Thoughts on the Virginia Tech Shootings
In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, “Bardo of Waking Life,” Richard Grossinger surfaces the uninspected context and meanings of America’s latest mass killing.
by Richard Grossinger
1. No clarity or usefulness comes from concluding Cho Seung-Hui was evil or deranged. Empathy is the sole path of insight. It is not a matter of condoning his acts, yet feeling the pain and ardor the drove them is to begin to understand what happened as well as the first step toward healing the wound and preventing the next such eruption.
The pop psychotherapy conducted throughout the media in the aftermath of the shootings was uniformly dreadful, although probably at the level of the bureaucratic psychotherapy conducted in the facilities to which Cho was “committed” by the court for treatment—no thoughtful analysis, no emotional transference, just grad-school taxonomy leading to categories of behaviorism, then the requisite drugs. He was juiced with the anti-depressants and other factory drugs that the medical sector routinely dispenses to people as if they were the pill equivalent of “ideas” with literal vectors. These chemicals have manifold and unique consequences in each psyche, few of which doctors and pharmacists gauge or comprehend. Everyone’s depression is not the same; even the chemistry of everyone’s depression is not the same. Mix a cocktail of ideas, molecules, and paranoid fantasies and you get the voodoo you deserve.
Therapy works only when there is transference, when you experience the mad person as yourself, not as a fucked-up other. Then both of you recognize each other, have a minor epiphany, and change. But to name a condition is to dismiss it. To apply one academic category or another to a mass killer is to evade the relationship between his passion and the passion of all of us, to break communion and lose the human link that alone gives our shared lives meaning.
Cho’s Centreville neighbor, Abdul Shash, was actually a better therapist than the talking heads when, in response to the gunman-to-be’s legendary evasion of people as well as his lack of response even to greetings and comments directed right at him, observed: “He was like he had a broken heart.” If Cho had been treated with a morsel of good will or compassion for his broken heart, none of this would have happened. As he himself told us posthumously, ‘You had your chances, more than enough of them.’
Looking scrawny and talking funny causes the bullies in the schoolyard to claw at you until you are an emotional basket case. Being laughed at and picked on relentlessly is no incidental matter. It becomes your whole world. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris set the rules of engagement for the “school daze” of the future in our overprivileged, heedless, gun-worshipping land. If you are mocked long enough and effectively enough, you are going to make someone pay, whatever the cost to yourself.
The same rules hold on the mean streets of West Oakland or any similar ’hood: dis someone, even accidentally, and you get blown away.
2. The availability of guns is a huge part of the problem, and the crisis is so deep-seated by now that it cannot be remedied by even the most stringent gun-control measures. Small weapons are imbedded in the American psyche far too profoundly to extricate them in any simple manner. A self-righteous “gun attitude” has implanted itself in our national character.
The real danger of guns is not even their availability but their independent dominant role in general American consciousness and the types of fantasies that breeds. Guns create imagination: people begin thinking like guns. The symbolic coronation of these objects as transcendent signs above the law spawns motivations and acts such that soon enough guns become acts rather than responses to acts. I haven’t fired a pistol since around age nine at the Camp Chipinaw rifle range, but gun imagery sometimes floods my mind. When I feel rage at public figures, I vividly picture assassinations of them by long-distance snipers and invisible horsemen riding into Washington—my thoughts eroding into attacks by proxy bang! bang! and swift, hard bullets. Simple linear machines rather than complex acts of confrontation and transformation become natural vehicles for ideation of our rage (as well as our chimerical safeguard from the class war and general alienation simmering beneath the surface of our society).
Guns have been made into not only icons but magic wands, religious fetishes. To many loyalists, they are extensions of their own bodies, their alter egos and their best friends, the basis of their security and self worth, the entire Bill of Rights. No wonder we have the foreign policy we do. As American as apple pie, Stokely Carmichael called it way back in Vietnam days: it is our way of life.
