How little we know about Cho

Newt Gingrich blames liberalism, the Sunday Times of London blames "a feminised society." So many opinions, so little enlightenment about the Virginia Tech tragedy.

Published April 23, 2007 9:58PM (EDT)

The Virginia Tech massacre drove three other huge disasters -- Alberto Gonzales' continued lying to Congress about the U.S. attorneys scandal, the Supreme Court's terrible abortion decision and the predictable failure of the so-called surge to pacify Baghdad -- to the margins of the news last week. And yet I've rarely seen such a big story produce so little great journalism.

I'm not even talking about the debate over NBC's decision to air Cho Seung-Hui's horrifying but ultimately unrevealing videos. What a dumb "controversy." If every major news organization is going to send reporters from Blacksburg to Seoul seeking people who knew the killer to shed light on why he did it, why would NBC not air his own purported explanation? That Cho's grandiose self-justification was so chillingly empty wasn't NBC's fault (although once that was clear, it might have been a nice decision to cut back on the endless replays of his menacing photos and meaningless videos, but NBC wasn't the only one flashing clips of them all weekend long).

I watched the coverage unfold late last week from a strange seat: My best friend's mother died in a freak car accident, and I suddenly joined the realm of the grieving, rather than being a bystander, with the Virginia Tech killings as an eerie backdrop. (I took a break from this blog without explanation and then felt silly afterward; I could tell readers I was taking an afternoon off for a baseball game, but not for a funeral? Death throws us.) My suddenly shifted vantage point was useful, though. Having to struggle to make sense of a senseless death in my own life, it is clearer to me that we desperately seek lessons and explanations to shield us from the very randomness of random acts of cruelty, and that's fitting. Sometimes we even find them; sometimes we prevent other tragedies as a result. We wear seat belts and go for early cancer screenings and pass drunk-driving and gun-control laws as a result of learning lessons from preventable deaths. All too often, though, we fill what would be terrifying silence with mindless but soothing chatter, and as a culture we did a lot of that last week about Virginia Tech.

Several of the "lessons" people tried to draw were particularly heinous and bogus, of course. No matter what Michelle Malkin says, the answer to gun violence isn't more guns. I already wrote about right-wing crackpots' efforts to blame the victims for not fighting back, and I still can't believe such cruelty didn't get more coverage. Instead, on Sunday we got more noxious garbage on ABC's "This Week," as Newt Gingrich blamed liberalism for the massacre.

On one level, this wasn't a surprise. In 1994 the then-House speaker blamed liberalism when Susan Smith murdered her two children in South Carolina, and said the only way to prevent such tragedies was to "vote Republican." He blamed liberals, again, for the 1999 Columbine killings. What surprises me is not what Gingrich says, but the very fact that the serial adulterer from Georgia is still on Sunday news shows lecturing the nation on morality. Aren't there enough interesting, respectable, credible Republican leaders to make the rounds?

And can you imagine if a major Democratic Party figure, who was once third in line for the White House and who might run for president again, was saying such idiotic and hateful things about Republicans? Can you imagine if, say, Al Gore blamed the Bush administration, or the conservative movement generally, for the Virginia Tech massacre? He would be howled into political exile by braying right-wingers, but it's an acceptable part of mainstream discourse to blame liberalism for the nation's most jarring tragedies. And mainstream media elites wonder why they're losing their audience. (Tangent, or not: Was there a better symbol of the media elite's growing irrelevance than the choice of Rich Little to entertain them -- and mirror their obsolescence -- at the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday night, after Stephen Colbert's brave, bracing, hilarious performance last year?)

So political figures, and political journalists, aren't giving us much help understanding Virginia Tech. But the realm of culture hasn't been much more useful. The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter tried to link Cho's rampage to Korean director Park Chan Wook's "Oldboy" -- without any evidence that Cho ever saw the film. Similarly, a lot of stories have thrown around the idea that Cho was autistic, with absolutely no proof he was ever diagnosed or treated. Arianna Huffington thinks a likely culprit was antidepressant medication, though we're still not sure what Cho was taking. All the major papers had big features on Cho's family life this weekend, from Korea to Virginia, but none really answered key questions. How miserable was the family, beyond the normal struggles of working-class immigrant life? How clearly disturbed was Cho? What did the family really know about his mental illness? What was his relationship to his smart sister, who graduated from Princeton and now works for the State Department? How much help did his family get him, if any?

