And the point is . . .

April 18, 2007 by barbara

by barbara

I got a big smackdown yesterday. I told some folks that I was very disturbed by the Virginia Tech president's press announcement that the shooter there was an Asian male student. My point was this: What earthly difference does it make whether the shooter was Asian or Caucasian or Martian? Where does race fit into this unless/until it is later proved to be a relevant factor in the killings? More.

I was scolded for inserting a racial element into a highly-charged, tragic situation. Ummm, could I just say that I did not insert the shooter's ethnic origin into the mix? It got there ahead of me. It was suggested to me that the president was likely reading from a police report, where such a description is standard. That he was most likely under immense stress and that we all should cut him some slack. I couldn't agree more. However . . . .

I do concede that promoting a racist agenda almost certainly was not the intention of President Charles Steger. But we are living in a society that is simmering in racist stew, morning, noon and night. So it probably isn't surprising that one of my first thoughts (on the heels of, "Oh, God, no, no, no!") was this: "Please let the shooter be a home-bred white guy and not someone from the Middle East!" Because you and I both know this fractured country would have been off to the races if that had been part of this tragedy.

One reason is that the Bush Republicans have played the fear card so often, for so long, that skin of almost any color other than Aryan white is deeply suspect. Yes, I know what I just said. It is what it is.

Within minutes of President Steger's announcement, there were escalating conversations about the militant nature of Koreans and how they are trained almost from infancy to be tough, yea brutal, militants. The hypothesis that grew quickly out of that was that the man we now know to be Cho Seung-Hui was a product of that warrior society. Likely they were thinking North Korea, but I'm not sure of that. And it's a fine point at best. Turns out Cho lived here for fifteen years, legally, which means he was roughly 8 years old when he arrived in the United States. Was he whole and sane then? We may never know. But chances are he was labeled "Korean" first and "child" last.

Make no mistake. I am not in any way defending Cho. Far from it. But we have gotten into some deplorable habits in this country of saying things, even in an offhand, police blotter way, that trigger stereotyping right off the bat. And this is a classic case in point. Cho was a person who had major, ultimately deadly, mental health problems. Didn't matter where he came from originally. Still doesn't.

My guess is that some Koreans did (still do?) wonder what mode of rage will be brought to bear on them. What epithets. What threats. You know the drill. We've seen it before. For starters, Muslims, Mexicans, Japanese, even the French. All of which speaks to a severe problem in our country. It is called racism. Its companion is intolerance. It's a terrifyingly knee-jerk thing.

The toothpaste is out of the tube to stay on this one. Photos of the victims reveal that Cho killed some of "his own." His own what? Fellow human beings? Other males? Student colleagues? Oh. Asians. People of color.

Here is how uncharitable I feel about all of this. I have even wondered if the "Asian male student" descriptor was said intentionally to communicate, "It wasn't a terrorist attack by radical Muslims." But there is no justice in scapegoating an entire region of the world and one nation in particular. And I really do believe that's what happened here. People will not remember Cho's name. I confess I had to go back and look it up. What they will remember is that Korean kid who killed.

There is immense power in language. Some of it is destructive in the extreme. And while the whole matter of Cho's ethnicity is altogether peripheral to the horror of the Virginia Tech massacre, it is tightly linked to it and to the shameful bigotry it reflects.

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Comments

Anonymous (not verified) | April 18, 2007 - 8:09pm

I agree!

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Poet (not verified) | April 18, 2007 - 11:52pm

So does Robert Siegel of NPR's "All Things Considered" whose commentary today very nicely reflects on the title of your post.

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susan | April 19, 2007 - 12:17am

Here's a slightly different take. At dinner, a friend railed against Virgina Tech for not dismissing such a sick kid from school. She understands that the police could do nothing until an actual threat or assault occured, but why, she asks, did the university allow him to stay enrolled, given behavior that was threatening enough to get him removed from his writing class, and other known mental health issues. What are the policies in higher ed when there is an obviously disturbed student? Do we want schools to be cracking down on the mentally ill? Anyone?

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Barbara aka Babs (not verified) | April 19, 2007 - 7:02am

Poet, can you tell me approximately when you heard Siegel's piece? I poked around at NPR, but didn't find it. I'd really like to hear what he has to say about this. Thanks!

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barbara aka babs (not verified) | April 19, 2007 - 7:11am

Susan, I've been wondering about this, too. Talk about the proverbial rock and hard place situation. No crime, no arrest. And what is the tipping point for raising concern about someone's behavior, attitude, etc.? When does someone like Cho perceive genuine concern as something malignant, which then sets him off? In addition to being a major safety issue, this also presents a moral dilemma. When is intervention appropriate and how far to go when there is apparent or obvious mental illness? Virginia Tech is going to get roasted for keeping him there, I suppose. But what else could they have done, I wonder?

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Poet (not verified) | April 19, 2007 - 7:01pm

Hi Babs--

I am not surprised you couldn't find it because it was not so clearly labeled as a Robert Siegel piece or commentary but if you go to:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9658225

that will get you to his coments.

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Barbara aka Babs (not verified) | April 20, 2007 - 2:26pm

Hey, thanks for the link, Poet. I now have heard Siegel's piece. He took it a step further and made a case for the fact that Cho acted more out of his American than Korean experience. Sobering, because as I noted, some folks early on were citing the militant nature of Korean governance. And what really happened is a reminder about mental illness, of course, and also that the good old U.S. of A. is one of the most violence-fueled societies on the planet, Iraqi civil war notwithstanding. Uffdah.

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