In somewhat the same sense as India is the cradle of Buddhism, France the birthplace of existentialism, America deeds the world “gunnology,” a living philosophy whereby people arm themselves promiscuously, fear strangers, suspect their own neighbors, imagine every possible home invasion and crazed attack, and never, despite two oceans and thousands of nuclear weapons, feel safe. Gunnism is our Marxism: not philosophy from barrel of a gun but the gun itself as philosophy. What else could you think when a guy in Ohio steps out of his home and shoots dead a next-door teenager because he is trespassing on his treasured lawn? People dole out “being and nothingness” from their private slot machines as if they were tinhorn Sartres or Ben Franklins.
If guns could have somehow been outlawed here in the European fashion before they were cathected into sacred objects, the entire NRA culture and its needless shootings and accidents might have been derailed before it got going. Now too many people own too many guns for there to be any practical method to start taking them away. The symbolic “gun” is too widespread and familial to eliminate or curtail it. We have a better chance of resolution at the other end—a national shootout rather than of a prohibition.
The gun lobby probably makes the wrong point when it declares its primo reason why law-abiding citizens should not be deprived of their sidearms: then only criminals and wackos will have guns (since these kinds will disobey the law anyway). I don’t think the Cho Seung-Huis of the world arm their apocalyptic fantasies with guns unless we make it super easy for them. Put a few curves in his way and Cho probably continues to brood darkly, at least for a lot longer until something gets in his way or he stumbles into an unlikely romance (hopefully not out of “Bonnie and Clyde”). Advertise guns on billboards and flood the culture with images of violence and shooting, over and over and over, and you write the textbook for acting out malice and vengeance.
Anyway, the present law, or lack thereof, is the worst possible outcome. We might as well see through the logical consequences of the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment: require everyone to pack guns. Make it a law that no one goes out the door unarmed, no one keeps a gunless home. That will deter crimes and mass shootings and rid us of the false piety of gun ownership. Force us all to arm ourselves and then we will be safe from our fantasies. If the point is to represent conflict in weaponry, let’s do it.
3. Guns in stores, as noted, are the icing on the cake, a permission to make revenge fantasies real. Yet it is the creation of maudlin death dramas in movies, television shows, video games, rap music, and the news itself that fosters the use of guns and suggests the possibility of making symbolic acts real. The culture is actually goading its marginal people into deeds to redeem their alienation—just more collateral damage under free-market capitalism. Plus, these same marginal people are overwhelmed by reality games, coolness competitions, epidemic sexual provocations, every imaginable form of violence and debauchery, as well as random violence and the permission-to-violence of Bush international foreign policy. When Cho Seung-Hui used the word “debauchery” to describe the dominion he was rebelling against, he was uncannily correct. The jihadists refer to us similarly when they come at us as suicide bombers. Each party, however exclusive, is making the same point: if America wants to turn its moralism into military acts, it will get a version of the same back.
4. Cho Seung-Hui was sleepwalking for most of his twenty-three years in a body on the earth. He needed to wake himself up somehow, and he knew it. Inside his trance, a fantasy world got larger and larger, as his sleep was aggravated by daily intrusions, and then it exploded.
The front-page headline and sub-headline in April 22’s Sunday New York Times read: “Before Deadly Rage Erupted, A Lifetime Consumed by a Troubling Silence: A Loner Becomes a Killer.” This cliché-ridden nutshell discounts the situation. Cho wasn’t just silent; he was supernaturally silent. His was not a silence of mere shyness and meekness; it was the silence of the wolf-child, abandoned by humans, raised by animals in the wild without speech—except he was a wolf-child weaned in a cacophony of languages, cultures, and social aggressions and competitions. He became the one who wouldn’t comply, who wouldn’t put himself into words, who was struck dumb, who was rendered profoundly speechless. Thus he became the alembic for all that was exploding around him; he took it inside himself day by silent day, converting it into the crude inarticulate emotion of which it was made. Language merely dilutes and dissipates that kind of libidinal purity.
The Times refers to “the mystery of who he was,” adding that his parents hoped that college would “extract him from his suffocating cocoon and make him talk.” That it did.
