Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Woulda, coulda, shoulda,... Should they, Could they, Would they?

What would they do at Virginia Tech if they could go back to last week? What would they do, what should they do, and perhaps most importantly what could they do? We've learned that Cho had been identified as a mentally disturbed student who had stalked and harrassed other students, and had been counseled. We keep hearing that 'he couldn't be forcibly committed,' since he had at that time never actually attacked anyone. And thank God, I might add, in what might seem an inappropriate place to express this thought-- but that's why it's appropriate-- that we don't live in a society where anyone can be locked up because of concerns about what they might do or might be considering.

But that's what makes the story today out of the University of Colorado a classic 'gray area.' Today during a classroom discussion of the Virginia Tech shootings, student Max Karson said that he "understood why someone would kill 32 people." This comment frightened other students in the class, and one female student asked Karson directly if she should fear violence from him if she came to class Thursday. His response, "not this Thursday," (emphasis on the word, 'this,' with the suggestion that she might have to fear it some other Thursday) together with the original comment caused the University of Colorado to have him arrested and taken downtown.

Now, I have trouble understanding why Cho did what he did, but don't get all sanctimonious here-- I've read online over the past few years literally hundreds of comments in which people claim that they 'understand' why the perpetrators would commit mass murders, everything from the Oklahoma City bombing to 9/11 to the Haditha massacre, to the degree that if 'understanding' this is itself an indicator of future violence, then you need look no farther than the comment pages of some blogs to find literally scores of possible future mass murderers.

Karson's second comment is more chilling, with the implication that he might commit violence next Thursday, or the Thursday following, or some other Thursday (or some other day for that matter.) However, this fits a long pattern by Karson. It seems that he has been publishing a newspaper of his own for some time (called the Yeti news, similar to one called the Crux he published when he went to high school in Amherst, Massachusetts.) He has said some truly outrageous things designed to get a rise out of people, and they do. For example, he was once suspended from his high school after he wrote that 'he wouldn't have dated his (male) principal if he knew that he was a 'child molester,' and was defended at that time by the ACLU. Later, while at CU he wrote an article suggesting that women did not feel pain in their breasts or their vagina and describing sex in a manner that many felt lauded and condoned rape.

Max Karson, who bailed himself out, says that everything he says is satire. Some people who know him say that he is much more of a publicity hound than an actual threat. Max's dad, Michael Karson, who is a professor at the nearby University of Denver, defends Max's latest and says that Max was just making an 'academic contribution' to the class. Of course, what else would his Dad say? I'm not sure that I'd want to be in his dad's class though. Next thing he will say was that Cho was just 'donating bullets.' We haven't heard anything on this yet from CU's most controversial academic, Ward Churchill, but I'm sure we will soon.

Now, let's figure debate what the University of Colorado should do. If they do nothing, then they may take some criticism, but they won't have to worry that Max will sic the ACLU on them again (I might add that I in general support the ACLU-- I don't always agree with them, but thank God they are around to stand for people's rights in situations where no one else will.) If the University suspends him or takes other action which could damage Karson academically then they open themselves up to the possiblity of a lawsuit, maybe costing them hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars (remember that Max Karson has never actually hurt anybody.) Then again, if he is another Cho.... (and don't forget this is in Colorado, where the spectre of Columbine still haunts some people.) Then again, how many false alarms is it worth getting sued over in order to prevent one real one-- or do you prevent it? Could taking action like imprisoning a disturbed person end up being the catalyst that actually does push them off the edge.

I'd recommend that people who think 'hindsight is always 20/20' chew on this post. What should the University of Colorado do, within the framework of what is legal, about Max Karson?


Anonymous said...

On Monday you wrote:

"There will be those who will exploit this tragedy to try and further their own … agenda. That would be a cheap shot if they do."

Very well said. You were talking about the anti-immigration people; but I think it also applies to folks who are anti-guns, anti-free speech, and, in this case, anti-Max Karson. I gather from your article that certain people at CU (from students to big wigs) have had an axe to grind with Max Karson for quite some time. Evidently his comments on Tuesday were just too juicy to pass up.

In my own classes, students initially found comfort in being able to talk to each other about the shootings. No one had sympathy for Cho’s behavior, but some people did express empathy for his pain and loneliness. This was done tactfully, and seemed an important component to the healing process. Yesterday afternoon, however, the ambience in class seemed to be more tense; word was out that some kid in Colorado got ARRESTED for “making comments that were sympathetic to the killer” (which was all the initial reports said). So this isn’t only about Colorado and Max Karson. It’s about people being afraid to be themselves, afraid to heal, in a culture of surveillance and zero tolerance.

Whether or not we share his beliefs or his style of communicating them, it is not the job of university police to regulate what students can and cannot say in a classroom. If people felt truly threatened that is one thing. But we can’t start arresting everyone whose views are controversial, radical, or offensive.

Given the university’s grudge against Karson, I think you’ve already (unknowingly) told us what is going to happen next: "There will be those who will exploit this tragedy to try and further their own … agenda." As for what they should do, you said that best as well: "That would be a cheap shot."

Taggart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Taggart said...

