Thoughts on the Virginia Tech Shootings
1. No clarity or usefulness comes from concluding that Cho Seung-Hui was demonic or deranged. Empathy is the sole possibility for insight here. It is not a matter of condoning his acts, but of feeling the agony and ardor that drove them. To begin to understand what happened is the first step toward healing the wound as well as preventing the next such paroxysm.
The pop psychotherapy conducted throughout the media in the aftermath of the shootings—uniformly dreadful—was likely at the level of the bureaucratic psychotherapy enacted in local facilities to which Cho was “committed” for treatment: no thoughtful analysis, no transference, just grad-school taxonomy leading to protocols of behaviorism and requisite drugs. He was juiced with anti-depressants and other factory potions that the medical sector routinely dispenses to people as if they were the pill equivalent of “ideas.” Such chemicals are not remedies; they have manifold and unique consequences in each psyche, few of which doctors and pharmacists gauge or comprehend.
Everyone’s depression is unique; even the chemistry of everyone’s depression is unique. Mix a cocktail of ideas, molecules, and paranoid fantasies and you get the voodoo you deserve.
Therapy succeeds only when there is transference, when the therapist experiences the mad person as himself, not some fucked-up alien. Then they recognize each other, have a minor epiphany, and each evolves. But to name a condition is to dismiss it. To apply one academic vector or another, after the fact, to a mass killer is to deny the bond between his passion and the passion of all of us, to break communion and forfeit the human connection that alone gives our suffering meaning.
Cho’s Centreville neighbor, Abdul Shash, was actually a better shrink than all the talking heads. Noting the gunman-to-be’s legendary lack of response to greetings, he observed simply, “He was like he had a broken heart.” If Cho had been treated with even a morsel of acknowledgment for his broken heart, there would not have been a massacre. As he himself told people posthumously, “You had your chances, more than enough of them.”
Looking scrawny and talking funny is invitation for bullies to peck and pummel away until you become a basket case. Being mocked and reviled is no incidental matter. It dominates your imagination. You become tunnel-visioned and pissed off; you mull exotic revenges. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris set the rules of engagement for the “school daze” of the future in this indulgent, gun-worshipping land.
The Columbine-High Goths wrote the liturgy, and later practitioners of ritual massacre used their precedent and rulebook: “I want to kill and injure as many of you fuckers as I can”; “I’m gonna be famous”; “I’m going out in style”; and “I just want to take a few pieces of shit with me.” Forget the contradictions. It’s long past logic. If you are taunted and hazed long enough and brutally enough, you are going to make someone pay, whatever the cost to yourself.
The same rules apply on the mean streets of West Oakland or any ’hood: Diss someone, even accidentally, and you get blown away.
2. The ready availability of guns is a part of the problem, yet the crisis is so deep-seated by now that it cannot be fixed by even the most stringent gun-control measures. Weapons, large and small, are imbedded in the American psyche too profoundly to extricate in any simple manner. A self-righteous “gun attitude” has implanted itself in our national character.
The real danger is not even guns’ availability; it is their independent role in American consciousness and the fantasies they generate. Guns breed their own imagination: people begin thinking bullets. Revenge fantasies morph into gun fantasies, as these are conducive objects for metastasizing discontent. Shoot, and your problem is gone.
The coronation of guns as transcendent signs above the law generates its own motivations and diacritic events. Weapons become organs and acts rather than responses to acts.
I haven’t fired a rifle since around age eleven at the Camp Chipinaw range, but gun imagery floods my mind. When I feel fury at public figures, I picture assassinations of them by long-range snipers or invisible horsemen with pistolas galloping into Washington—my thoughts eroding into proxy attacks by bang! bang!: swift, hard shots. But it is a sterile, headachey compulsion.
When simple linear machines become vehicles for ideation of rage—as well as a chimerical safeguard againsts class warfare and a figuration for general alienation simmering beneath the surface of society—then wholesome acts of confrontation and transformation are supplanted by automated instrumentalities and displaced operations.
Guns have been elevated into not only icons but wands, fetishes, and oaths. To loyalists, they are extensions of their own flesh, their alter egos and best friends, the basis of their identity and self-worth—the entire Bill of Rights, to boot. No wonder we have the foreign policy we do—“violent and murderous…bringing death and displacement to millions,” in bin Laden’s own words, justification for 9/11. “As American as apple pie,” Stokely Carmichael called it way back in the Vietnam era: it is our way of life. “Shock and awe” is NRA propaganda writ large.
