This is the young man who shot 32 people dead, then shot himself, and injured many more. His name was Cho Seung-Hui. He was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States with his mom, dad and sister in 1992, when he was eight years old. The family had a sponsor in the U.S., probably a relative, when they immigrated. He was a permanent legal resident of the U.S. His home was in Centreville, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and his folks supported the family by running a dry cleaning business. Neighbors say they were nice people, hardworking. He had a sister who attended Princeton. He was quiet, liked to play basketball.
He was an English major whose writings and work were sometimes disturbing, troubling, to the point that at one point, his profs had referred him to Virginia Tech’s counseling service.
Emily Hilscher and Ryan “Stack” Clark, the first to be murdered.
Although early news reports speculated that the young woman student Cho first shot, Emily Hilscher, above, was a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend, more recent reports say she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that there was no connection between she and Cho. Cho shot Hilscher first, then Ryan “Stack” Clark, above, a resident advisor who was in Hilscher’s room, responding to reports of an outsider in the residence hall.
Cho went to his room then. At some point, he wrote a suicide note in which he railed against “rich kids,” “debauchery,” “deceitful charlatans” on campus, and in which he blamed others for “forcing” him to kill. According to some reports, Cho had recently behaved in ways which were menacing and violent, including setting fire in a dorm room and stalking women. He had been medicated for depression. When he died the words “Ismail Ax” were written in red ink on the inside of one of his arms.
Emily Hilscher was a freshman, which would mean she was 18 or 19, in all likelihood. She was studying to be a veterinarian and had worked at a local vet’s office during the summer. She loved animals and horses and went horseback riding. She was known as “Pixie” on Myspace; there’s a certain sadness in what is written there. She didn’t update her page often.
“Stack” Clark was a month away from receiving a bachelor’s degree in May and had pursued a triple major in English, Psychology and Biology with the goal, ultimately, of a graduate degree in psychology. He played in the school band, was friendly, charismatic, and was deeply respected by those who knew him. He had a twin brother, Bryan, and a sister, Nadia,
After penning his suicide note, Cho went to Norris Hall, chained the doors from the inside, so no one could leave the building, and went through the building, shooting people methodically– professors, students, staff people. Most of the students he shot were in a German class. Finally, he shot himself.
Among those killed were Juan Ramón Ortiz, 26, a graduate student from Bayamón, Puerto Rico, Daniel Perez Cueva, 21, of Peru studying international relations, Caitlin Hammaren, a sophomore and international studies and French major, Jarrett Lane of Narrows, Virginia, a senior and civil engineering major, Henry Lee of Roanoke, Va., a freshman and computer engineering major, Leslie Sherman, a sophomore and history and international studies major; and Reema Samaha, a freshman from Centreville, Virginia.
Four faculty members died, that have been reported so far:
- German professor Christopher James Bishop, 35, known for his gentle manner and signature long hair;
- Engineering professor Liviu Librescu, 75, a Holocaust survivor who had emigrated from Israel and a 22-year veteran of Virginia Tech. Librescu had confronted Cho when he tried to enter his solid mechanics classroom, attempting to hold the door shut to give students time to jump out the windows.
- Kevin Granata, one of the nation’s top five researchers in biomechanics. His life work had been trying to crack the code of cerebral palsy. He was a professor of engineering science and mechanics.
- G.V. Loganathan, 51, born in the southern Indian city of Chennai. He had been at Virginia Tech since 1982. He won several awards for excellence in teaching, had served on the faculty senate and was adviser to about 75 undergraduate students.
People scramble to make sense of the killings. Based on my reading so far, as is true of most violence, most murder, there is no sense to be made. Murders, whether they are legal and have the blessing of empire, as in war, capital punishment, police shootings, and other acts of government sanctioned terrorism, or illegal, meaning whatever governments don’t order, authorize or sanction, are about the exercise of power, about brute force, about rage and resentment, spite, vindictiveness, fear, hatred, needing to be in control, needing the last word, needing the final say, even at the cost of one’s own life.
It enrages and pains me to read the bigoted, racist responses to the murders, that the murders made sense because Cho was from a “communist” country (as one commenter attempted to comment), or that the “Ismail AX” written on Cho’s arm indicated he must be an “Islamic terrorist.” There’s no reason to believe or even consider that, unless someone hates Muslims. “Ismael” or “Ismail” or “Ishmael” is a figure common to three religions which share certain holy books: Christians, Jews, Muslims. Cho could have used that word or imagery for any number of reasons.
There are no clues in the sex or race of the murdered persons; they are of all races, all ethnicities, both men and women. One, like Cho, was South Korean. And yet, understandably, a spokeswoman for the 500 Korean and Korean-American students at the 26,000-student Virginia Tech expressed fear of retaliation. South Korean diplomats are on their way to Virginia Tech and have expressed grief and unbelief. There has never been a known school shooting in South Korea, and private ownership of guns is banned there.
Our reactions and responses bring our weaknesses, racism, bigotry, and deep and grievous failings into stark relief. We stampede to point fingers, to blame “Islam” or “Islamic terrorists,” or “immigrants,” or “South Koreans,” or “Asians,” or the university for failing to prevent, or limit, the tragedy, or police, or violent television or video games. We point out that it was said of Cho that he was that most anathematized and despised of young American men, the dreaded “loner,” read: “loser,” read: “not like most,” read “other” and therefore eligible to be demonized and forgotten. We wonder whether Emily Hilscher was his girlfriend; a man killing his girlfriend or ex-girlfriend is, after all, however tragically and horribly, something at least we all understand, it is something familiar to us which makes a certain hideous “sense”. We cast around. Both Cho and Clark were English majors and seniors; did they know one another? Had they had words, conflicts? Did the “loner” Cho resent the respected and “charismatic” Clark? Enough to shoot him? We rush to blame somebody — anybody — so as to delay the day of reckoning which thoughtful and honest people among us know must come if there is to be any reason for us, as Americans, to have hope. In fact, our country, America, is a violent and racist nation, sick with power. We have been a people obsessed with pioneering and perfecting the theory and practice of wars, small and large, of might making right. Our history is a history of seizing, taking, and killing because we could. Our young men are born into and come of age in this sharkfeed of a milieu, and, whether legally or illegally, whether state-sanctioned or outlawed, most of them inevitably, in small or large ways, practice the terrorism they have experienced and known, which has been preached and modeled to them in a thousand different ways over all of their lives.
My heart goes out to the mothers, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, of the dead in particular, including the mother and sister of Cho Seung-Hui. He was a little boy once in his mother’s arms, smiling, playing, smart and promising. She devoted her life to cleaning the clothes of the comparatively wealthy to give him the best chance she could give him in life. She gave all she had.
As to you fathers, leaders, patriarchs, manly men throughout this United States: there will be more and more Chos and gangs of Chos and armies of Chos and nations of Chos so long as the search for someone other than you, yourselves, to blame continues. You’re the men. These young men are no anomaly. These are the sons you have raised.