What does it mean, if anything, that a student, child of Korean immigrants, killed thirty classmates and faculty at a Virginia university while nearby celebrations of the onset of colonialism was taking place?
In April 2007, all the news seemed to be coming from Virginia and was about mass murder, occurring yesterday (400 years ago in Jamestown) and today. I heard no commentary on the coincidence of those bookends of colonialism. Maybe I noticed because I was working on the first chapter of a history of the United States and had colonialism and massacres on my mind.
Jamestown famously was the first permanent settlement that gave birth to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the colonial epicenter of what became the United States of America nearly two centuries later, the colony that in turn gave the United States its national capitol on the Potomac River up the coast. A few years after Jamestown was established, the more familiar and historically revered Plymouth colony was planted by English religious dissidents, but still under the auspices of private investors with royal licenses, accompanied by massacres of the indigenous farmers, just as Jamestown was. This was the beginning of British overseas colonialism, which led to its eventually far more powerful spawn.
343 years after ragged mercenaries set foot on Powhatan territory at Jamestown and began massacring the indigenous farmers and stealing their food crops, the United States invaded Korea, a half-million troops strong, with 30,000 remaining more than a half century later.
The Virginia Tech killings were heralded as the worst “mass killing,” and “worst massacre,” in the United States.
Descendants of massacred ancestors–indigenous peoples, African Americans, Mexicanos, Chinese–took exception to that designation.
But, we know what those headlines meant; they meant the largest number of innocents killed by one armed civilian, although even that’s probably not accurate either, so they really mean with guns and in the last half-century or so, maybe beginning in 1958 with nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather, and his even younger girlfriend Caril Fugate, who killed eleven in Nebraska and Wyoming.
Then, in 1966, there was Charles Whitman up on top of the University of Texas tower, sniping and killing 13, wounding 31 others before being shot by police. Twenty years later, the post office killings began in the quiet town of Edmond, Oklahoma, a few miles from where I grew up, giving rise to a new term, “going postal.” Other workplace killings followed, with around 50 deaths up to now. More recently, school killings have prevailed, some 22 incidents since 1989 in the U.S.
Having lived through all of them, I have been interested in the mass response to each one, ever since Starkweather, who was my age at the time. Each mass killing is followed by an orgiastic chorus of proclamations about a bubble of normality punctured by a sole evildoer. Perhaps the incidents play a role in U.S. society somewhat as Dostoevsky had his character, the “idiot,” play as the member of the family who is weird or evil so that the rest of the family can be perceived or perceive themselves as “normal.” With all the anger and tension we experience and observe daily, it’s a wonder mass killings don’t happen more often, but maybe the mass killer speaks for many and is a preventative.
The Dostoevskian “idiot” is a universal archetype under the patriarchal western family and the triad of family, church, and state. But, there’s more to it than that in the United States. This can be seen from how we react. Some say we react so massively because it’s the 24-7 television and internet that causes us to dwell on such events. But, I recall the Starkweather crime spree from my youth in rural Oklahoma with no television at all and only local papers and local radio, and it didn’t even happen in Oklahoma.
Everyone knew about it, following the news of the killers’ evasion of the massive law enforcement pursuit, fearing the killers’ arrival at their homes.
At the same time the news repelled and terrified me, I harbored curiosity about and perhaps admiration for the teen killer and his girlfriend. I was already successfully “the idiot” in my family, as an invalid with chronic asthma. Sickliness still was considered a character flaw and a weakness in that post frontier rural setting. As well, my childhood bedtime stories were about heroic outlaws–Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Pretty Boy Floyd, Belle Starr, Bonnie and Clyde. They were heroes to many who were inspired by their deeds. I can understand how Cho might be secretly admired.
Cho stated in his suicide message, “I die like Jesus Christ to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.”
Then there’s the factor of the continual reincarnation of the Anglo-Scots outlaw, so pervasive on the North American frontier, often erroneously referred to as a “cowboy.”
But, I think we have to go back to that yesterday in another part of Virginia, Jamestown, the site of the British queen’s visit in April to celebrate the first permanent English colony in the western hemisphere; Vice-President Dick Cheney, in his Jamestown speech commemorating the 400 year anniversary called the birthplace of the United States. Indeed it is, a bloody birth at that.
When Cho went on his killing spree, there was a great deal of news about the 400 year commemoration, especially in Virginia, highly publicized planning for which had been ongoing for a year. Was Cho curious enough to do a search on the internet about Jamestown? (Maybe the FBI knows from studying Cho’s hard drive, but they most likely wouldn’t “get it”) Or maybe Cho just looked at a book, or had taken a history course. Perhaps he saw some pictures of drawings of the Powhatan Indians who were killed by Captain John Smith and his soldiers. Perhaps Cho saw a reflection of his own features in those Powhatan faces, and was reminded of what had happened to his own people, the multiple massacres of Korean civilians in the 1950s U.S. invasion and occupation of his parents’ homeland, the occupation and humiliation continuing today. (I recall stories from Native American vets returning from Vietnam, how they could not bring themselves to shoot when they could see the faces of the people who looked like their relatives.)
Much was made in the press about Cho being Asian, then specifically, Korean, surely touching on those mystic chords of memory of “yellow peril” and Asian wars “lost” by the United States, or not “won” militarily. Yet, there was nothing about the Korean War, 1950-1953, and the ongoing U.S. military presence. Uncountable millions of Korean civilians were killed in the war, many in U.S. military massacres of refugees. Millions of children were left without parents. Cho was not a child of those Korean war orphans stolen by U.S. religious groups, children who grew up in white, middle-American communities not knowing their real names or birth dates or families or villages.