In somewhat the same spirit that India is the cradle of Buddhism, France the birthplace of existentialism, the Soviet Union the laboratory of Marxism, America deeds the world “gunnism,” a living philosophy whereby people arm themselves, fear strangers, suspect their own neighbors, imagine every possible home invasion, carjacking, and crazed street attack, and never, despite two oceans and thousands of nuclear weapons, feel safe.
Gunnology is our Maoism: not philosophy from the barrel of a gun but the gun itself as philosophy. That is what is taught with their mother’s milk to kids in the projects and ’hoods. When you carry a gun, you carry ontology, meaning; you get respect. You are in the discussion. While your first seminar may be running drugs and muling cash, the gun is thesis and antithesis, the only argument worth having, even in the schoolyard.
I agree, it would be better for all if the youth at risk didn’t pack heat (or put on baggy pants and other convict stylings), but that is what they are taught in Gunnology 1. It is not particularly sophisticated, but it doesn’t have to be. All it has to do is make a definitive statement about politics, reality, and power—and unfortunately, it does.
What more do you need to know about the American philosophy of gunnism than a guy in Ohio stepping out of his home and shooting dead a teenage neighbor because he is trespassing on his lawn? People dole out “being and nothingness” from their private slot machines like tinhorn Sartres or Ben Franklins.
If guns could have somehow been outlawed here in the European fashion before they were cathected into sacred emblems, the entire NRA culture with its overkill shootings and pointless domestic mishaps might have been averted before it got going. Now far too many people own too many guns for there to be any practical method to start taking them away. The symbolic “gun” is too widespread and familial to eliminate. We have a better chance of resolution at the other end—a national shootout—rather than Congressional prohibition.
Anyway, the present law, or lack thereof, is the worst possible compromise. We might as well enact the logical consequences of the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment: Require everyone to pack guns. Make it a law that no one goes out the door unarmed, no one keeps a gunless home. All airline passengers shall be checked to make sure they have their weapons with them. That will deter crimes, hikjackings, and mass shootings and rid us of the false piety of gun ownership. Compel us all to arm ourselves and then we will be safe from our own fantasies. If the point is to signify anxiety in weaponry, let’s do it.
3. The gun lobby probably makes the wrong point when it declares its primo reason for allowing law-abiding citizens their sidearms: e.g. if they were deprived, then only criminals and wackos will have guns (since these kinds disobey the law anyway). I don’t think that the Cho Seung-Huis of the world arm their apocalyptic fantasies unless we make it super-easy for them. Put a few curves in the way and Cho probably continues to brood darkly, at least for a lot longer, until something distracts him: he harasses the wrong student; he gets kudos from a gracious teacher, is fascinated by programming his iPod, stumbles into an unlikely romance.
Conversely, advertise guns on billboards, flood the culture with placards of violence and gun art, and you write the textbook for acting out. You encourage loners to brood covetously and then blast away. You valorize malice and reprisal and racism rather than getting into the barnyard with all the other turkeys and bumbling through the problems, ruffled feathers, fat asses, squawking, and all. In the old days, in normal times, people threw themselves into the mix, bumptious as it was, and came away with a life, even with honor. Now there’s TV, the Internet, video games, and gunnist isolation.
Citizens are additionally assaulted by informal coolness competitions, sexual provocations, as well as the random violence and permission-to-violence of Bush’s international foreign policy. Maudlin death dramas amp up rap music, cinema, television, video games, and nightly news. There is constant enticement to make symbolic acts real. Easily available guns in stores and on the street are the icing on the cake, the explicit permission to turn revenge fantasies into your own reality show.
This culture is goading its marginal people into deeds that vent their frustration while catapulting them onto center stage—higher ratings for a day or two (the O. J. Simpson factor) with any casualties merely incidental under free-market capitalism.
When Cho Seung-Hui used the word “debauchery” to exemplify the mindset he was rebelling against, he was precisely on target. The jihadists refer to us similarly when their suicide bombers outfit themselves. Each party, however exclusive, is making the same point: if America wants to indulge its faux moralism in capitalist prerogative and all-terrain armed adventure, let it expect blowback of the same.
