SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL???
May 2, 2007
So who the fuck was Cho Seung-Hui? Anybody know? It’s been two weeks and we know about as much now as we did then. We know what he looked like. We know he was an English major at Virginia Tech. He was known as the “Question Mark” kid because that’s how he signed in at one of his classes. We know he never said anything, never talked, never smiled and hardly ever took his shades and cap off. We know he wrote macabre stuff for his creative writing classes. He was from South Korea. He had a sister who worked for the State Department. His parents run a dry cleaning business.
And we know that on the morning of April 18th, 2007 he shot 32 people dead and then blew his face off.
Why did he do it? Almost instantaneously the blogsphere lit up with arguments by various people who had an opinion on gun control. The more gun control people were adamant that a kid with a history of psychologically disturbed behaviour should never have been able to buy two guns so easily. The pro-gun people were equally adamant that if the many responsible gun owners had been allowed to carry their weapons onto campus one of them would’ve been able to take Cho out before he did much damage.
The second tier of arguments had to do with America. America the blood-soaked, America: the land of the lone psycho. Blame American, don’t blame America. Germans shoot people too.
The arguments went around guns, guns, guns. America, not America. But why? Why did Cho do it? There, there wasn’t much by way of insight. We still don’t know him. We only know that he and thirty-two other people are dead now. Cho remains the Question Mark kid.
Our first exhibit is from a series of photographs taken by Marina Oswald in March, 1963. One of these photos (not this one) has become famous. The photograph of the man who shot Kennedy holding the rifle he did it with and copies of the magazine ideologically aligned to the political philosophy that inspired him to act. There was speculation that these photographs of Oswald were forgeries a charge denied by Marina Oswald herself. One of the prints sent to a shady acquaintance of Oswald’s George de Morhrenschildt was inscribed on the back (by Marina) with the words: Hunter of Fascists Ha Ha Ha! written in Russian. The much debated Warren Report’s notes on Oswald’s motives for assassinating Kennedy were thus:
It is apparent, however, that Oswald was moved by an overriding hostility to his environment. He does not appear to have been able to establish meaningful relationships with other people. He was perpetually discontented with the world around him.
While I personally have some sympathy with those who question the veracity of the Warren Report I can’t say that Oswald was simply a patsy in the Kennedy assassination. The most believable account of Oswald’s story I’ve encountered thus far comes appropriately enough in fiction.
This is the room of dreams, the room where it has taken him all these years to learn that his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms.
Is he one of them now? Frustrated, stuck, self-watching, looking for a means of connection, a way to break out. After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.
From Libra by Don DeLillo. Viking Press: New York p. 181.
Libra is one of my favourite books. It’s take on the Kennedy assassination is that it is the result of a half-baked conspiracy originally designed to provoke Kennedy into renewing his efforts to oust Castro. The assassination attempt is supposed to fail.
The portrayal of the conspiracy unfolds side by side with the story of Lee Harvey Oswald a lonely kid who joins the Marine Corp, becomes a Marxist, attempts to enter the world of espionage and fails miserably. Delillo’s Oswald is the flipside of the American dream. Oswald’s prime motivation is to be somebody, to be important. His radical anti-capitalism is ironically the product of the capitalist ethos perverted. Oswald defects to Russia tossing in his American passport at the US embassy in Moscow. He tells the embassy receptionist that he’s willing to reveal the secrets he learnt while serving at the USAF base in Atsugi. Later when discussing this with the KGB this is revealed as worse than useless:
“And these secrets, which you’ve carried all this way.”
“I was in Atsugi.”
“Which is a closed base in Japan.”
“We’ll talk further. I wonder, though, if these secrets become completely useless once you announce your intention to reveal them.”
Is Oswald a patsy? Yes and no. As far as the conspirators are concerned he’s a fall guy. Set him up as a Castro sympathizer, have him take a shot at Kennedy but have real marksmen there to do the job proper. Rendezvous in a cinema and shoot him. But Oswald shoots Officer Tippit on the way. The cops nab him. He fucks it up. A patsy? Yes. But a compliant one. He takes a shot at Kennedy and misses. He’s involved.
But I digress. This post isn’t about the Kennedy assassination. It’s about men in small rooms. The second exhibit comes from the closing moments of the twentieth century, lunchtime in a high school cafeteria. Two kids armed with shotgun, Tec-9, Hi-Point carbine. Dressed to kill these kids. What goes on?
Then as now there were the same debates re. guns and American culture. Michael Moore got a hit film out of it. In 1999 the same phenomena: the Time magazine cover, the collective American soul-searching, the condemnation of guns. Klebold and Harris were goth-nerd types the classic stereotypical targets of Jocks in the high school heirarchy. On the 20th of April 1999 they declared open their rampage, stating: “All the jocks stand up, anybody with a white hat or a shirt with a sports emblem on it is dead.”
Much was made of the tyranny of Jocks during the Columbine aftermath. The supposedly Nazi jock Rocky Hoffschneider was mentioned in several articles on the subject. Strangely enough neither Hoffschneider nor any of his friends was killed by Klebold and Harris that day.
Other scapegoats were touted. Video games like Doom; rock stars like Marilyn Manson. Manson was for a short while so associated with Columbine that he wrote a reasonably articulate piece for Rolling Stone in self-defence:
America puts killers on the cover of Time magazine, giving them as much notoriety as our favorite movie stars. From Jesse James to Charles Manson, the media, since their inception, have turned criminals into folk heroes. They just created two new ones when they plastered those dipshits Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ pictures on the front of every newspaper. Don’t be surprised if every kid who gets pushed around has two new idols.
