EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I want to express my deepest condolences to everyone who was affected by Cho Seung-hui's violent rampage at Virginia Tech this past Monday, when he gunned down 32 victims before turning the gun on himself. I won't pretend to totally understand how it feels to be part of a community that has been rocked by this kind of tragedy; I can only imagine the feelings of grief and devastation that must have hit the campus full-force after Monday morning's tragic events.
I've been meaning to blog a little bit about the Virginia Tech incident, because, I mean, college students got killed---as a college student myself, this kind of thing hits close to home at least a little bit. But I haven't really been sure of what to say that hasn't already been said by various journalists and pundits already. Pointing fingers at the ridiculously easy access Cho had to guns? Check. Reviving the debate over the Second Amendment? Check. (Not sure where I stand on that issue, although it seems to me that something deeper needs to be done instead of simply banning civilians from owning firearms.) The backlash against Koreans and Korean-Americans across the country and in Korea? Disturbing (as was the backlash against Arabs after Sept. 11), but check. Criticizing the media for exploiting tragedy in various ways? Check. (I'm still a little iffy on NBC's airing of Cho's videos and pictures, since that'd be giving him the publicity he clearly wants; but if it gives us in the audience a slightly better understanding of what drove him to coldblooded murder, then maybe it was worth something.) Blaming movies like Chanwook Park's Oldboy (a movie I love very much, although in hindsight his other two vengeance movies---Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance---are in some ways deeper and more serious meditations on the futility and spiritual bankruptcy of revenge than the more pop-accessible, though no less devastating, Oldboy; maybe Cho might have thought twice about his actions if he had seen the bleak and near-Kubrickian Sympathy, especially) for inspiring Cho's own "revenge," even as most of those critics inevitably ignore context? Check and check.
So what's left to talk about that hasn't already been discussed in these past few days since the tragedy? Well, let me take a more personal tack---always a useful strategy for trying to say something fresh about a topic discussed to death (no insensitive pun intended there!)---and admit right upfront that, for me, there's something morbidly fascinating about this whole incident...about Cho.
If my movie-watching and movie criticism-reading over the years has taught me something valuable, it has taught me to embrace empathy, nuance and complexity instead of feeling more comfortable in black-and-white. It's a complicated world out there, and the people inhabiting it are no less contradictory and complex. So, when the Virginia Tech story broke and we found out the killer was this South Korean 23-year-old with paranoid-schizophrenic problems and an apparently, long-held grudge against hedonistic rich kids, my first reaction wasn't to decry him as a human monster, a mentally-disturbed freak. My first reaction was to try to understand what drove him to his actions. Maybe this stems from a special feeling I sometimes have toward loners---I sometimes felt like one myself during my high school years---but I, perhaps morbidly, immediately wanted to know more about Cho, to understand what may have happened in his life to have led him to this. Did neglect or lack of interest from fellow students or teachers lead him to a path of destruction? (Maybe not so much in this case; more on that below.) Did that neglect lead him to feel that the only way for him to make any mark on society would be through violence? Is this a sick fascination to have? It's the same perverse fascination I felt when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up Columbine High School eight years ago. In fact, I'll admit it: I was almost ready to at least empathize with the killers, perhaps unduly projecting my own occasional bouts of isolation and loneliness to try to give a semblance of humanity to these people.
But, of course, however understandable their motives, their actions are, by any human standard, atrocious. There were plenty of other ways to express themselves; is it a statement about the society we live in that the only thing they could apparently think to do with load themselves up with ammo and gun people down in cold blood to do it?
Cho Seung-hui's story bothers me in a different way, though. He did express himself, apparently---through, by all accounts, extremely violent and profane plays he wrote for an English class. He wasn't really neglected by fellow students; they knew of him, and they were disturbed by him (rightly so, it seems). When you dare to take under-the-table pictures of women during class, how else are people supposed to think of you? As healthy and normal? (I'm as horny and as sex-obsessed as the next guy, but I don't try to take informal upskirt pictures and stalk them.) And it's not like people didn't try to reach out to him; he simply rejected all the help, preferring to indulge in his perverted fantasies of violent conquest. It sounded like he figured he wasn't the one with the problem; to him, the so-called "rich kids" were the ones with the problem. And he, I guess, would be the savior of all the "oppressed"---their "Jesus Christ," as he labeled himself.
I could try to find numerous twisted ways to feel even a little bad for Cho, to try to empathize with him. (I could try to do the same thing for Harris and Klebold, for that matter.) But as someone who likes to think I try to look at things and people with a measure of nuance and complexity, should I even bother to try to empathize with messed-up people who themselves seem to have trouble recognizing nuance, who regard other people with apparently little regard for their humanity except as pawns in a game of good and evil? It doesn't sound like it's worth the trouble or the emotional resources.
Maybe a daring artist will one day come along and attempt to understand Cho Seung-hui, to pick at his brain. (Not even Gus Van Sant was willing to go quite that far with the killers in Elephant, his formalistic response to Columbine.) For now, though, I think I'll just leave at this: Mr. Cho was one disturbed human being. The humanistic side of me refuses to believe that it's not worth trying to understand what led him to his mental collapse and killing spree, but understanding him certainly doesn't excuse him, especially since it looks like he didn't try very hard to look at the reality beyond his own fucked-up worldview. He brought it on himself, and maybe, in the end, he has only himself to blame. (And Koreans and Korean-Americans everywhere, by all means don't feel the need to apologize for this guy! He's no more a reflection of how Koreans really are than Adolf Hitler is an indication of how Germans are in general.)
To the victims: all our hearts are with you. Here's hoping you can all successfully move on from this.