Reflecting on Virginia Tech

I have started writing this post five times now, and each time, I have erased it, and stared at my screen, I guess hoping that the more I erased and the longer I stared, the closer I’d come to knowing what to write. It turns out that I still don’t know, but since I can’t sit here forever, I will go ahead and do my best. As you know by now, a student at Virginia Tech opened fire in a residence hall and in a classroom, killing 32 people, wounding 15 others, and finally killing himself. It’s an act of brutality so distinctly horrible that it’s nearly impossible to process it into words, and more impossible still to understand. Yet in the hours and days afterward, all media outlets, from the television to newspapers to the internet have been inundated with stories and thoughts and feelings, all of it in an attempt to get a handle on what happened. And while several facts have come to the surface — the shooter’s name was Cho Seung-Hui, he was 23 years old, he was an English major, he was a quiet loner described by his roommate as “weird”, he produced some dark writing — I don’t think anyone is any closer to understanding how a person can reach a point where killing that many people is the answer. I’ve been reading the news almost all day, and I certainly don’t.

Earlier today, I emailed back and forth with Levi about the fact that Cho Seung-Hui was a writer, and what that might mean in the face of this, and so I dutifully read things about his writing: Nikki Giovanni expressed concern about his behavior and writing in her class, Cho left behind a manifesto, Cho’s writing was disturbing. I even read his script called “Richard McBeef”. His script reads like something written by an angry boy, but does it indicate what he would later come to do? In light of what’s happened, it might be easier for some to say yes, but to look at it honestly as a piece of writing, I can’t help but think that many, many people write things that are dark and angry and violent. They write about murder, about rape, torture, abuse, war, greed, blood, pain. They may be quiet, antisocial, angry, occasionally belligerent, labeled as weird. They might make other people uncomfortable. They don’t take guns into a classroom and start shooting. So what’s the difference? In the wake of Monday’s massacre, experts have come out and said that Cho perfectly fit the profile of someone who would do such a thing, but the fact that the experts know this now seems to be too little, too late.

Here in this post, I’m supposed to be analyzing Cho’s writing and coming to conclusions about why he did what he did, but I think it’s fair to say it’s a task that’s completely beyond me. I don’t know why, more than anyone else does, but the thing that strikes me — as a writer, as a reader — is that in the age we live in, this age of paranoia and fear and finger-pointing, it’s going to be very important for people to remember that artists are still going to need room to create art. Do I think Cho’s writing was good enough to be called art? No, but as it turns out, that point is moot. Even though I absolutely believe that if people have valid safety concerns after reading something they should tell someone, it is also my hope that the fact that Cho chose to express himself in writing doesn’t restrict the freedom of other people to create, even if what they’re moved to create might make other people uncomfortable.

In the end, I am sorry for what happened and I am sad, and my heart goes out to the families and friends of those who were killed this week. It doesn’t make any sense that something this horrible should happen, and I think that no matter how many facts come out and how much analysis is done in the coming days and weeks, it never truly will. I have quoted this poem before on LitKicks, and I debated with myself about quoting it again, but when it comes down to it, this is the only thing left to say:

We Are Waiting

There are days that haven’t arrived yet,
that are being made
like bread or chairs or a product
from the pharmacies or the woodshops:
there are factories of days to come:
they exist, craftsmen of the soul
who raise and weigh and prepare
certain bitter or beautiful days
that arrive suddenly at the door
to reward us with an orange
or to instantly murder us.

–Pablo Neruda

5 Responses

  1. Here’s what I don’t getWhy
    Here’s what I don’t get

    Why MUST we get a “handle” on it?
    Why must we analyze, dissect, stereotype?
    and hype it all up?
    Is it really going to prevent this, or anything
    similar to it, from happening in the future?
    I seriously doubt it will.

    How can you understand or explain something as unexplainable as this?

    This was obviously an orchestrated coup,
    so don’t you think this is what Cho wanted in the first place?
    In my opinion, the media often justifies the means to an end.

    Respect the dignity of those who have died,
    leave their poor families and friends to mourn,
    pray for their peace of mind and hearts.
    It’s all anyone can do now…

  2. Why Indiscriminate
    Why Indiscriminate Shootings…?

    Call me perverse and uncaring, but the thing that bothers me most about these school shootings–Virginia Tech, Dawson College (Montreal), Ecole Polytechnique (Montreal), Columbine, that high school in Taber, Saskatchewan, etc.–is the chosen targets of each shooter. Time was, when a young man (and it’s usually a man) had taken all he could take and cracked up, he went gunning for presidents, politicians in general, justice workers, ‘Big Bossman’, or at least the principal or teacher. Nowadays, the target has shifted to random killings of peers, fellow students.