Cho didn’t speak in Korean as a child in Seoul before the family moved to America at age eight. He didn’t speak in Detroit or the suburban D.C. community of Centreville, Virginia, in either Korean or English, both of which were blabbed widely there. Instead he played video games and shot baskets solitaire, responding, if at all, with a requisite, ironical “Yessir.” In grade school when he was forced by pedagogical authority to test “English as a second language,” a sound came out from him in such an unexpected deep-throated voice that the other kids erupted in laughter and hooted at him. The teacher didn’t calm or chide; she merely smirked. Then he stopped speaking altogether. His lifelong oath of silence became much more sacred than just another namby-pamby vow.
But make no mistake: he wasn’t speaking from the get-go as a child in Korea; his silence was an epistemological statement on the planet and the world-age he was born into, a statement that many others could have made as eloquently but for which he was inexplicably chosen, or chose himself.
It got to the point in college where he was a cipher; his room-mates couldn’t remember him saying a single thing all year. They remember an Oriental in sunglasses with a baseball cap pulled down over his face. At one point they bet on whether he was a deaf mute, and one of them offered him $10 just to say hello. You can imagine how well that went over.
What those around him should have realized was that this was not just a standard silence; it was an extraordinary silence, the silence of madness and apocalypse, and its bearer should have been treated with about the same caution and deference as a rabid wolf or a lunatic about to be armed with two guns. His silence was the antecedent and also the rudiment of a cosmic rage that should have been just as terrifying and diagnostic to those who came into contact with it as the actual guns into which it materialized and as which it finally spoke.
When Cho made his videos and released them by mailing them to NBC, it marked the end of his silence. When he broke the fast, words just spewed out in fast, staccato rhythm—they were the primitive unspoken articulations that had been gestating in him silently in place of language. They were not quite what they said but rough translations of that silence into pop speech. They didn’t sound quite real; they were very strange indeed. People who knew Cho later remarked, variously, that the figure before the camera didn’t seem like him because they had never heard him speak that much before, so it was astonishing to hear sentences actually shooting out of him.
Cho must have thought some version of the same as he made the videos, which is why they were so important to him that he had to gun down 32 people as an adjunct to their act: to make sure his declaration was heard in the way he intended it. The tapes weren’t the aftermath of the massacre that preceded and followed his mailing; they weren’t even its explanation—they were the deed. The shootings were mere gloss, the footnote. That is why he took two hours in between the first two killings and the last thirty—he was crafting an act of speech, not murder. But murder was the only thing that allowed him to use his voice.
Extraordinary silence creates extraordinary speech. But speech can never be extraordinary enough, so deeds are often necessary to punctuate it, to render it true. “This is someone that I grew up with and loved,” said his uncomprehending Princeton-educated sister who worked for the State Department. “Now I feel like I didn’t know this person.”
She thereby hints at why it was necessary for him to do more than just speak his mind at last. He had to justify and redeem the years of silence; he had to convert them into something worth their price. He had to unleash not just some shrill or angry voice but his own precise silence—to let it speak, to honor it for what it was.
In the universe of Seung-Hui Cho, this was the monumental moment, and he rose to its occasion.
No, it was never first about guns and killing and violent deeds toward anonymous classmates; it was about the Word, as “In the Beginning was….,” about the origin of society itself, the nature of language and public discourse in America, and the long-incubated desire of the zombie god of speech to force people to actually listen and regard the foolish words they are mouthing all day long, everywhere and everyone. Cho was his disciple, and through him he managed to get out a semblance of his message.
Listen not to the words themselves, which are stock and random, but the cadences. The words are mostly meaningless and often misnomers, dead wrong and delusional. The cadences are always right: “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience…. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs….. You had everything…. You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”
There were a hundred billion chances to avoid what happened. The music of that is perfect. It is the music of failed redemption, of desperate vindication, of insensate revenge. It echoes far beyond Cho Seung-Hui’s own life and circumstances, to the far reaches of American decadence into the White House itself. No wonder Cho said he did it for his brothers and sisters and children, that he cited Columbine and Christ and the President. If you are composing a requiem, you have poetic license; you can speak in metaphor and allusion.
“You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.” How many heckled youths have thought more or less the same? But it wasn’t Jesus Christ he was becoming; it was Timothy McVeigh and Mohammed Atta.
