It had been in the back of my mind, as it always is after another school shooting hits the news. I thought of it for a second when I heard about the Virginia Tech shootings, but I pushed it into the back of my mind. Until yesterday, when a discussion on the LGBT listserv referenced a story about Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter. By then, I’d read his plays, his mental health assessment, and seen his video manifesto, all of which brought up that uncomfortable feeling I’d been trying to repress since Tuesday.
Then I looked at the calendar and remembered what today was.
I was at work that morning, about 10:10 am EST, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began their shooting rampage at Columbine. I wandered down to the conference room with several coworkers and watched the news reports on television. As I watched the video of students running from the school, and heard more and more about Harris and Klebold, I thought to myself, “I know why they’re doing it.”
I identified with them. I didn’t want to, but I did. I didn’t want to identify with Cho Seung-Hui either. But I did. Because though I didn’t know him, I knew something about him.
I don’t know if it’s possible to write this without coming off as excusing Cho or any of the other school shooters, but there’s a common theme that runs through their stories to some degree of another, one that I recognized because it runs through mine too. I suspected it from the moment I heard about the Virginia Tech shootings, and even more when I kept hearing Cho described as a “troubled loner.” But it wasn’t until I sat down and finally read the San Francisco Gate article that I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
Long before he boiled over, Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui was pushed around and laughed at as a schoolboy in suburban Washington because of his shyness and the strange, mumbly way he talked, former classmates say.
Chris Davids, a Virginia Tech senior who graduated from Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., with Cho in 2003, recalled that the South Korean immigrant almost never opened his mouth and would ignore attempts to strike up a conversation.
Once, in English class, the teacher had the students read aloud, and when it was Cho’s turn, he just looked down in silence, Davids recalled. Finally, after the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho started to read in a strange, deep voice that sounded “like he had something in his mouth,” Davids said.
“As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, `Go back to China,'” Davids said.
… Stephanie Roberts, 22, a member of Cho’s graduating class at Westfield High, said she never witnessed anyone picking on Cho in high school.
“I just remember he was a shy kid who didn’t really want to talk to anybody,” she said. “I guess a lot of people felt like maybe there was a language barrier.”
But she said friends of hers who went to middle school with Cho told her they recalled him getting picked on there.
“There were just some people who were really mean to him and they would push him down and laugh at him,” Roberts said. “He didn’t speak English really well and they would really make fun of him.”
I thought of it again when I saw the post on Anderson Cooper’s 360 blog, about Cho’s favorite song, “Shine” by Collective Soul, the lyrics of which he wrote on his wall. I downloaded the song from iTunes and listened to it. It’s seems different from the more violent music Harris and Klebold are said to have listened to obsessively. Especially if you pay attention to lyrics.
Love is in the water
Love is in the air
Show me where to go
Tell me will love be there ( love be there )
Teach me how to speak
Teach me how to share
Teach me where to go
Tell me will love be there ( love be there )
There’s a lot of longing in the lyrics, which I read as a longing for some other reality than the present. But I’m probably remembering songs that I listened to as obsessively when I was living a similar story to the one unfolding about Cho, and that’s already been told about several other school shooters. It’s a story that reminds me how easily I could have been one of them.
I went back to school with a little more confidence, because I knew being gay didn’t mean I was a freak or some kind of defective. I knew there were others like me, and I knew that there were place and people out there that would be accepting, and that I just had to find them.
I also went back with a little more attitude. It must have been sixth grade. It was spring. We were going back inside following recess, which I’d spent sitting alone, reading. I remember this short, fat, bespectacled black kid name Gerald started in picking on me that day; the way I walked, the way I talked, how I was always reading, etc. I suppose, now, that it was a good way to deflect attention away from his own possible flaws. I ignored him for the most part. He was behind me, and his teasing was starting to draw an amused audience. Finally he said it, or rather asked the question. “So, are you a faggot or what?” Without planning to, I whipped around, got right in his face and said “Yeah, I am. What’s it to you?”
And suddenly I was out. There were whispers of “Oh, my god,” and “He admitted it!” I’m sure it was all over school soon after that.
Well, I paid for that moment of empowerment over the next couple of years. From then on, every day was an exercise in physical and verbal harrassment that teachers either didn’t notice or didn’t care to stop. It was daily psychological warfare, and there wasn’t anyone else around on my side. It got pretty bad. I’d get sick thinking about going to school. I’d withdraw as much as possible when I got there. And I’d come home angry and depressed afterwards. Once I expressed a desire to take a gun to school, blow all those kids away, and then use it on myself. My mom heard that, and before I knew it I was sitting in a therapist’s office.
