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General Feature

Sympathy for Seung-Hui Cho

William Burroughs, despite his reputation as an inveterate consumer of hard drugs, was a good American citizen: he believed in the right to bear arms, and staunchly defended the second amendment. Unfortunately, the avant garde experimentalist writer also managed to shoot his common law wife through the forehead, during the course of a bizarre, drunken William Tell routine.

On April 16th last, another writer whose then unpublished work had been, like that of Burroughs, pilloried for its violent and sexual content, killed rather a lot more people, in one fell swoop. Thirty-two in all, increasing to a pleasingly Messianic thirty-three if you include his suicide (and this was a young man who had made overt reference to his identification with Jesus Christ, in a video manifesto mailed to N.B.C. during the course of his shooting spree). He had purchased his weapons – a Glock 9mm pistol and a Walther P22 handgun, ballistics fans – legally, despite having a psychiatric record, again eerily reminiscent of Mr. Burroughs. So, this smart and imaginative creative writing major, in his final year of his studies, was merely exercising his constitutional right to bear arms.




Let’s try the classic liberal humanist apologist tack on Seung-Hui Cho for starters. Here is a lonely immigrant kid trapped in world of soulless, vacuous Ken and Barbies. A child of quiet, hard-working, Presbyterian parents, he is all at sea amid the frat house culture which surrounds him, referring to its ‘debaucheries’ in his video self-justification. He has been bullied at school for his strange accent and speech difficulties, and told to ‘go back to China’. In this regard, it is noteworthy how, despite Cho’s permanent residency status, and the fact that he had been in the country since he was eight, news agencies have been sedulous in stressing that he is Korean, not American. He has also been demonised as ‘a loner', and it is odd how this figure has attracted such opprobrium in current American popular mythology, in light of the cult of rugged individualism and pioneering frontiersman spirit that is one of the country's defining shibboleths. The Plymouth brethren were a bunch of loony religious outsiders looking for headspace, and the high plains drifter (even if rendered more traditionally in westerns featuring John Wayne rather than Clint Eastwood) is an enduring figure of silent resourcefulness and inner strength, somehow beyond the law. He is many peoples’ idea of a hero, even if he also partakes of the anti-hero. All stripes of shrinks will waffle endlessly about Cho’s alienation, his persecution complex, his delusions. These mind-doctors may even label him a sociopath, highlighting his inability, or unwillingness, to fit in. But they never seem to countenance the idea that society may be, even if only partially, to blame. Perhaps this is because they themselves have too high a stake in it to begin with, products as they are of the collegiate, clubby network.

The truth is that the Virginia Tech massacre is the result of the conflux of two incontrovertible facts: 1) American society, of which the educational apparatus is an essential bulwark, is the most viciously competitive in the world, and – unless one ‘drops out’ altogether – will always deal harshly with its more vulnerable and disadvantaged members; 2) it is extremely easy for anyone, no matter how resentful or disturbed, to legally acquire firearms.

I can draw on personal experience to delineate both of these actualities. While lecturing on the summer programme at the European campus of an American university, I was amazed at how casually those students who arrived in their huge 4x4s or BMW sports cars (when they’d left their Kawasaki or Ducati motorbikes at home for the day), looked down their noses at, or simply ignored, those students who, like, walked. To give you a further idea of the richness and thickness, designer labels were de rigueur among these jeunesse doree, and Dan Brown was the main literary talking point. A Korean kid whose parents ran a laundry business, who’d have to have worked very hard to get their in the first place, wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Similarly, while living in ‘liberal’ California, I was one night taken to the apartment of a friend of a friend, where my host, an apparently sane Berkeley PhD candidate, proceeded without a by your leave to show me his gun collection, waxing lyrical about each weapon’s specifications and capabilities. It doesn’t happen in Ireland, at least not in the circles I move in here.

How common are school-based shootings in the United States? Between 1994 and 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta documented 220 separate incidents, accounting for 253 deaths. Leaving aside summer and holidays, that's nearly one homicidal incident a week over six years at schools. Yet the C.D.C. called the incidents rare – perhaps because 15 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 are killed each day, on average, in the United States. The mass school shootings impress only because so many die together, rather than individually, and because they occur in educational institutions. Even so, the frequency of the mass shootings is uniquely American, and it is also uniquely American to have a respected public health authority label 220 school shootings in six years as rare.

The fact is that these types of massacre now occur with almost boringly predictable inevitability, and in their wake conservatives and liberals alike unite to 'connive in civilised outrage', as Seamus Heaney had it. But nothing is going to change for the foreseeable future, because of the utter refusal of the majority of Americans to engage in debate about gun law, and this despite not only repeated real life incidents like Virginia Tech, but books like Lionel Shriver's ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ and films like Michael Moore's ‘Bowling For Columbine’ and Gus Van Sant's ‘Elephant’. Each of these works asks important questions about the prevailing situation and the consequences of lack of gun control. Shriver privileges nature over nurture in her treatment, Kevin simply having been born bad. Moore makes the point that while in Canada, as a hunting culture, privately owned arms are almost as prevalent as in the U.S., people don’t go around killing each other to anything like the same extent. Van Sant is useful in dramatising the affectlessness of the perpetrators, and the ridiculousness of searching for reasons and explanations, human nature being what it is, or certain people being what they are, to say nothing of society being what it is, or certain societies being what they are. In the face of such intransigence about changing the law, all post-event hand wringing is gross hypocrisy.

Perhaps the most downright grotesque response has been that of the National Rifle Association, who defended their stance by arguing that Virginia Tech’s gun-free ‘safe zone’ policy effectively ensured that none of the students or faculty would be armed, thus guaranteeing that no one could stop this lone, crazed gunman’s rampage. So all students should be armed at all times, in case of random attack? Can you just imagine the same insane logic operating over here in Trinity or U.C.D.? Pistol packing on campus. High noon in Front Square. There’s gonna be a showdown outside the Belfield Bar. Don’t forget your gun if you want to go to college in safety, son.

One wonders how President Bush, who in the aftermath of this entirely avoidable atrocity issued a statement saying that ‘the right to bear arms is fundamental, but individuals should be held accountable for breaking the law’, has the audacity to show his face around grieving families and friends. Accountable? How? Cho did not let the United States, or the parents of his victims, off the hook when he shot his own face off. It could be argued that he didn’t even save himself. But, then again, George Dubya is the same gormless evildoer who has had no qualms about sending thousands of young men to their deaths, merely because war is good for business, and not only stokes the coffers of the international arms industry, but provides lucrative contracts for his neocon cronies in the process of reconstruction after war.

Finally, besides likening himself to Jesus Christ, in his by now globally publicised rant Cho also referenced ‘the martyrs like Eric and Dylan’, the Columbine High School shooters. His incident occurred during the same week as the eighth anniversary of Columbine (and, incidentally, the twelfth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing), so he may well have timed his own contribution to the annals of school massacres to coincide with these auspicious dates. As things stand, Virginia Tech will not be the last high school or college shoot up. Copycats will come out of the woodwork, and you’ll even find determined individuals, full of thwarted ambition, trying to beat the magic number of 33. Watch this space. Just don’t pretend to be surprised, much less outraged, when it happens.

First published in Magill, May 2007















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