By far the most interesting piece I read was Sarah Baxter's "American Psycho" in the Sunday Times of London. I admired her ambition and sweep, interviewing everyone from student survivors to Frances Fukuyama to our own Camille Paglia. But the story still disappointed, a little, partly because of its awful deck (which she of course didn't write), which blamed Cho's violence on "the crisis of young males in a feminised society." At least Baxter grappled directly with issues of race and gender that American writers have been more shy about -- and yet I'm not ready to draw conclusions from what she found.

The always provocative Paglia, for instance, suggested in the piece that our culture of tolerance for diversity cut the Korean immigrant Cho too much slack, and she noted something I had thought about, too -- that the two Virginia Tech professors who we know did something about Cho, Lucinda Roy and Nikki Giovanni, aren't white. I do think an odd combination of bewilderment and ethnic confusion on the part of other Virginia Tech students and faculty probably perpetuated Cho's isolation and gave him the space to become dangerous. So many fellow students have been interviewed suggesting that they concluded the odd Asian fellow was so quiet because he didn't speak English; it's sad and remarkable. It's intriguing that Roy and Giovanni were among the few who had the courage or judgment not to merely write off Cho's troubles to cultural or language differences.

On the other hand, I watched a befuddled Chris Matthews browbeat one of Cho's suitemates, Karan Grewal, over Grewal's puzzling patience with the oddball student -- back in his day, Matthews seemed to be saying, a weirdo like Cho would have been ridiculed, harassed, maybe even beaten up, somehow banished from their suite. I felt sympathy for Matthews' befuddlement -- I kind of share it -- and yet I also admired Grewal and other students who described trying to be friendly to Cho, and then leaving him alone when they were rebuffed. Yes, campus diversity may mean giving students who seem "different" the benefit of the doubt, chalking up the "difference" to cultural influences we don't understand. I'm not ready to conclude that's a bad thing, despite the Virginia Tech massacre, and I'm definitely not convinced it played any appreciable role in the tragedy.

Likewise, I found Fukuyama's and Paglia's thoughts about the role of gender fascinating but ultimately frustrating. Fukuyama noted that Cho and Muslim suicide bombers "fall into the same demographic of young males, a lot of whom are unemployed, without a clear place in the social hierarchy. These guys have the most to gain and the least to lose by martyrdom." And yet it's hard to call Cho a "martyr" without a clue about what he thought he was dying for. Fukuyama observes that another factor linking Cho with mixed-up Muslim men is sexual confusion about women "whose attention they can't get." Paglia saw Cho as a victim of mediocre schools that can't deal with young male energy, as well as "a loser in the cruel social rat race," feeling "rage and humiliation" at being spurned by young women who otherwise "want to behave like men and have sex without commitment" -- but not with him.

I don't know about all that. Certainly from Baghdad to Blacksburg and all points in between, the autonomy of women is a social explosion we haven't finished reckoning with, and marginal young men like Cho as well as confused Muslim suicide bombers may well have the toughest time with it. But I'm wary about opining that the attitudes of Virginia Tech women had anything to do with Cho's violence without a lot more information. There's as much evidence that Cho's misery was caused by conservative Korean patriarchy as by liberal Western sexual mores. A smart Los Angeles Times story today quotes Cho's mother telling an employer that she wished Cho, and not his sister, had been the one to graduate from Princeton. The expectations of patriarchy can create angry male losers, too.

But the point is not to dream up alternative explanations for Cho's violence based on very little evidence; it's to say that, based on what we know so far, we have no idea what caused his rampage. And what if his story is just too singular and sad and strange to draw broad social lessons from? No one has yet done a good enough job reporting the facts -- about his family, his social milieu, his mental-health treatment (or lack of it) and how Virginia Tech handled what it knew about his troubles to let us begin to theorize about broad social causes for rage like Cho's, let alone how to prevent it. Our desire to posit reasons for Cho's rage is a natural response to tragedy and loss. We'd rather believe speculative theories about the madness of Cho Seung-Hui (preferably, ones that suit our ideology) than to think it was random and beyond our control.

By Joan Walsh

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