The Republic of T.

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No Sympathy for the “Devil”?

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I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was actually kind of encouraged when I viewed the slideshow that accompanied this New York Times article about the the VA Tech shootings and the life of gunman Cho Seung-Hui, and saw the photo above with the following caption.

A stone remembering Cho Seung-Hui is included in the memorial to his 32 victims on the campus of Virginia Tech.

After my previous posts on the different ways we can choose to view this tragic event, that someone at VA Tech or in Blacksburg actually thought to include Cho in the memorial — actually took the time and effort to bring the stone to the memorial and place it where it was, to write his name, and leave flowers — was maybe a sign that at least some people were reaching beyond simply labeling Cho “evil” and separating him from the rest of humanity (safe in the knowledge that “he” is not “us” not is he of “us” or from “us”).

Alas, I was wrong. The stone was later removed.

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A stone set out for Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui in a memorial for all 33 people who died in last week’s shooting rampage disappeared overnight before classes at the traumatised campus resumed on Monday.

The two-kilogram granite block, one of 33 set out in a semi-circle and piled with flowers, letters and mementos was still part of the tribute at the campus centre late on Sunday, but had vanished by the time school reopened.

… Left behind on Monday in Cho’s position at the memorial were a pile of wilting roses and carnations, burnt-down candles and days-old letters forgiving Cho and expressing sympathy with his family.

“Seung Hui, I hope that if I ever meet someone like you, I will have the courage and strength to reach out,” said one signed David.

‘You have not broken our spirits’

“We forgive you because we’ve been forgiven,” offered a Christian who signed only MEQ.

“To the family of Cho Seung-Hui: We know that you are hurting too,” said another.

But one letter to Cho, whose angry, hateful and violent pictures and statements that were shown on television after the massacre, was more defiant.

“Cho: you greatly underestimated our strength, courage and compassion. You may have broken our hearts but you have not broken our spirits,” wrote a person who signed “Erin T”.

Maybe it’s just too much to expect, after something like this, with the grief, anger, confusion and even guilt that some people — especially those who experience the violence firsthand and/or lost friends and love ones that day — that people would even be capable of viewing events in a larger context and asking some difficult questions; the answers to which might require us to change. But I think failing to do so makes it more likely that this tragedy will fade into memory, few questions will be asked, and little change that might prevent the next shooting will actually happen.

As long as Cho remains “evil” in our eyes — instead of a human being, like us or someone we know, who chose “evil” actions — we’re justified in not feeling “sympathy for the devil.” But, as Zuzu points out, people with mental illness (and it’s now pretty widely thought that Cho had some kind of mental illness or disturbance, even if no one agrees on what it was) are human beings, like us or someone we know.

What mentally ill people do need is treatment and access to medical care. People who don’t have insurance don’t usually have the luxury of seeing a therapist; even if they manage to do that, paying out-of-pocket for medications is not easy. People need to be able to see a therapist without being branded “crazy.” Those who are severely mentally ill and who also lack resources need help and empathy, not scorn. Mental illness needs to be seen as it is — a continuum in which there is no clear line between “mentally ill” and not, and where many (even most) types of mental illness are treatable and manageable. The face of mental illness is the ranting homeless man on the corner, but it’s also a member of your family, a friend, a co-worker. If people like Beth actually want to combat mental illness, they wouldn’t promote locking up any person who showed signs of it — they’d promote a universal health care system that would give all people the medical care they need, and they’d make efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness so that people would actually be receptive to that care.

This is something that I take very personally. A close member of my family is living with an untreated mental illness — untreated largely because mental illness is so stigmatized that she doesn’t want to admit that she has one and needs care. She isn’t violent, and she does not have the kind of illness that is thought to be violence-related. But she is deteriorating. And while I wish — really, really wish — she would take medication, I do not think she needs to be locked up if she doesn’t. She is a person who deserves the basic human right to not have medical care forced on her.* Her mental illness does not render her sub-human. And I don’t think it helps her when people like Beth rant about “locking up the crazies.”

Prometheus also writes about having a family member with a mental illness.

I know what it’s like to have a mentally ill relative become explosively violent when you have had no warning. And I know what it’s like to watch someone descend slowly into irrationality.

This shit ain’t like you never got over your mom taking away your blanky. It’s like

I don’t know what it’s like. I just know it’s a horror to watch slowly and it’s a horror to get hit in the back of the head with. And as a HUMAN I know his family is missing and loving what they knew him to be, while feeling deeply guilty about that fact.

But we can sympathize with them, since their family members haven’t gone on murderous rampages, that separate them from “us.” We can even sympathize with their family members, because they are still human to us. For now.

Or we can step out into the uncertainty of understanding Cho as a human being, one of us, instead of settling for a simple label like “evil”, as this post at Zen Under the Skin suggests.

On a day like today, a week after this terrible tragedy, I wonder. I wonder if we will look at what happened and count thirty-three casualties of this incident. I wonder if we can summon compassion for a murderer.

I am not excusing or glossing over what Cho Seung-Hui did. It was the terrible act of a disturbed individual who lacked coping skills. I’m wondering about the wisdom in framing this incident in the stark monochromes of black and white. I’m wondering if viewing this through an us vs. him lens will get us anywhere. If these tragedies tell us anything, perhaps they tell us that we are not disconnected. There is no “that’s his problem.”

…I, with the world, am still processing this. But I don’t believe we can throw away Cho Seung-Hui like the garbage we set at curbside, pitch down a chute or toss in a dumpster. He was a human being with a heart, a troubled heart, and a family who (I would imagine) is equally devastated.

I’ve said it already, and I’ll say it again. As long as we look at guys like Cho and the violence they unleash on the innocent as being completely divorced from ourselves and our culture, we’ll keep seeing them, we’ll keep burying their victims, and we’ll keep trying to forget them. At least until the next one grabs our attention, and we fall back on anger and denial. And eventually forget once again. Until the next time.


  1. A Greek Orthodox nun, who ministered to sex workers in SF, once told me that we must look directly at the things that break God’s heart and allow them to break our hearts as well. From this, we gain compassion. There is no doubt in my mind that God’s heart is broken not only by the terrible rampage committed by Seung-hui but also by the anguish which led him to it. By consigning Seung-hui to the role of “the devil”, we do ourselves a great diservice. Compassion means compassion for all, not just the people whom are easy to love.

  2. While my heart breaks for Cho, it’s understandable to me that some will need to experience their anger on their own terms.

  3. I have compassion for Cho Seung-Hui because I believe that I know his real motives. Watching his videos, reading his rants and plays, I saw something that I had experienced. He was trying to destroy the dark side of human nature which isolates us from each other.

    His method made a sick point about the news and society. Issues tend to get ignored until death results.

    I am one of a few people on the internet trying to fight for practical issues involving mental illness. A national group called NAMI has been failing to represent people like me, Cho, or others who failed to find real help.

    Respect and compassion are the glue which held society together. Instead fear and
    hedonistic isolation seem to be the new world order. I think that many people see the same basic problem and give it many names. What truly is evil? It is a lack of compassion.

  4. I thought the “story of the year” last year was after the Amish school shootings, when the Amish showed up to comfort the widow of the shooter. Their compassion was so different from the bombastic “sound and fury” that is the routine response to these tragedies.