4. Cho Seung-Hui was sleepwalking for most of his twenty-three years. He needed to wake himself somehow, and he knew it. Inside the bubble of his trance, a bizarre fantasia was getting larger and larger. The front-page headline in April 22’s Sunday New York Times proclaimed: “Before Deadly Rage Erupted, A Lifetime Consumed by a Troubling Silence: A Loner Becomes a Killer.” This cliché-ridden nutshell actually understates the situation. Cho wasn’t just silent; he was preternaturally silent. His was not a silence of bare shyness and introversion; it was the silence of the wolf-child abandoned by humans, raised by speechless animals—except he was a wolf-child weaned in an urban cacophony of dialects and cultures, social aggressions and oral competitions.
He elected to become the one who wouldn’t comply, who wouldn’t put his meanings into words, who was struck dumb, who by being rendered profoundly mute, bore divine witness.
Thus he became tinder for all that was exploding around him, taking it inside himself day by mum day, converting mass collective speech into the inarticulate emotions and icons at its source. He didn’t need language—language only gets in the way; language dilutes libidinal purity and drive formation.
Cho didn’t speak in Korean as a child in Seoul before his natal family moved to the U.S. when the lad was eight. He didn’t speak while in Motown or suburban D.C. (Centreville, Virginia) in either Korean or English, both of which were blabbed widely there. Instead he played video games and shot baskets solitaire, responding, if at all, with a requisite ironical “Yessir.”
In grade school when he was forced by pedagogical authority to debut his “English as a second language,” a sound came out of him, such an unexpected deep-throated chirp that the other kids began hooting. The teacher merely smirked. Then Cho stopped speaking altogether. His lifelong oath became samurai, not just some namby-pamby snit.
But make no mistake: he wasn’t speaking from the get-go as a child in Korea or the States; his silence was an epistemological statement on the planet, the world-age he was born into—a statement that many could have made but for which he was inexplicably chosen, or volunteered.
In college it got to the point that he was a complete and utter cipher; his room-mates couldn’t recall him saying a single syllable all semester, not one. They remember an Oriental in sunglasses, a baseball cap pulled down over his face. At one point they bet on whether he was a deaf mute, and one of them offered him $10 just to say hello. You can imagine how well that went over.
What those around him should have realized was that this was not just a meek or sullen silence; it was an extraordinary silence, the silence of madness and apocalypse, revelation and vengeance, and its bearer should have been treated with the same caution and deference that you would cede a rabid dog, or a lunatic about to buy two guns. His silence was the antecedent and also the rudiment of a sacred rage that should have been as terrifying and ominous to those who came into contact with him as the actual guns and ammunition into which it vamped and as which it vocalized at last.
The Times refers to “the mystery of who he was,” adding that his parents hoped that college would “extract him from his suffocating cocoon and make him talk.” That it did.
When Cho produced his videos and sent them for posthumous delivery to NBC, it marked the formal end to his silence. Words spewed out in swift, staccato rhythm—the primitive articulations that had been gestating in him in place of language. Their meaning was not what he said but a rough translation of a millennial silence into locution. That is why they didn’t sound quite right; they were very strange indeed.
Acquaintences of Cho remarked, variously, that the figure before the camera didn’t look like him because they had never heard well-formed, refined sentences coming out of him. “This is someone that I grew up with and loved,” said his uncomprehending Princeton-educated sister, an employee of the State Department. “Now I feel like I didn’t know this person.”
It was like ventriloquism or dubbing except that the voice matched the body and was surreally apropos. In fact, everything that preceded it seemed a terrible hoax, as if a Down’s syndrome child were suddenly delivering a sermon on particle physics, e.g. he was never really who he pretended to be. Cho, the double agent, was debriefing himself, coming in from the cold. Initiated and educated all along, he fully understood and spoke English—modern, hip English. Just not aloud.
Cho was no doubt planning his big coming-out party while he was making the videos, which is why they were so imperative to him, important enough that he gunned down thirty-two people for their trailer: to make sure he was heard and heard in the way he intended. The shootings were the gloss—the liner notes. That is why he took two hours between his first two kills and the last thirty—he was crafting a tour de force of speech, not murder but language.
In the short life of Seung-Hui Cho, this was the culmination, the single monumental appearance on the big screen (or in fact anywhere), the only trip to the Superbowl. It was his satanic debutante ball—and he rose to its occasion. He had been gestating underground, a feature-length epic, shot over decades but never screened. Then suddenly it was black-tie, gala, the world premiere—the comeuppance and reprisal—and woe to those who had underrated or dismissed him.