Why wouldn't you want to be in Max Karson's dad's class? Just curious. I have him as a professor currently for 6 hours/week in a graduate program. I have also taken 4 (I think) other 3-hour classes from him in the past two years. I feel that this is ample time to evaluate Max's father. Though we strongly differ in opinion related to social issues and politics, and I frequently find myself holding my tongue in class to avoid a heated argument, I consider him one of the smartest individuals that I have ever met. Not just in forensic psychology either, but all across the board. My advice is that we shouldn't be so quick to judge based on a few comments you read on the web. I am not condoning Max's behavior if in fact it did happen. I am just saying that he was suspended and arrested by the same person who is trying to halt his "yeti" articles. Sounds a little too convenient if you ask me.

Eli Blake said...


Thank you for your comment. And you are right, I quickly formed an opinion based on what his dad said (though I didn't read it on the web, I heard him quoted directly on the radio; though I've heard radio hosts lie on the air (as I blogged about recently in regard to Michael Savage and his false comments about Al Sharpton) they have to be a little more careful about quoting people directly because they don't have the cover of anonymity that the web can afford them.

That said, I said what I did because if implying that you might commit violence at some point in the future (clearly ruling out only this coming Thursday) is an 'academic contribution,' then it seems as though his father is willing to justify anything. It reminds me of every time a kid gets in trouble with the law their parents always say, 'My kid is a good kid, he is just misunderstood.' While that may be true in Max's case, that whole sort of attitude really sticks in my craw-- in fact we are learning now that Cho was put on a pedestal and treated like 'a little prince' by his family when he grew up-- probably the first thing that went wrong. Several years ago my then underage daughter went to a party and got drunk, and a police officer came to our house and took a report and said he was going to file charges against her (though he later chose not to push them). I didn't intervene-- I thought it was a great lesson for her, and while I am protective of my kids I don't feel that trying to insulate them from the consequences of their actions or justify them when they are wrong is good parenting. You may know what I mean-- the ones who go on and on about juvenile crime and so forth, but when their own kid gets picked up, their first reaction is to say, "Not MY kid, he would never do anything like that," and their second reaction is to hire an attorney to make sure that the kid doesn't face any real consequences for whatever it was.

Now it is true, that good parenting and good teaching may not have anything to do with each other, and as I said, I tend to believe that Max is probably not doing anything other than to try and get a reaction from people. But moms and dads who think their kids can't do anything wrong and always justify everything they do has always been a pet peeve of mine.

Taggart said...

Good comment, and I salute you for your difficult parenting decisions. I imagine I will face similar decisions as my 20-month-old grows up all too fast.
I agree with you for the most part. I know the parents that you are talking about. I don't, however, think that Michael Karson is one of these fathers.
With the Karson case, I have tried not to form too haste of an opinion. If I look at this completely objectively, I don't think that Max Karson said anything illegal from what I have read. I also believe that Max and his father truly believe that he didn't break the law. I have not, however, said that his comments weren't inconsiderate or poorly timed, because I believe they were. I do believe in my first ammendment rights, but I also believe in limits (pointing to a CU professor who has made some questionable remarks on campus).

I will also add to my comments about michael in that I find him to be a very fair man. This is hard to explain, but given how much him and I disagree, he has always treated me fairly, kindly, and respectfully. Michael respects himself and the constitution too much to try and get away with something illegal. Michael also made some more personal comments to us in his class, which I won't share, but show me that he is on his son's side not only because he is his father, but because what he believes in has been trampled in this particular situation.

Max's "academic contribution" or as michael would call it "stimulating ,good, and intelligent conversation" was probably just that. I believe that Max was saying what was truly on his mind and what has surly been on the majority of people's minds at some point. Yes, i believe that most people have been mad enough that thoughts of doing something completely horrible and illegal has crossed our minds. We shouldn't be embarrassed about this; it's just human. The difference is that most people don't actually do something, and end up laughing about it later on. To help explain my point: I have worked with sex-offenders and many other different kinds of offenders. What I have noticed, is that they aren't really different from each of us, they just haven't learned appropriate ways to cope with their stress. It seems clear to me that Cho had this problem as well. This is what we are trying (and I emphasize "trying") to do in our correctional institutions. If we can successfully replace someone's drug habit with something more adaptive and useful, then we have effectively rehabilitated them.
Additionally, with respect to sex-offenders, i'm sure we would be surprised to find out how many people fantasized about pre-18-year-olds (i.e. Britney Spears, and the Olsen Twins). They were sexualized way before they were 18. The difference is that most people won't act on these thoughts. Only a few are going to go out and solicit a teenager. My point is that we have all had illegal thoughts, and thankfully we we can't be arrested for having them as long as we don't act on them (ever thought of making you neighbor's dog who poops on you lawn "disappear")?
A little bit off topic, but Max was probably just honestly and passionately speaking his mind (which runs in the family). I think he said what everyone has thought of at one point but never actually talked about for fear of looking like a "nut." Of course his father is going to be biased; he's a dad.

I hope those that read this don't misinterpret my comments. I don't think Max's comments were appropriate especially given recent events, but, in my opinion, they certainly weren't illegal. A suspension may have been appropriate, but not an arrest.
Too bad we can't ditch this blogging thing and swap emails. You seem like a nice person to sit down and have a conversation with.

Eli Blake said...


Then you can email me.