Are they an English major's reference to James Fenimore Cooper's "The Prairie," in which the outlaw settler Ishmael Bush sets west across the country with his axe? What about the loner who narrates "Moby-Dick"?

"It begins with 'Call me Ishmael,' " the crime writer Patricia Cornwell says. "The whole story is about an obsession that eventually drags you into the vortex of the sea."

Cho's pseudonym is our "Rosebud," the mysterious word that begins the movie "Citizen Kane," when it is uttered by the dying publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane. It is the phrase we hope to understand, to help a 23-year-old mass murderer make sense.

Everybody's got a theory. The suggestions come in by e-mail, they are posted to online comments boards, they are posed by colleagues and bloggers, with Talmudic attention to detail. One person ruminates that "Ismale Ax" might be derived from a song Bob Marley performed, "Small Axe." Another person says the phrase might come from computer coding language. Another person mentions an alien named "Ax" from the children's science fiction series, "Animorphs."

Someone else: Could "Ismale Ax" be an anagram for "Islam Axe," suggesting some sort of religious vengeance? Could another spelling, "Ismail Ax," be an anagram for "Salami XI," derived from the Italian word for -- oh, never mind.

A guy named Bill McClelland, who lives on the west side of Cleveland, calls The Washington Post to offer some tips. He directs a reporter to the Web site for a "Gothic Male Model" who goes by the name of "Ax." Could the Web site somehow be connected to Cho's murderous rampage? McClelland wants to know.

"I've followed this story for three days now and it's intriguing," McClelland says. "What drove him? I think everybody would like to know that."

We would, we would. In mystery novels, the plot often turns on a single clue. Find the gun, find the killer. Motives are one-dimensional. (The wife did it for the life insurance!) Here we don't have such luck. Instead, what we have is wild speculation, with occasional input from a wacko. (Wackos always rise from their slumbers to send the media e-mail at times like this. As in: "Why is the media helping Bush hide the fact that this wasn't 'senseless random violence' at all, and in fact was clearly a suicide attack staged in protest of US Support for Israel?")

There's something very human in all this, something akin to our tendency to see faces in knots of wood. We look for reason in the nonsense. We look for ourselves. (Let's see, how would I justify the murders if I were Cho? . . . No, no, no.)

Cornwell has made several trips to England to study the letters allegedly written by Jack the Ripper, which were sent to police and newspapers during his lifetime. These letters are filled with hieroglyphs, she says; she studies them for clues as to who he was and why he was.

"Why did he choose this type of handwriting? Why did he draw this doodle?" she asks. "Is he simply making fun of us and it doesn't mean anything?" Each one might be a clue to the bigger why, the why that scares us, the why we'd like to answer and thereby emasculate. In the case of Jack the Ripper, Cornwell says: "Why do you cut someone open and dump their intestines to the pavement? Why do you flay somebody to the bone?"

What's scariest is that we can't see ourselves in Cho. The hieroglyphs are meaningless. If he was invoking the Bible or "Moby-Dick" with those words on his arm, it doesn't make any more sense than if he wasn't. Try parsing the sweeping rage in those writings he sent to NBC News, or in his violent plays. No way to reason with the anger. No one to blame but him. That's what's scariest.

"We cannot predict who is going to do this type of thing and who is not with any more accuracy than guessing and that's just a fact," says Jeffrey Schaler, a psychologist at American University. There are people who "write much more disturbing literary messages than this guy did and never commit acts like this."



Saturday, April 07, 2007

Psychiatry, Psychology, and the Law with Professor Jeffrey Schaler Summer 2007 at American University

On-line course this summer 2007

American University, Washington, D.C.

Psychiatry, Psychology, and the Law JLS-596 N01L
Instructor: Jeffrey Schaler

This on-line course deconstructs concepts of mental illness, explanations for disease and behavior, and legal policies based on diverse explanations for both. It also investigates the insanity defense as legal fiction. In addition, it studies due process and involuntary commitment procedures and why and how society creates and welcomes the union of medicine and state, pharmacracy, and paternalistic practices based in psychiatric and psychological theories and practices.

Click here to register for this Distance Education/on-line course