So, I hear stories like Cho’s and think, “There but for…”
But I hear stories like Cho’s and I hear people bend over backwards to avoid thinking about the reality that we, yes I said “we,” keep churning out boys like Cho. It’s something I referenced in the previous post and another before it, that we want very much to look at events like this in a way that absolves us of responsibility and any need to change ourselves.
In this case, we’re absolved of dealing with a society that not only accepts bullying people who are different from “the norm” as a way of life, but that actually celebrates it.
In fact, many schoolyard shooters very consciously saw their massacres as rebellions, however poorly expressed or thought through. Michael Carneal, who slaughtered three students in a high school prayer class in West Paducah, was found to have downloaded the Unabomber’s manifesto as well as something called “The School Stopper’s Textbook: A Guide to Disruptive Revolutionary Tactics; Revised Edition for Junior High/High School Dissidents,” which calls on students to resist schools’ attempts to mold students and enforce conformity. The preface starts off, “Liberate your life — smash your school! The public schools are slowly killing every kid in them, stifling their creativity and individuality, making them into nonpersons. If you are a victim of this, one of the things you can do is fight back.” Many of Carneal’s school essays resembled the Unabomber manifesto. He had been bullied and brutalized, called “gay” and a “faggot.” He hated the cruelty and moral hypocrisy of so-called normal society and the popular crowd. Rather than just complain about it all the time like the Goths he befriended, he decided to act.
And now that the media has started digging up the early life of Cho Seung-Hui, the same pattern emerges. Former classmates of Seung-Hui say he “was pushed around and laughed at as a schoolboy” because of his “shyness and the strange, mumbly way he talked”:
… Luke Woodham, the high school killer in Pearl, Miss., whose murder spree preceded Carneal’s by two months, was even more explicit in his rebellion. Minutes before starting his schoolyard rampage, Woodham handed his manifesto to a friend, along with a will. “I am not insane,” he wrote. “I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. … All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, truly blame me for what I do? Yes, you will. … It was not a cry for attention, it was not a cry for help. It was a scream in sheer agony saying that if you can’t pry your eyes open, if I can’t do it through pacifism, if I can’t show you through the displaying of intelligence, then I will do it with a bullet.”
…The Columbine killers openly declared that their planned massacre was intended to ignite a nationwide uprising. “We’re going to kick-start a revolution, a revolution of the dispossessed!” Eric Harris said in a video diary he made before the killings. “I want to leave a lasting impression on the world,” he added in another entry. And they certainly did leave an impression, including on Cho Seung-Hui, who referred to “martyrs like Eric and Dylan” in his “multimedia manifesto.”
Don’t believe we celebrate bullying? Look at our current government, in which has made it impossible for anyone to say that America does not practice torture. It’s in the way we celebrate and defend people who make light of someone else’s terror. We elect a person who mocks someone else’s death.Look at our culture, and the “reality shows” from “American Idol” to “The Apprentice” to just about any other you can name, whose chief draw is that we get to watch someone like Simon Cowell verbally shred people in front of our eyes, or we get to watch Donald Trump berate someone just before declaring “you’re fired.” And we enjoy it.
I came to the conclusion a while back that meanness sells. Mean is what people want; a great many of them anyway. It was a few years ago, during the first season of Survivor. I never watched the show, because it didn’t appeal to me. Not much of the “reality” genre does. I was visiting friends who were fans of the show, and it was the night of the season finale. So I watched, mostly out of curiosity about what the big deal was. By the end, I vowed never to watch it again, because it seemed like the whole thing was set up to bring out the worst in people, and encourage them to behave badly towards one another.
Then I realized that is what makes the show so popular, because that’s what lots of people want to see. I had only to witness my friends reaction to one of the Survivor contestant’s tirade delivered to the two finalists; a standing ovation. And, of course, the most conniving of the islanders won. (That he was gay, and a nudist is beside the point here.) Now we have more of the same in The Apprentice (which has further popularized the phrase “You’re fired!”), only the jungle has moved from the tropic to the boardroom.