“I didn’t have to do it. I could have left. I could have fled. But now I am no longer running….” Not the words—the cadences.
5. I don’t think it is irrelevant that his mother, Kim Hwang-Im, was a refugee from North Korea whose family slipped across the border during the Korean War. North Korea is the great subliminal cipher of our planet that “speaks” for the rest of what passes for a rational civilization. His father, Seung-Tae Cho, was an oilfield construction worker migrating back and forth to Saudi Arabia before coming home finally to an arranged marriage.
God knows what shadows yet brew within our shiftless and spiritually vacant global Kali Yuga when time and space begin to collapse and the black holes of astrophysical cosmology come to dwell in human souls.
6. Cho’s fantasies, tropes, lies, and inventions were both clues and calls for help. His “girlfriend,” a supermodel named Jelly from outer space, visited him by flying saucer. She called her boyfriend Spanky.
There were the female students on whom he fixated on, two of them fiercely and disturbingly enough with unannounced visits and instant messages (under the screen name SpankyJelly) that they reported him to the campus police.
There was his other name for himself: Question Mark, a signature he used on school forms: ?. Even he didn’t know.
He boasted of having a villa on Mars and traveling regularly from there to Jupiter. To communicate that tidbit, he must have spoken occasionally, though what he said was the antithesis of speech—and was meant to be.
He claimed to have grown up with Vladimir Putin in Moscow and said he was meeting him in North Carolina to hang out during Thanksgiving break, a proposition so absurd and unlikely that it could have only been a lucid statement of an entirely different thing.
The hallmarks of his one-act plays Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, now immortalized in the literature of crime and madness, are incest, sexual violence, domestic brutality, and murder by chainsaw. Yet by all accounts his own family was gentle and intelligent—his sister is testimony.
7. This wasn’t another al-Qaeda strike on our shores, but it was a suicide attack—an explosive, aggrandized, fuck-you response to perceived oppression and powerlessness at the same time as a prudish reaction against the materialism and gaudy exhibitionist sexuality of the West by someone ashamed of his own fantasies. Cho was going to obliterate himself and as many of them as he could before he too became one of them and lost the virginity of his rage, before he tarnished the purity of his persecution by becoming an asshole too.
He was saying, “I want to. I don’t want to. I am. I am not.” He humiliated and destroyed in order to refuse to be humiliated and trivialized. Being and not-being are the essential blade on which every philosophy as well as every murder or suicide takes place. Every Palestinian with a belt of incendiaries strapped both symbolically and actually to his abdomen—though most of them are more sane and emotionally mature than Cho—feels pretty much the same thing.
8. If Seung-Hui could have realized that he was truly known to God, or Intelligence, in all his weirdness and differentness and pimpliness or whatever, and was loved nonetheless, he might not have had to hide his name even from himself, might not have had to hide his voice from the world until it became a call to death. I don’t know how that could have come about except through a metanoia to which he was not open, and which nothing around him pointed the way towards:
“Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold O Lord, you know it altogether…. Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me…. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I could count them, they are more than sand. I awake, and I am still with you.”
9. It took a poet, Nikki Giovanni, to intuit what was happening, that they had a radical, satanic madman in their midst, the kind of person who shoots up human gatherings. She wanted him out of her classroom or she threatened to resign. The various therapists, police officers, and university bureaucrats—albeit constrained by a labyrinth of laws—were completely unable to distinguish one more harmless alienated student from a time-bomb on its last ticks. They were so used to idle melodrama, hiphop exaggeration, cinema violence, and Internet loutishness that they couldn’t recognize the real thing if their life depended on it.
And from here on in, it sort of does.
Great article! I loved the part about guns being the new articles of religious fetish, how true.
I knew a kid like that in my highschool, and although he wasn’t totally silent, and didn’t end up blowing people away, (although there were several episodes I remember involving a knife or a screwdriver) it’s very hard to cut through and reach a person like that, that is somehow determined not to be reached, and somehow creates a lot of their own self-imposed victimhood, as a means of imagined self-glorification. Deluded Martyrdom.
Maybe in this case it was all he knew to do. And that is what is to terribly sad.
Posted by Chandira
on 07/31 at 11:05 AM
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