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April 23, 2007

Virginia Tech Massacre Brings Out the Axe-Grinders


Last week, America once again saw unspeakable tragedy, in a decade that has already seen much too much of it. Cho Seung-Hui, a student at Virginia Tech, opened fire on campus in two separate incidents, killing more than 30 people and injuring dozens more, before turning the gun on himself.

America's reaction has been one of caring, of outrage and of introspection. But we're also seeing an uglier reaction, one that's all too familiar from events past the rush of everyone with a political axe to grind to appropriate the tragedy for their own ideological purposes.

We saw all of this already, of course, with the Columbine massacre, which occurred almost eight years to the day prior to the Virginia Tech killings. Before the 15 dead bodies in that Colorado high school were even cold, virtually every American with a preconceived agenda blamed the incident on his or her most convenient enemy.

Gun control advocates blamed the NRA, while gun-control opponents blamed the lack of guns to use in self-defense. Those who criticize Hollywood, the music industry and video games used Columbine as an argument against . . . Hollywood, the music industry and video games. A theory emerged that the date of the massacre (April 20) indicated a Nazi pedigree for the killers because it was Hitler's birthday, ignoring the more likely explanation that they had chosen the day of the "420" pot-smoking holiday.

Anti-war activists claimed U.S. participation in NATO's bombing of Kosovo at the time gave carte blanche to random violence, even though that intervention was to prevent a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Others, stretching even further, claimed that the impeachment of President Clinton a few months earlier had created an adversarial climate. And in the biggest stretch of all, a member of a Jewish discussion listserv on which I participated argued that Dylan Kleibold, one of the killers, had been given a "poor cultural outlook" because his mother didn't raise him as a Jew.

This mentality hit a low point three years later in Michael Moore's loathsome 2002 documentary "Bowling For Columbine," which started off by arguing how ridiculous it was to blame video games and Marilyn Manson for the massacre, before turning around and blaming it on Charlton Heston, the war in Kosovo, the military-industrial complex and American culture and character in general. The problem with America, Moore's film concluded, was all those damn Americans. (A much better film about Columbine, Gus Van Sant's 2003 drama Elephant, hinted at pretty much all of the above before, smartly, drawing absolutely no "why" conclusion whatsoever.)

So after Blacksburg, history repeats itself again, as everyone with an ax to grind has grinded it once more. 

Both sides of the largely-dormant gun debate have once again manned their battle stations, with both sides losing sight of the likely fact that neither universal gun ownership nor a complete ban on firearms would be likely to put an end to mass murders, or even murder in general.

But that's not all: When it got out that the killer was an immigrant from East Asia, it suddenly emboldened America's large anti-immigrant faction (even though Cho was an American citizen and not an illegal alien). And when the mysterious phrase "Ismail Ax" was found to be tattooed on the shooter's arm, all those who feared (read: "hoped with every fiber of their being") that the killer would be a Muslim got their moment in the sun. Never mind that the phrase has yet to be explained, that there is nothing whatsoever in Cho's background that suggests anything Islamic, or that he compared himself to Jesus in some of his writings.

By the end of the week, the story shifted focus, as it usually does, to the media. At issue mostly has been NBC's decision to broadcast videos and photographs that Cho sent them prior to his death. Whether the network was right is certainly questionable, although I tend to believe the content was newsworthy and therefore suitable for broadcast.

And I don't get the idea that such a thing "rewards" the killer. First of all, he's dead, and he never even saw it. Secondly, is anyone really going to react to this by saying "Gee, I wasn't going to go on a massive killing rampage, but now that this guy did and he got on TV, maybe I will"? Of course not.

The sad thing is that mass killings are like terrorism in that there is no legislative or policy prescription that could eradicate it permanently.

The blame for the killings at Virginia Tech last week should fall squarely on the shoulders of Cho Seung-Hui, not guns, not lack of guns, and not the war in Iraq or George Bush or Bill Clinton or Don Imus. It is best to keep the focus on those who died and remember them not to use the tragedy as a jumping off point to make a political argument.


2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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