    Is this the result of our existential, ‘Godless’ malaise here in North America…? Are we witnessing the first truly nihilistic youth responses in keeping with the line of thought that projects from Camus’s famous premise, that the only truly philosophical question one can ask is “Why shouldn’t I commit suicide?” Are these incidents the saddest and ultimate interpretations/expressions of Warhol’s ‘Famous for 15 Minutes’–i.e., importance based on time before the camera, rather than creative accomplishments with an aim to the further building of society? (As early as 1981, sociological studies began revealing that children and teenagers were increasingly less interested in building a career and carving out their little niche in society, and more inclined towards seeking fame for the sake of fame.) Does the fact that we live in a hypocritical Western society, dominated by sex-saturated media, yet, for the most part, still sexually repressed and sexually envious, play a role in all of this…?

    Questions, questions. I haven’t drunk enough coffee yet this morning to warrant further thought and extrapolation….

  3. Reality vs. FictionJamelah, I
    Reality vs. Fiction

    Jamelah, I too have been thinking about the question, how should we react to someone whose writing is dark and violent? Here’s what I came up with.

    I believe in free speech. Many people who are angry or depressed might find release by writing about it. William Burroughs said as much to Jack Kerouac, when Jack asked why Burroughs wrote such awful stuff.

    It really comes down to behavior. Cho Seung-Hui was actually placed under psychiatric care at one point, and was classified as “a danger to himself and others.” Those around him knew something was wrong with him.

    On the other hand, here is Chris Switzer talking about Chuck Palahniuk (who can also create some horrendous scenarios):

    “What I see is a gentle man, soft-spoken and exceedingly polite. He quietly orders coffee, eggs benedict, and a muffin. He offers to pay for breakfast, but I insist on paying the bill. He answers all of my questions with sincerity.”

    When Palahnuik speaks to people, they get to know him. Cho Seung-Hui wouldn’t even talk to people.

    For all of Hunter S. Thompson’s wild reputation, he was actually quite subdued and soft-spoken when I met him. I hear that Stephen King is the same way.

    I know this doesn’t answer the question fully. We still have to deal with people who seem dangerous without violating their rights. It’s tough.

  4. inconceivableTo try and

    To try and rationalize the insane is impossible. If it weren’t for dark and violent writers, we could forget Poe, Tarrantino ( he has written ultra-violent scripts), Bukowski, and too many others to list. The fact is, writing out the dark thoughts for most of us is therapeutic. It prevents one from picking up a gun. I write dark things just to write them, particularly when angry, and the likelihood that much of what I write ever getting read is slim, but I have no intention of ever killing anyone, much less a whole bunch of strangers living fruitful lives that impact so many other lives in so many profound and deep ways just so my work can be read and dissected. The job you consider too difficult for you to interpret is simply too difficult for anyone to interpret. No one, no matter how much they sniff his past or try and understand his pain or his dementia is ever truly going to understand why that kid picked up two guns that morning, or why, tomorrow (the 20th of April) 8 years ago those twisted boys went on a horrific killing spree in Columbine. No one is amply going to be able to honestly figure out why these acts were planned, and how any human being could pull them off without getting physically ill while doing them. Most of us are sane, or at least sane enough to know that human life is more precious than anything else, posterity, vengeance, whatever. The reason that Cho Seung-Hui was free to do these things in the first place is because, even though he displayed signs, there IS no way to tell if and when someone is truly going to snap. If some doctor or person ever truly can decipher who could snap and kill like a crazed monster by simply reading someone’s work, then by all means, we need that person to read everything written by anyone running for high office. There are plenty of politicians, past and contemporary, who make these aforementioned killing sprees look like child’s play.

  5. Concerning the childhoodFrom
    Concerning the childhood

    From the first few pages of his scirpt, the tendency seems to be an emotional outlet for anger or dislike of Cho’s father (or step father), possibly even another relative such as an uncle while using the father/son scenario commonly found in writings of all kinds.

    However dark Cho’s writing may be, i have come to notice on the sixth page, that the play is made up mostly of cliches (son dislikes stepfather, stepfather still tries to connect with stepson, and the big one on page six…watching the parents fight from a viewing point of half way up the stairs), eliminating most of the creative originality the story. However, I must compliment on how realistic the arguments seem at times…almost as if they were confrontations he personally had gone through.

    To comment further on the family, in page seven, the mother seems to be overly hysterical and emotional, unwilling to compromise the stance of the situation for the better, giving thought to origins of Cho’s anger issues mentioned in his video released on the news.

    Moving on to page eight, the sudden transition in the stepfather from aggrivated about not being understood correctly to a scene of sexuality and wanted romance disrupts the flow of the storyline, possibly pointing towards drastic and quick paced mood changes in Cho’s own life.

    In page nine the long rant of repititious nonsense and demeaning psuedonyms for his stepfather are overused to the fullest potential only to end abruptly with a strike… fairly anit-climactic

    In response to this piece being believed as a reflection of Cho, I feel his life was not ruined, ended, or brought to a conclusion because of the people of the world as he mentioned in the video… but rather he was the destruction to himself. If the script reflects Cho and his (step) father, then the problem lied within Cho himself, because he was obviously against coming to any terms with the male parent, regardless of the situation.

    Finaly, to refrain from seeming apathetic, I do feel sorry for all the families who lost loved one’s due to Cho’s majorly flawed relation with society.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!