If all the eggs are in one basket, it doesn’t matter whose eggs they are. If they are all there and there are none anywhere else, heaven help those who get in the way.
The networks had it backwards: the tapes weren’t the aftermath of the massacre that preceded and followed; they weren’t even commentary on it—they were the deed. Murder allowed him to use his voice, the scream that was waiting for permission, for circumstance.
Extraordinary silence begets extraordinary speech. Mere signification is not enough to break through today’s incredible noise-to-signal din. If you want to be heard big-time, you have to blow important things up or lie in the street blocking consumers and commerce. You have to get in the way of commodities or create something that itself can be marketed. Like Osama, Cho implicitly understood Madison Avenue, appreciated performance art. Deeds are necessary to render words irrevocable—then even assholes and religious fanatics earn prime-time audiences; even couch potatoes and movie stars have to sit up and listen.
It was necessary for Cho to do more than speak his mind because he had to justify and redeem so many years of silence, to convert them into something worth their price: their communion and purgation, his wolf speech. He couldn’t risk merely being shrill or anything less than a redeemer in broad daylight: Mad Max, Payback, Above the Law, Delta Force. He couldn’t unleash just some old angry voice (which might elicit “Hey, shut up, chink!”); it had to be gunnism, bullets, the philosophy of the American ruling and under-classes. He had to fashion the precise correlate of his unique silence. He had to be a boy to take note of, with a gun.
Once he did that, no further considerations of clemency raised obstacles; the god who gave him his childhood mission and the pluck to do it now required him to remit, to let it all hang out, to see it through and honor the fucking oblation for what it was.
No, it was never first about guns and killing or violence and revenge against anonymous classmates; it was about the Word, as “In the Beginning was….” It was about the origin of civil society, the nature of public discourse in America, and the long-incubated desire of the zombie god of speech to force people to actually listen and regard the garbage they are mouthing all day long, everywhere and everyone. Cho was his disciple, and through him he managed to get out a semblance of his message.
Cho said, “You are all speaking and saying nothing.” He said, “The words don’t mean anything, and anyway here’s what you are really saying.” He said, “Here I am, Cho. And I mean what I say. I mean.”
Listen not to the words themselves, which are stock and random, but the cadences. The words are almost meaningless and often misnomers, dead wrong or delusional. The cadences are always right: “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience…. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs…. You had everything…. You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”
What an incredibly brazen, unabashed rant: flaming clichés set in insipidly mordant singsong, pure bathos and schmaltz! Yet it is as powerful as any Hamlet soliloquy because, in the end, Cho had no Shakespeare to help him; he was the real Korean (or Mexican or Pakitstani) émigré, driven out of Costco society, forced to improvise and splice—so he delivered the ultimate crybaby, martyr rant, binding the curses of all the wounded and brooding children who lacked his desperation and bravado to sing nakedly to the world. He was talking back for all the twelve-year-old soldiers (“How old are you?” “Old enough to kill a man”)—Double Trouble, Death and Destruction, Little Weapon, Bone Thug, and Blood Never Dry. He was the self-anointed Third and Fourth World valedictorian.
If Cho had been articulate or merely eloquent, it would have been Hollywood or a poetry-slam out-take. But he was articulately inarticulate; he was so trite that he was brilliantly untrite—it was The Little Rascals, Survivor, the lost episode of Seinfeld.
He was Hamlet, the Hamlet of a time out of joint, when kings are imposters, when money-changers own the academies as well as the temples, when drug lords kidnap politicians, when children are recruited into gangs and militias—when conscience doth truly make cowards of us all. Out of maudlin banalities Cho authored the collective truth. Out of linguistic bricolage he created an American opera, and it reverberated all the way back to its roots in Seoul: “O, from this time my thoughts be bloody or nothing worth!”
The tempo of his sermon is perfect. Yes, there were a hundred billion chances to avoid what happened. Far beyond Cho Seung-Hui’s own circumstances and fate, to the remote reaches of America’s decadence, into the White House itself—attend the music of failed penance, of inconsolable revenge, of “bad boy” atonement, of shameless vindication, of petulant song. No wonder Cho proclaimed that he did it for his brothers and sisters and children (what brothers? what children?) and cited Columbine, Christ, and the President God himself. If you are composing a requiem, you’ve got total poetic license; you can speak in metaphor and allusion. A million potential saints and sinners are significators in Cho’s riff.