Cho’s parents had immigrated in 1992, when he was eight years old, settling in a Virginia suburb of Washington D.C., where they started a dry cleaning business, sending Cho and his older sister to the best schools. That may sound like the “American Dream” realized, but only if one has never taken notice of the toxic, backbreaking work involved in a family owned and run dry-cleaning operation, with the immigrant parents working themselves to death so their children might have a crack at that putrid dream of consumerism. Cho and his sister were beneficiaries of their parents’ labor to pay for their elite educations.
In his video rant, Cho expressed hatred for the “rich kids” who surrounded him. In U.S. society we are not allowed to hate anyone or anything not designated by the State as the enemy. We are jumped on and accused of “playing the class card” or “playing the race card.”
“The rich are not like you and me.” “The poor will always be with us.” Get real and accept it we are told. It’s toxic thinking. Why should we have to swallow and internalize our righteous hatred of the rich? Hate, yes. The language can be dressed up to it rage or outrage, but, hate is a concept underrated.
Everyone does it, but no one wants to admit it. We are held back and diminished by the claim that hating is bad for us, bad for everyone.
We are told that it’s all right to hate the act but not hate the person. We are allowed to hate wealth or capitalism but not the purveyors. Even in the post-modern intellectual world where “agency” is bestowed upon the poor and oppressed (they are responsible for their actions), the rich remain an abstraction. It’s a ridiculous logic that keeps us hating and blaming ourselves for not being rich and powerful, literally driving people crazy.
Who are the rich? We have to be careful about that, living in a country that does not admit to class relations, and class is subject to little analysis. It’s not a matter of income per se.
High income can certainly make a person dilusional, and most U.S. citizens who live on high fixed or hourly incomes due to circumstances of a good trade union or a professional degree have no idea that they aren’t rich. In polls they say they are in the top fifth of the income ladder, and they aren’t. A majority of U.S. citizens don’t want to tax the rich more, because they think they will be rich one day. They won’t. The rich own not just a mortgaged house and a car, maybe a boat or a cabin in the woods or a beach house to boot; rather they own us. Even the cash and luxury soaked entertainment and sports stars are not the rich; they certainly deserve contempt and disgust, but not hatred. Don’t go for scapegoats–Jews, Oprah, Martha Stewart, or random kids on campus as Cho did. Hatred should be reserved for those who own us, that is, those who own the banks, the oil companies, the war industry, the land (for corporate agriculture), the private universities and prep schools, and who own the foundations that dole out worthy projects for the poor, for public institutions-their opera, their ballet, their symphony, that you are allowed to attend after opening night, and they own the government. My oldest brother, who like me grew up dirt poor in rural Oklahoma, landless farmers and farm workers, rebuts my arguments by saying that no poor man ever gave him a job.
That says it all. The rich own you and me.
In all the arguments about the crimes of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions, rarely is their greatest crime ever discussed–the leveling of class, rich and poor are the same in god’s sight. What a handy ideology for the rich! The same with U.S. democracy with its “equal opportunity” and “level playing fields,” absurd claims under capitalism, but ones held dear, even by liberals.
When rampages such as Cho’s occur, my first thought is not why, rather why not more often. What do we do with the anger, the rage? Violence in the United States is usually associated with the narrative of the frontier having hardened the society, creating the killer, the “cowboy,” all that is bad, a direction taken away from the rational Puritans and the wise Virginians who did all they could to get along with the Indians. But, that’s a lie; the killing began at the beginning and the purpose was to eradicate the inhabitants of North America, to take their land, and to replace them. There is no redemption in exorcising the “cowboy” or firearms.
Such probing as this is said by some to justify or rationalize individual violent behavior, and in a way it does. But, the alternative, to name it evil, is not helpful, nor is blaming guns, freedom, lack of mental health counseling. Why not seize the opportunity to explore what we have in common with the culprit, explore his humanity, rather than vilify him? Some say that any time or effort spent trying to understand does a disservice to the victims and their families. That kind of thinking has strangled and suppressed even studies of history, such as the holocaust. Whose interest is served by shutting down discussion of motives and circumstances, and, particularly, history? One is not alleging lack of criminal intent or behavior, but what made it possible? Wouldn’t this be an appropriate moment to at least acknowledge the pathological celebration of colonization in Virginia at the time of the shootings, and the war and continuing occupation of Korea as a possible cause for Cho’s decision?
As a child during the Korean War, I sold Veterans of Foreign Wars crepe paper roses. Several young men in our rural farming community were drafted and came home wounded or not quite right in the mind. One of the boys who returned sat with my brother and me and our cousins and told us about Korea. He told us how, poor as we were, how lucky we were in comparison with the Koreans.
“They’re lucky to eat a spoonful of rice once a day,” he said. Then he told us about going through a small village and seeing an old man die of starvation right in front of him, and said a tapeworm came out of his mouth. His story made us feel lucky to be free Americans fighting communism, proud of our country for helping others. He later blew his brains out with a shotgun, but he didn’t take anyone with him. Maybe he had a conscience.
Video games portraying violence and casual killing are blamed for leading young men like Cho to act out in reality. But what about the virtual real war that has saturated the brains of everyone since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and subsequent war in Iraq? From age 17 to his death at 23, Cho, like the rest of us, had a head full of pictures of licensed killing and torture. His highly functional sister, a Princeton graduate, works as a contractor for the U.S. State Department’s management of the Iraq War. Which of the actions of the two were more destructive?
This essay is excerpted from There is a Gunman on Campus edited by Ben Agger and Timothy W. Luke, from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ is a longtime activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles she has published two historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), and Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 19601975 (City Lights, 2002). She is a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland, edited by Josh Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair. She can be reached at: email@example.com