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Shakespeare and School Shooters, Part 2 (Romeo and Juliet)

Why are school shooters attracted to "Romeo and Juliet"?

As noted in my last blog, Eric Harris cited The Tempest twice in his personal writings. This piece examines references to Romeo and Juliet by three rampage shooters: Kimveer Gill, Seung Hui Cho, and Kip Kinkel.

Kimveer Gill was the 25-year-old who shot 20 people at Dawson College in Montreal in 2006. He lived with his parents and younger siblings. He was not enrolled in college, and apparently had no job, no friends, and no significant relationships. His online postings expressed interest in women, but there is no indication that he ever dated. Kimveer seems to have been an unusually isolated individual. In fact, his level of isolation and lack of social functioning, along with evidence of paranoia in his postings, suggests that perhaps he was suffering from schizophrenia (I believe that Seung and Kip were schizophrenic). There is too little information, however, for this to be more than speculation.

Kimveer’s reference to Romeo and Juliet appeared in an online posting about how he wanted to die: “Like Romeo and Juliet, or in a hail of gunfire.” What was the attraction to Romeo and Juliet? Perhaps it was the play’s mix of passion, murder, and suicide—three things that he desired. Perhaps his ultimate goal was to have both love and death, just like Romeo and Juliet. He longed for love and intimacy but didn’t have it and was not capable of finding it. In the absence of passion, he sought—and achieved—murder and suicide.

Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, appears to have been attracted to a different element of Romeo and Juliet—the issue of names and identity. He wrote on the white erase board of a female student a passage from the play: “By a name/ I know not how to tell thee who I am/ My name, dear saint is hateful to myself/ Because it is an enemy to thee/ Had I it written, I would tear the word.”

In the context of the play, Romeo is complaining about his name because it identifies him as a member of the Montague family, a family that was feuding with Juliet’s family. In Seung’s case, however, I think the key aspect of the passage is “I know not how to tell thee who I am.” Prior to writing the quotation on the student’s door, Seung had communicated with her through Facebook but did not identify himself. When she wrote back asking if the message had indeed come from Seung, she received the response, “I do not know who I am.” As I speculate in Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, there are multiple reasons for thinking that Seung did not know who he was. In place of a solid sense of identity, he invented different identities for himself to fill the void within. The passage from Romeo and Juliet apparently struck a chord with him. In addition, Seung was full of rage as well as homicidal and suicidal thoughts.

The third school shooter with connections to Romeo and Juliet is Kip Kinkel, who committed a rampage attack in 1998. Kip’s connection to the play manifested itself in several ways. Before he left for school the day of the attack, he turned on a CD of the soundtrack from a film version of Romeo and Juliet and set it to continual play. This suggests that the play was significant to Kip.

Kip studied the play in school, and had one and possibly two writing assignments related to the play. One essay was about “love at first sight,” in which Kip stated, “Love at first sight is only in movies. Where the people in the movies are better than you.” This may have referred to the movie version of Romeo and Juliet, though it could certainly apply to numerous films. His line about people in the movies being “better than you” is interesting. We know from his writings that he was miserable and lonely. He longed for love but felt undeserving of it and incapable of finding it. Elsewhere in the essay he wrote that love “does more harm than good . . . I would also like to point out Love is a horrible thing. It makes things kill and hate.” Perhaps he was thinking of the play, in which love is intermingled with murder and suicide.

Kip also wrote a paper specifically based on Romeo and Juliet. He took the perspective of Tybalt, the fiery cousin of Juliet. In the character of Tybalt, Kip wrote about his hatred and loathing of people, themes that appeared in his personal writings. Perhaps the most significant line in the paper is after Tybalt has killed someone, Kip has him say, “This was the first moment in my life where I had taken the life of another. I loved it, it dispelled all the anger and animosity I was feeling.” Kip was attracted to the violence of the story, and identified with a character who committed homicide. Kip imagined experiencing a triumphant feeling in the wake of murder, though after he killed his parents and two students, he felt a devastating sense of misery and anguish.

Why the attraction to Romeo and Juliet among three rampage killers? First, it is perhaps the best-known play of Shakespeare’s and is frequently studied in middle school or high school. In addition, the multiple film versions make the play accessible to a wider audience. Beyond this, however, I think the passionate intensity of the story is powerfully appealing to young men who long for love but feel condemned to loneliness. In addition, the themes of violence, rage, homicide, and suicide resonated with the killers. Kimveer, Seung, and Kip were not only lonely young men living loveless lives; they were angry, homicidal, and suicidal. Thus, multiple aspects of Romeo and Juliet resonated within them.

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