He was an ‘us,’ not a ‘them’
WHAT IF YOU don’t have anything in common with your brother? What if you live on different continents? What if you’ve never even met the man? Are you still his keeper?
In a diverse nation such as ours, there is always that expectant pause after a major violent tragedy, between the moment we hear the news and when we’re told who did it. In that time, we tend to look around the proverbial room and wonder from which group the perpetrator came. Last week, the point of origin was South Korea, and Seung-hui Cho’s ethnic “brothers” in Asia and the U.S. grappled with their relationship to him.
Of course, a murderer’s ethnic, religious or racial background is relevant only if he is acting on what he thinks is a tribal imperative -- like the Armenian teenager who gunned down the Turkish consul in L.A. in 1982, or the 2001 plot by Jewish Defense League leaders to bomb the office of Arab American Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista).
But even when ethnicity or race add little to the understanding of motive, there is still the “need” to know. It’s scary to think that everyone and anyone is capable of murderous rage. So if the bad guy can be pigeonholed based on skin color, origin or class, the fear can be focused, one group at a time.
Such profiling is silly for lots of reasons, not least that we live in a country that exalts individual over group identity. Not long after Timothy McVeigh slaughtered 168 people in Oklahoma City, I caught myself profiling a potential threat outside the Federal Building in Westwood. I saw a working-class, blond white male with a mullet cut running toward the building, and I jumped.
Although I understand the unfortunate tendency to consciously or unconsciously ascribe responsibility by group, I still don’t think governments and ethnic organizations should endorse this sort of stereotyping. After the Virginia Tech killer’s identity was released last week, the South Korean president and many Korean American associations did just that.
Even though 23-year-old Cho was a permanent resident in the U.S., South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun felt obliged to issue at least three messages of condolences for an act that occurred far away from the Korean peninsula.
Here in the U.S., Korean American organizations issued cravenly self-serving condolence statements to the victims of the massacre. In a news release, one organization promised that “the Korean American community will join the efforts of others in tackling the root causes of these senseless school shootings that continue to endanger our children and young adults.” In L.A.'s Koreatown, there was a candlelight vigil held, well, in clear daylight.
Although part of this ethnic reaction is driven by fear of a backlash, South Korea’s famously defensive nationalism also plays a role. Hunkered down in the shadow of China and Japan, South Korea has always felt a need to watch its back.
Ultimately, though, any reaction that reinforces primitive notions of racial or ethnic collective responsibility is headed for absurdity. That includes the scramble on the part of Koreans to express special outrage over the murders, and the mainstream’s desire to move Cho to a convenient margin. Late last week, U.S. news outlets tried to draw connections between Cho’s menacing self-portrait with a hammer and South Korean film director Park Chan Wook’s gory 2005 psycho-drama, “Oldboy.”
But the truth is that Cho was an American kid. He had lived in the United States since he was 8, and he was clearly immersed in the dark side of U.S. popular culture. In his video ramblings, he compared himself to the Columbine killers; he spoke English-major English.
All of us knew Cho, and, like it or not, he was one of “us,” not the ultimately elusive “them.” His horrific crimes are not a reflection on Korean people -- immigrants or Korean Americans -- but rather on the state of our cities, campuses, counties and country. We all were, and are, his keepers.