I suppose I am expected to comment on the past week’s notorious Virginia Tech massacre.It seems that there has been enough media coverage of the event that for me to add anything would be entirely superfluous and unwelcome.Be that as it may, there are some angles to this event that need examining.If you are a student at VT, though, you are encouraged to surf somewhere else.You don’t need the aggravation.
I have not been able to see the documentation that Cho sent to NBC, beyond whatever has already been broadcast which – of course – is partial and heavily edited.Therefore,there is a lot I cannot address as yet.I did read the famous play, in which he accuses a stepfather of abusing him and then eventually winds up killing him after attacking him with a variety of weapons.I also read in the same play references to the Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon assassinations:events I cover in Sinister Forces.That Cho, at twenty-three years old, would even care about these last two events is in itself surprising.(I know a lot of twenty-three year olds who would not know the relevance or the make the connections.)In that same play, there is language reminiscent of the writings of Sirhan Sirhan in the days prior to his assassination of Bobby Kennedy (“Kill!Die!”) which made me think, for a moment, of Cho as a programmed killer.But sometimes the difference between deliberate brainwashing and what occurs in our society naturally is very fine, very thin.
The association with the John Lennon assassination is startling, for it brings to mind the circumstances surrounding his killer.Mark David Chapman was married to a woman of Japanese ancestry from Hawaii;he was a mental patient for awhile;he carried a copy of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye with him when he went to assassinate Lennon.He identified with Holden Caulfield in the novel, a young man who was obsessed with what he called “phonies”: the insincere people he met at his school and in his environment generally.I think we can see that Cho also identified with this idea when he castigated his schoolmates as rich, decadent individuals.
A generation of us growing up in the 1950s and 1960s also identified with Holden Caulfield.The ongoing popularity of Salinger’s novel is evidence that this identification has not waned with the passing of time.What worries me is that Cho will become a kind of pop icon in the years to come.Just as Charles Manson has his own groupie following, a website, recordings of his songs for sale, and some loyal Family members still supporting him, Cho will become as strong in the underground due to his media-savvy approach to his own legend.He produced a multi-media package of photos, writings, and video that he sent to NBC in the two-hour period between the shootings.It is said that he also was influenced by a famous Korean film, The Old Boy, which I watched last year on DVD.More about that later.
Cho lived within a violent fantasy, this much is certain.He purchased handguns and then filed off the serial numbers (for what possible reason?Did he intend on killing people, then dumping the gun somewhere to avoid detection and prosecution?Not likely.He wanted the notoriety and the attention.).My impression is that he was following a scenario learned from television or film.If one is a bad-ass killer, one files off the serial numbers of one’s gun.Simple as that.A ritual, not a strategy.
As a Korean living in the United States – who emigrated to this country when he was eight years old – he would have felt alienated and alone for awhile, especially as it seems he was not part of a local Korean community or culture. This alienation seems to have continued long past its expiration date, though.Did he blame his parents for bringing him to the United States?Possibly, which would account for his accusations of child-abuse (if, indeed, he was not actually abused).There were other Asian students at Virginia Tech; quite a number of them, actually.He did not seem to have formed any relationships with them.Of course, there are many different cultures and ethnicities in Asia and it is possible he found no one particularly compatible.Or vice versa.
The stories we hear about Cho from roommates and other students fits the profile we have come to expect of the crazed, lone gunman:the Lee Oswalds and Sirhan Sirhans.The Mark David Chapmans.He is being described in the media as a loner who did not talk, did not socialize, and who was sick, insane, twisted and all the other terms we ordinarily do not use of the mentally ill anymore but which are acceptable when we describe someone who has been responsible for the worst mass murder in America’s recent history (that is, if we don’t count the Jonestown massacre of 1978 or, dare we say it, the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001).Cho identified with the Columbine killers in his writings, two young men who planned – after their shootings at the high school – to hijack a plane and fly it into … the World Trade Center.
We now have to realize that we are dealing with a specific type of event and a specific demi-monde.From Holden Caulfield to Mark David Chapman, to Columbine, to Virginia Tech, among others not so well-known or so flamboyant in their acts of violence.We have created a world of the disenfranchised and the problem is we don’t recognize this level of spiritual poverty since we are blinded by material wealth.As our country moves slowly into a deeper and deeper state of fascism, we will be leaving behind those children who are not followers, who are not joiners, who are not jocks, who do not “fit in” with the social stereotypes we have come to expect.Children are naturally cruel to other children;young adults can be, too.But when the overall environment – the habitus as Pierre Bourdieu would say – emphasizes uniformity and calls it “patriotism”, and denigrates differences of opinion and calls it “treason” or, at best, “misinformed”, then we are creating more and more Chos and Chapmans.
When Salinger was writing in the 1950s, his was the handwriting on the wall.It was the era of the man in the grey-flannel suit, the corporate ad-man, the ranch-style home, Arrow shirts and Camel cigarettes, Suzie Homemaker and Leave It To Beaver.And the CIA (CIA was apparently recruiting at VT).And the Cold War.Holden Caulfield was the archetypal alienated teenager, but he was unarmed.He went insane, instead.Had a nervous breakdown.
