It doesn’t seem so long ago that another tragic April day brought news of mass killings. Almost exactly eight years after the massacre at Columbine High School come reports of a lone gunman unloading round after round of ammunition inside a lecture hall at Virginia Tech. Cho Seung-Hui, a twenty-three-year-old senior and English major from Centreville, Virginia, allegedly shot fifty students and faculty members in two separate shooting incidents, killing thirty-three people, including himself.
Cho, an immigrant who came to the United States with his parents from South Korea in 1992, has been described in the news as being a “loner” and “extremely shy,” and was referred to counseling by one of his creative writing professors. Aside from vague descriptions of Cho’s behavior, no one could give any information about Cho’s personality—including his roommates and his professors, even the professor that referred him to counseling. It seems as if Cho cut himself off from the entire world, except in his writing. Of the work he would submit in class, violence and anger were the dominating themes. But because no one could say for sure if Cho’s violent emotions were intentionally imagined or purely creative, Cho walked around campus without anyone giving him a second thought.
Of the nearly 22,000 undergraduates attending Virginia Tech, over 15,000 students are white. Less than 1,000 are African-American, approximately 1,500 are Asian-American, and a little more than 500 are Hispanic. Overall, there are 26,000 students, including both undergraduate and graduate programs. Their football team plays in the Big East Conference. There are sixty-four nationally affiliated fraternities and sororities on campus.
In a large university like Virginia Tech, someone like Cho was bound to feel alienated. Under his shy exterior, he was probably simmering with malice toward anything and everything he was not a part of, and the only clue of his utter disenchantment was in his writing, which was largely dismissed until now. He was an English major at a technical college. He was a non-athletic loner in a school where there is a strong focus on sports programs and Greek life. He was one Asian man to one hundred white men. Where did he belong? Who could he relate to? How could he express himself or his feelings in a cathartic manner?
There is some evidence that Cho was schizophrenic and taking medication for his mental illness, which makes me angrier than anything else. People with mental illnesses are treated like they are sub-humans and are cast off to the edges of society. We don’t treat people with mental illnesses with the same attention we treat people with cancer or even substance addictions. There is no sympathy, just ignorance. So if Cho truly was schizophrenic, he should have been closely monitored, had regular therapy sessions, and been in touch with school counselors to help him cope with his illness. His family, however nice they might seem, should have been more involved. Regardless of any stigma that might have resulted, people on campus—responsible people like professors or student resident advisors—should have been involved.
A place like Virginia Tech was the wrong place for a guy like Cho Seung-Hui. Cho’s family severely failed him. Young men and women who suffer from mental illnesses can still attend college, but they need to have a strong support system in order for them to manage their illness effectively. He or she needs to find the school that best suits their needs. A smaller college focused on liberal arts and closer to home would have been a better match for Cho. And maybe he shouldn’t have been living on campus—maybe he should have been living at home if he was unable to manage his illness.
Virginia Tech failed Cho and the rest of the student body, but not for the reason you may think. It’s not because they didn’t lock down the campus after the first shooting incident. They failed because they didn’t recognize that Cho was a serious problem when his creative writing professor recommended that he seek counseling because of the disturbing content of his writing. This same professor tutored Cho privately three times between October and December of 2005, where he silently cried beneath a pulled down baseball cap and dark sunglasses. If the school knew he had a history of mental illness, this should have been enough evidence that Cho needed help. And if the school didn’t know his medical history, then they should have contacted his family immediately and insist that Cho enter some sort of therapy.
Cho’s anger with society, however, cannot entirely be blamed on mental illness. A few months ago, an Asian-American man named Kenneth Eng published his racist rants in his column, “Why I Hate Blacks,” in the San Francisco-based publication AsianWeek. These feelings of hatred are endemic among young Asian males that live in the United States, but they need not be so deadly.
It seems that Asian men in their early twenties need to take a hard look at how they can channel their anger in less toxic means. Violence seems to be the preferred way, and much can be said about how the media is to blame. There’s too much violence, whether real or fabricated, thrust in our faces. Movies, television, video games, news coverage—everything is explicit and constantly around us. With the majority of Asian men having small frames and slight builds, they are often the focus of bullies in the schoolyard. So what does a young man who has been pushed around for a long time do when he’s had enough? He pushes back, and with more than the intent to stop the bullying. He pushes back and fires a gun. He wants to kill the bully.
So my message is simple: to all you young, angry Asian men, find each other and talk it out. There is strength in numbers. There is hope when you find out you are not alone. Find your voice and let us know what is going on with you, and how you want to affect change. Go out to the woods and cry together. Organize yourselves, board a few hundred buses, and march down Pennsylvania Avenue. Stop seething with self-hatred and discuss your issues regarding race in America.
Be men—not little boys with guns.
Read more about Virgina Tech here
Art: Bob Englehart for The Hartford Courant