There are other examples, such as The Weakest Link (”You are the weakest link!”), or American Idol’s Simon Cowell, whose acid tongue can reduce young contestants to teas (and we love him for it) that help underscore the point that there’s a huge market for meanness in America. (The big disappointment with Martha Stewart’s Apprentice franchise is that she wasn’t mean enough, and seemed to be keeping her legendary streak in check.) We like seeing people humiliated, and we root for the people who dish it out. They are our heroes, our celebrities, and our leaders.
It doesn’t take an incredible degree of perception, and never has, to see that not so far beneath the surface of George W. Bush’s swaggering cowboy veneer was a pretty significant mean streak. It was plain enough even before it became routine to use the words “America” and “torture” in the same sentence, with very few words between the, and a significant number of Americans voted for him, and did it again four years later when it was even more evident. Only now has it begun to be a bit much for some his former backers to swallow. Only just now.
The truth is, we like bullies. And if that’s putting it a bit to strongly, then at least we don’t mind them much, as long as they’re our bullies, and as long as they’re picking on someone else.
Except that in reality the credits don’t roll as the “loser” disappears from sight and the “winners” are feted. Tune in next week and you’ll see something different in reality, because eventually people snap. And it’s only then that we start talking about bullying and it’s possible negative consequences.
Or, as this comment from the MSNBC message board on the shootings illustrates, we simply declare that it has nothing to do with us.
“Our culpability in this situation, as a society, has been mischaracterized. Where we fell down was not in our lack of coddling this idiot or some misstep in guiding his defective and deviant urges towards more constructive ends. We are a society based on self-sufficiency, and those who are not self-sufficient are intrinsically barred from being full members of our society. Where we fell down was not Cho. We fell down with everyone else in that classroom. We taught them to be cowards, and then told them it was good that they were.”
Translation: We have no obligation to anyone, collectively or individually. Anyone who can’t cut it in the status quo — the weak, the mentally ill, the physically ill, the unpopular, anyone who’s different, and anyone too poor to drive themselves out of the way of a hurricane — deserves whatever they get.
Am I blaming the victims of the VA Tech shooting? No. I’m blaming the guy who picked up the gun and shot them. He did what he did; what he chose to do, but after, hearing about his experience in high school, seeing his videos and reading among his words “You made me do this,” I almost think he was shooting at everyone who’d ever mistreated him, or that he perceived as mistreating him; as well as those who laughed at the bullying, saw it but did nothing about it, or even approved of it.
I’m also saying that we as a people, as a society, have to stop our part in supporting the social systems and conventions that end up creating people like Cho and the others. Or, as Amy Traub said, “our attempt to understand doesn’t end with the casting of moral blame,” but with recognizing that there are things we can do, things we can change about our culture and our society if we choose too, that i help prevent more tragedies like this one. If that’s what we want.
What I remember from being that young and having that experience is that you get a kind of tunnel vision. You believe things are always going to be as bad as they are and you will always feel as bad as you feel. Later, it’s possible to see everything through those lenses (I slip them on myself sometimes, still.), unless there’s someone at some point who will tell you different.
There are signs of hope, though. Apparently, students are promising to “reach out to loners,” in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Amid the bouquets left for the dead on Facebook, Mr. Cho also emerged as a source of fascination. Posters debate whether to pray for him; some even propose singling him or his family out for a particular prayer.
…As masses of mourners assemble at sites like Facebook and MySpace.com — traffic to Facebook increased more than fivefold between Sunday and Monday — a slogan also surfaced. It’s a sign of the times, and has unmistakable poignancy for devotees of social-networking Web sites. It’s simple: “Reach out to loners.”
“AFTER WHAT HAPPENED ON 4/16/07,” read one page. “IM GONNA TALK & REACH OUT TO EVERY LONER.”
Others pledged to smile at people on the street, to greet quiet people and even to visit those who seem isolated.
Yesterday afternoon Pierre-Olivier Laforce, who lists himself as a student at the École Secondaire Donnacona in Quebec, wrote: “let this Shooting teach us all a lesson. The truth is ours … we have a duty to be true to ourselfs. Smile at people you usualy never even looked at… talk to people u hated.”
…Soon after the founding of the “IM GONNA TALK & REACH OUT” board, someone hastily posted a meek note: “But how do you talk to someone like dat… leave sum advice….” There was no reply.
As for the title of this post, I have no instructions. We don’t need them. But if we want to learn how not to create school shooters, we’d better come up with an answer to that last question. And soon.