By the end of the year the whole thing had been forgotten. It was time to celebrate the new millenia, time to cross our fingers less the Y2K ‘bug’ should bring civilization crashing down, time to go out and party…
Eric and Dylan who…. ?
There have been massacres since. Ironically the last one at an Amish school of all places. Try as you might to escape the violence of modern society. It seems it’ll find you out.
And then in April again (is there something about April) a terminally lonely kid who barely spoke to anyone kills 32 people at his university. What follows? The same Time magazine cover story. The same collective soul-searching. The same reasons: it was popular culture, it was lack of gun control, it was video games.
But there was something slightly different at work here. Cho’s actions in many ways mirrored those of his predecessors. He prepared for the day buying his weapons well in advance. He dressed for the occasion. But he also took time to record a diatribe on video, to take photographs of himself and to mail these to NBC the morning of the massacre. In addition to the catalogue of images of Cho wielding his guns, Cho holding the hammer, there’s plays by Cho. Poetry even, a novel.
The package from Cho to NBC is now labelled his manifesto.
Cho’s manifesto!!!! A manifesto of what? Read his plays and what strikes you is not the violence which is pretty unremarkable. It’s the vapid stupidity. Perhaps the guy took a long hard look at himself and realised that with such a complete lack of talent his one shot at fame was to shoot someone famous, or a whole lot of people who weren’t famous.
Take a chunk of the ‘manifesto’:
Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat? Do you know what it feels like to dig your own grave? Do you know what it feels like to have throat slashed from ear to ear? Do you know what it feels like to be torched alive? Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon on a cross? And left to bleed to death for your amusement? You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life. Did you want to inject as much misery in our lives as you can just because you can?
Do I know what it’s like to be impaled on a cross, have my throat slashed from ear to ear, be torched alive?
And neither did Cho.
Time magazine ran a series of articles. There was a lot of the classy black and white photography it normally reserves for coverage of Oval office events. The cover featured 24 of the victims’ faces. There were several articles in the issue. General coverage to soul-searching essay. Much the same thing in the local press. The coverage in the Herald-Sun was similar in content tho’ much less classy in tone. A field day! Pages and pages of stuff. Who was this Cho character? Is it guns, is it pop culture. One of Cho’s plays is named after a Guns n’ Roses song. Maybe we should blame Axl Rose.
So much talk and not much said.
During one of the online forums I was making cracks about how Cho’s actions were simply an ambit by the mediocre and plain in the search for fame. Someone reminded me that doing dastardly deeds deliberately to make a name for oneself has ancient precedent. Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis so he would be remembered. In retaliation the authorities banished his name in an attempt to wipe him from memory. Obviously it didn’t work.
In the modern world fame has become the supreme state next to which all states are pale and worthless. Shows like Big Brother are emblems of vacuous fame. Fame for nothing. Big Brother is an annual ritual in which people will exchange their dignity for fame. They do so casually like shallow and spiritless persons selling their souls to the devil for a movie ticket and a bag of peanuts. They got a bargain. What’s a soul? We don’t use it. What’s dignity?
And for Cho and his bretheren what is life?
Marilyn Manson maintains that he started his group as “a criticism of these very issues of despair and hypocrisy.” But he fails to mention that he’s adopted the last name of a celebrity mass murderer. That each member of his band is named after a screen diva and a famous killer. The celebrity of death is the supreme kitsch. Oh how clever and ironic! The spectacle of violence and its irony twists in itself Mandelbrot style. We have Natural Born Killers, we have people copying Natural Born Killers, we have them turning around to sue Oliver Stone because he made Natural Born Killers and Natural Born Killers made them do it. People have committed odious acts in the distant past for fame yes. But has it ever been such a widespread phenomena?
Perhaps in the future mass murderers will be catered to by their own niche in the entertainment business. In the 22nd century equivalent to today’s sci-fi set yuppie bars: “Oh what do you do”, goes the question. And the answer: “I’m a killer rep. Literally. I represent killers: got my own web page. Thinking of topping your school, workplace, university or Church? Contact me and I’ll get you an i-book deal, product placement, interviews on 60 Seconds and Good Morning Western Hemisphere. Advice on the best times, the best weapons and the best look. I’ll get you a makeover with the top stylists. Maximise your media impact. Here’s my i-card.”.
In the movie Se7en a serial killer commits a series of mind blowing murders, spectacular executions of the macabre imagination. The irony is that these killings are done in the name of God, in the name of stern moral purpose. Toward the end the killer John Doe who has effectively obliterated his own identity tells one of his captors that the detective should be grateful because after this he’ll be remembered. He asserts that his crimes will be read about and studied forever. The detective disagrees: “you’re a movie-of-the-week, you’re a fucking t-shirt at best.”
The fame is guaranteed. What is debated is the extent of it. Like John Doe, Cho Seung-Hui was adamant that he was righteous. That his acts were the fault of nasty old society. Many agree in a round about way: gun culture, pop culture, hip-hop, video games blah blah blah. Maybe it’s as the preacher says in the cult flick Heathers: “What can you expect of a society that tells its youth that the answers can be found in the MTV-Video games.” Or maybe it’s as JD (Christian Slater) says at the end, strapped with high explosives: “it’s because no-one loves me!!” Or maybe it’s both at the same time.
So who the fuck was Cho Seung-Hui? He was the two-gun virgin: the Question Mark Kid. And the answer to the question is a question: Who Gives A Fuck?