Cho was being treated for the Holden Caulfield disease.With drugs.That’s all we know how to do anymore.Either that, or Dr Phil.But Cho had one thing Holden did not:access to a Glock nine millimeter and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.Holden wanted to be the Catcher in the Rye; he wanted to save the children.Cho wanted to kill them.Cho says, basically, that time has run out.
In this, he is joined by another subculture, another demi-monde: that of the suicide bomber.
These are children who strap explosives to their chests and commit mass murder, and they do it in the name of the disenfranchised.They do it in the name of people they know, people they grew up with, people they have seen arrested, tortured, murdered in the streets.And their names and photos later adorn posters, collectible cards, and other media as they, too, become pop icons.I am not trying to moralize about this, or point fingers, or say who started it, who fired the first shot … who is right and who is wrong.My concern is not with being a god-like observer on a hill, looking down and parting the Red Sea … Regardless of who has politics and history on their side, children are dying.
The suicide-bomber expresses a form of solidarity with the disenfranchised through the violent act of murder.To those who do not have access to television stations, podcasts, and newspaper publishers, a gun and a bomb are cheap, efficient alternatives.Their despair is twofold:despair at the inhumanity and horror they have witnessed, and despair that they are unable to stop it, to cure it, to heal the wounds.They can’t even hold a press conference, or appear on talk shows.So instead they choose the next best thing to make their point.
Cho, however, did not witness anyone being murdered, tortured, dragged off the street to face an uncertain fate.He grew up in America.
But he saw the same news we have all seen.He saw Abu Ghraib.He heard about US soldiers in his home country, in Korea, being accused of rape and assault and avoiding punishment.He listened to the President of the United States lie about reasons for invading Iraq.He saw young men and women – his own age, and younger – being given automatic weapons and sent to a foreign country on false pretenses.He knew something was wrong.Very wrong.
His mental illness may have been related to what we used to call existential angst.We don’t use that terminology anymore, since we have come to the conclusion that much mental illness is the result of chemical imbalances that can be corrected with the right drug.But what came first, the angst or the imbalance?It is the opinion of this writer that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.Just as stress exacerbates all sorts of nervous and somatic disorders, so does angst contribute to the development of chemical imbalances.Treating the chemical imbalance does not, in my view, treat the underlying psychological or – I am going out on a limb, here – spiritual disorder.It masks it;forces it underground where it lurks in our psychic basements, collecting weapons and writing manifestos while all the time we appear to be “under control”.This spiritual disorder is of our own making;it is standing behind us, large and looming, and we chatter on as if it isn’t there.Not there at all.What, me worry?
Cho is no hero, and I will not dignify his actions by calling him a victim.Nor will I say that he was simply sick and deranged,the “crazed, lone gunman”.Rather, he is a symptom.He is the malignancy that has spread throughout America’s system, the ghost in the machine, the haunting of our house.He was a tumor that attacked one of our organs before it surgically removed itself.
There are others out there.The malignancy has spread.
Yesterday, on Countdown with Keith Olberman on the MSNBC cable network, former presidential counsel John Dean appeared to comment on the Alberto Gonzales case and on the recently exposed situation that hundreds of thousands of US government documents in all areas of life have “gone missing”.That Freedom of Information Act requests are being answered with a “can’t find it” letter in more than 70 percent of cases.That our government is now hiding whatever it can, whatever it wants to, from its own people.Dean brought up as an example what happened during his time in the Nixon White House, when an important Oval Office tape was shown to have 18-1/2 minutes “missing”.Dean said – and as I write in my own work — when Alexander Haig was asked who was responsible for erasing those missing minutes, he responded “A sinister force”.
To quote Edward R Murrow and Keith Olberman on this, the anniversary of the Columbine massacre, “Good night, and good luck.”
Well thought out and insightful post, Peter. Mind if I link to it?
I think it's relevent that the repetition of all the images of "trauma"--from the Zapruder film to Columbine, 9/11, Abu Graibh, on down to this most recent episode--serves to hypnotize and traumatize the people who continue to consume it at high volume. It may end up triggering certain commands in very vulnerable and emotionally unstable people--all from afar, with no discernible person to whom the blame can be pointed but those "sinister forces," despite the inevitability, if not predictability, of that outcome.
Many of us have ceased to have meaningful community anymore, save if it arises temporarily on the wings of terrible acts of violence...and it may function, or if we must first cake ourselves in the plastic of superficiality and fearful conformity: community of the controlled.
Oh for the simpler times when the cancer metastasized upon the presidency.
I don't feel you go too far diagnosing it as a spiritual illness either.
Very intriguing commentary on this situation. We need more mainstream media with the open-minded thinking that you present. Of course we know that isn't going to happen. Thanks Peter. Hope to hear you on C2C or P.I.D. Radio sometime soon.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't Salinger the author of the Catcher In The Rye a member of the "intelligence" community and well-connected to the CIA prior to knocking out this his book, which seems to show up in many lone nut scenarios?