I would be remiss if I didn’t remark on the case of Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old Korean-American who shot and killed 32 student at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, before shooting himself. When news first surfaced that the killer was Asian, and not fitting the stereotype of the black trenchcoat-wearing emo loner white kid that committed previous school shootings, many people asked me (as ‘the BAM guy’) what I thought about the shootings. At the time I said I didn’t know, since the motives for the shootings weren’t clear.
Several days later more details about the sordid case have emerged. Cho mailed a package to NBC in between the first and second spate of shootings, containing pictures of himself and his manifesto, which by all accounts is rambling and often incomprehensible. Nevertheless, part of the motivation behind his disturbed rampage became clear. In his manifesto Cho rails against spoiled rich kids, along with disparaging references to the American government and Christianity. The shooter may have been Asian, but the story was in many ways a repeat of similar shootings in the past – a loner, already mentally disturbed, used bullying (real or imagined) by rich/popular kids as a rationalization for a violent rampage.
Why write about it at all on BAM? The fact of the matter is that race may not have played any part in the shootings themselves, but they certainly have shaped some of the public and media reaction to the shootings. From his manifesto, it doesn’t seem that Cho considered issues of white (others) vs. Asian (himself). Indeed, his victims included blacks and Asians and foreign professors, not just white Americans.
(An aside – one former high school classmate recalled that he was always quiet and never spoke. One day in English class the teacher had the students read out loud. When it came to Cho’s turn to speak, he refused to talk until the teacher threatened him with an F. When he did, his voice and accent were so odd that the entire class immediately started pointing and laughing and yelling “Go back to China!”. Maybe my school district was nice, but this sort of behavior strikes me as something you’d see a bully do on the playground in elementary school – NOT something an organized group of people would do in class in high school. It’s probably safe to say that it wasn’t this incident that caused the shootings, but it certainly didn’t help in keeping Cho’s psychotic mental state in check.)
But public reaction has certainly been shaped by the very fact that Cho was Asian. Immediately after the shootings, the media asked China’s foreign minister what he thought based on rumors that the shooter was Chinese. This understandably flustered the minister – how was he supposed to know? Of course Cho turned out to be from South Korea (insert rant here about how we’re all the same to Americans anyway) making the question highly incongruous and vaguely insulting. Maybe those journalists were yelling “Go back to China!” to Asian kids in high school too. Later, once details confirmed that Cho was a South Korean foreign national, the media turned its attention to South Korean citizens.
Interestingly many citizens expressed shame and horror, saying things like “I feel ashamed to be Korean” or “I would like to apologize on the behalf of Koreans to the families of Virginia Tech”. (As another aside, this kind of reaction once again highlights the differences between Asian ‘group-centered’ culture and Western ‘individual-centered’ culture. I’m not saying one is better than the other – it does seem ridiculous for normal Korean citizens to be apologizing for the actions of a psychopath who happens to also be Korean. But at the same time, when a few American bad apples torture prisoners in Guantanamo or rape and kill women and children in Iraq, you don’t see very many Americans saying “I feel ashamed to be American; I’d like to apologize on behalf of America to the Iraqis”.)
Of course, on the internet, where anonymity allows cowards to express their ugliest thoughts without the responsibility of having to identify the person behind the thoughts, things are worse. Although there is of course plenty of positive reaction (such as making efforts to support the victims and provide appropriate remembrance) one does not need to dig very deep to find more racist and xenophobic reactions, blaming Koreans or Asians or proposing to expel non-whites from the country, and so on. This is nothing new – racists will always be racists – but this high-profile incident has given some of these racists more impetus to spew their hatred at Asians.
Immediately after the killings, many Asian students at Virginia Tech said they felt unsafe alone because they feared revenge, and indeed the South Korean government issued (along with its condolences) a statement that they hoped there would not be reprisals against other Koreans. An overreaction? Perhaps. Race riots do still break out in the US from time to time, and reprisal killings sometimes fill up the media. These are usually gang-related, however; racial violence is in these days, thankfully uncommon. But there is no doubt that a small, unsavory portion of the world’s populace have had their negative views of Asians forever reinforced by the actions of a psychopath.