Journalist Dave Cullen, who is writing a book on the Columbine killers, and wrote a diary at TalkLeft on the Virginia Tech killings, The Myth of the School Shooter Profile, has an op-ed (free link) in today’s New York Times, proposing a compromise solution to allow the parents of Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho to talk about his early years and psychiatric issues so that the public can glean some insight, without being exposed to lawsuits.

In Columbine, the federal court sealed the depositions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s parents for 20 years, to protect their privacy.

Dave first explores the questions the public wants the answers to:

Was Mr. Cho bullied or sneered at by the rich brats he railed against? Or was he responding to voices in his head? When did he first experience difficulty socializing? Did those troubles lead to withdrawal, or was he already a loner? How did his parents respond? Was anything successful?

We know Mr. Cho demonstrated symptoms consistent with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, but these can also be signs of schizophrenia. Experts are eager to interview the Cho family to tease out the differences. If Mr. Cho experienced outright psychotic episodes, they might have been mystifying to acquaintances but painfully obvious to his family. When did the Chos first observe such episodes, how often and with what intensity? How was he treated, and what were the results? A deeper understanding of Mr. Cho’s pathway to murder can help us predict dangerous behavior and respond better to warning signs.

Dave’s solution to enable the public to get the answers:

The Chos’ lawyers should broker a deal with psychiatric experts before trust is eroded. The psychiatrists can offer medical privilege and the hope of authentic scientific advancement in exchange for openness from the family. They should promise to divulge their conclusions to the public, but to work with the Cho lawyers to withhold any details likely to land the family in court.

There are risks in this for the Cho family, but inaction presents the greater risk — of lawsuits and of never finding answers. The questions that plague the victims’ families weigh just as heavily on those who loved the perpetrators.

[Cross posted at]