“You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”
How many heckled youths have chanted (or wanted to chant) more or less the same raow on global TV and world satellite? How few get to deliver it in blood! But, kiddo, it wasn’t Jesus Christ you were running with, just for the record; it was Timothy McVeigh, Mohammed Atta.
“I didn’t have to do it. I could have left. I could have fled. But now I am no longer running….” Not the words—the cadences.
Can you hear the song for which the diatribe is pale parrotry?
5. It is not irrelevant that Cho’s mother, Kim Hwang-Im, was a refugee from North Korea whose family slipped across the border during the Great War. North Korea is the great subliminal cipher of our planet that “speaks” for the rest of what passes for rational civilization, speaks in its own vast ceremonial silence, e.g. using people as mosaics in military designs on parade grounds. To say what to the world? To shadow what ineffable battlefield, what prophetic war to come?
His father, Seung-Tae Cho, was an oilfield construction worker shuttling back and forth to Saudi Arabia before repairing home finally to an arranged marriage.
God knows what shadows lurk within our shiftless and spiritually vacant global Kali Yuga when time and space begin to collapse and the black holes of astrophysical cosmology come to dwell in human souls.
6. Cho’s fantasies, tropes, lies, and inventions were both clues and cries for help. His “girlfriend,” a supermodel named Jelly from outer space, visited him by flying saucer. She called her boyfriend Spanky.
He fixated on female students, two of them fiercely and disturbingly enough with unannounced visits and instant messages (under the screen name SpankyJelly) that they reported him to the campus cops.
There was his other name for himself: Question Mark, a signature he used on school forms: ?. Even he didn’t know.
He boasted of having a villa on Mars and traveling regularly from there to Jupiter. To communicate that tidbit, he must have spoken, though what he said was the antithesis of speech.
He claimed to have grown up with Vladimir Putin in Moscow and said told folks was meeting him in North Carolina to hang out during Thanksgiving break, a proposition so absurd and unlikely that it could have only been a lucid statement of an entirely different thing.
The hallmarks of his one-act plays Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, now immortalized in the literature of crime and madness, are incest, sexual violence, domestic brutality, assassination by chainsaw. Yet by all accounts his own family was gentle and intelligent.
Hey, it’s not what they didn’t know. It’s what they didn’t dare to know.
7. This wasn’t another al-Qaeda strike on our shores, but it was a full-on successful suicide attack, an aggrandized, fuck-you to perceived oppression and powerlessness and also a prudish clout to the materialism, vulgarity, puerile porn, and gaudy exhibitionism of the West—I might add, by someone equally ashamed of his own fantasies. Cho was going to obliterate himself and as many of them as he could before he too became one of “them” and lost the virginity of his rage, before he tarnished the purity of his persecution, turning into an asshole too.
He was saying, “I want to. I don’t want to. I am. I am not.” He legislated by gun as a way of refusing to be humiliated and trivialized. Remember: being and not-being are the essential blade on which every philosophy as well as every murder or suicide takes place. Those Palestinians with belts of incendiaries strapped symbolically and actually to their abdomens—albeit most of them saner and more emotionally mature than Cho—must feel pretty much the same thing: “I hate. I love. I won’t. I will.”
8. If Seung-Hui could have realized that he was truly known to God, or Intelligence, in all his weirdness and differentness and pimpliness or whatever, and was loved nonetheless, he might not have had to hide his name even from himself, might not have had to hide his voice from the world until it became a call of death. I don’t know how that could have come about except through a metanoia to which he was not open, and which nothing around him pointed the way towards:
“Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold O Lord, you know it altogether…. Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me…. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I could count them, they are more than sand. I awake, and I am still with you.”
9. It took a poet, Nikki Giovanni, to intuit what was happening, that she had a maniac in her pack, the kind of person who shoots up classrooms. She wanted him out of her seminar or she threatened to resign.
By contrast, the various therapists, police officers, and university bureaucrats—constrained by “the law is an ass” labyrinth—were unable to distinguish one more harmless alienated student from a time-bomb on its last ticks. They were so used to idle melodrama, hiphop hyperbole, Internet loutishness, computer violence, that they couldn’t recognize the real thing if their life depended on it.
And from here on in, it sort of does.